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Taming the ideas: using a hierarchy

As the author or editor of a non-fiction book you are essentially an architect of information - you need the plan before you start the construction if the end result is to be fit for purpose.

In an earlier blog I talked about the Hero’s Journey as a tool for structuring non-fiction books. Another tool that you might find useful if you have an analytical mind - and particularly if you’re planning an informational book - is the hierarchy.

I started my editorial career working on reference books, which are structured and organized very differently to most non-fiction. I'd work alongside the editor(s) to define an overarching set of macro categories, the broad areas that we wanted the book to cover. Then we’d decide on the overall balance of the book, what proportion of the total should be given to each area to give a high-level, top-down allocation of words. If you decide your book on running will be 50,000 words, for example, your macro categories might include technique, kit, nutrition, injury prevention and training plans: giving equal weight to each of these means you'd have 10,000 words for each area, but you might decide the technique category is so complex that it requires 25% of the book (12,500 words) in which case you’d adjust another category (or categories) downwards to compensate.

Within each macro classification there are likely to be subclassifications, so for example nutrition might break down into hydration, pre-run fuelling, fuelling while running, post-run fuelling, and general diet, and again you will need to decided the appropriate balance between each of these and assign your words accordingly: if there are 10,000 words available for this macro category and you allocate them evenly between these sub-categories, you know you have 2,000 words available for hydration.

Control freakery? Well, maybe. But the big advantage of starting in this top-down way is that you are far less to likely lose your way when you start writing: you know exactly what you plan to cover in each section and roughly how many words it’s appropriate to spend on each. The bigger the book, the more complex the topic, and the more people involved in the writing, the more useful the hierarchy becomes. As the author or editor of a non-fiction book you are essentially an architect of information - you need the plan before you start the construction if the end result is to be fit for purpose.

This top-down approach also helps you identify similar structural elements – for example, case studies – and establish a consistent format for them (eg heading, summary, narrative, key point). That consistency helps the reader know what to expect and where to find key information. It also helps you avoid presenting similar information in different ways for no good reason, a sure-fire way to confuse and irritate your readers.

The hierarchy helps you organize your thoughts at the 50,000ft level, then at the 20,000ft level, before coming down to the ground and writing the actual words; just as importantly, you can use it to help the reader understand the subject, and orientate themselves within so that they feel secure and supported – which is when we all learn best.

If you used the dynamic mind map technique I suggested in my previous blog, think of the big themes that have been emerging from it: can you create a hierarchy like this one that brings those themes together into a relationship with each other? You’ll probably want to have several goes at this, but once you’ve got it right, this will be one of the single most effective tools in helping you write the book well and – crucially – know when it’s complete.

Another bonus of a well-put-together hierarchy – it just keeps giving – is a well-put-together contents page. This matters more than you might think: it’s the first thing that people look at on Amazon when they go to the preview of your book to decide if it’s for them or not. If your table of contents shows a clear and consistent structure the reader will take this as a signal that they can trust you to guide them through the subject. A long list of undifferentiated chapter headings makes them think they’re on their own, you’re not going to help them make sense of all this stuff, and this is the point at which they lose the will to buy, if not to live.

Take a look at some of the books you admire in the area you’re writing in and notice how they’re structured: what works and what doesn’t work so well? What do you find particularly useful or interesting as a reader? What can you learn or use for your own book?

This entry was posted on 30 December 2014 at 23:26 and is filed under publishing | content strategy | writing | books | Taming the Ideas. You can leave a response here.

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