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'Taming the Ideas' Blog Category

21 January 2015 at 12:24
The table of contents... is perhaps the single most powerful element in the buy/bye decision.

This is the last in the Taming the Ideas series of blogs about structuring your non-fiction book, and it focuses on an under-appreciated tool that brings it all together (for the earlier blogs, see here and here).

If the title of your book has caught a potential reader's attention on Amazon, their next step will probably be to 'look inside this book', that is, open a preview. This will include your book's prelims and a sample of text: the table of contents, front and centre in the preview, is perhaps the single most powerful element in the buy/bye decision.

Just as you might browse the menus outside each restaurant on a Parisian boulevard, deciding which suits your style and your appetite best, so potential readers flick through tables of content - known as tocs - to assess what they can expect from each book, and which they most like the look of.

This is where the work you’ve done on structure (see earlier blogs) can really help – if your table of contents shows a clear, well-thought-through and consistent structure, the reader will take this as a signal that the book itself is clear and well-thought-through, and trust you to guide them through the material. A long list of chapter headings makes them think they’re on their own, that you’re not going to help them make sense of all this stuff, at which point they will possibly lose the will to live, and almost certainly the will to read.

So your toc needs to reflect your structure, but it also needs to convey your meaning and ideally something of your personality. The clearer you can be in the headings you use, the more the reader will be able to see the value of the content – it is a ‘taster’ of what’s to come.

Try it for yourself: take a look at the preview of a few books that catch your eye on Amazon, and assess whether their tocs whet your appetite, or make you want to walk on.

Here’s an example of a table of contents that I think does the job of setting out the structure and drawing in the reader very well (and the content does not disappoint): this is the toc from Steve Peters’s The Chimp Paradox, as seen in the Amazon preview. You can see it sets out very clearly the structure of the book – it’s in three parts with six chapters in each, and some chapters are broken down further into two sections, to keep the length and balance consistent. Each chapter is given a subtitle of its own so you get a sense of exactly what it covers. There’s also some preliminary matter, including an intriguingly titled introduction.

If we jump to the end of the same table of contents you can see the final section and endmatter, including an epilogue which picks up and rounds off the sun theme from the introduction. It's very obvious that a great deal of care has gone into the construction of the book, it's clear what it covers, and just as importantly you get a sense of the author's personality and his approach.

I’m not going to select an example of a poor table of contents – that would be unkind – but I’m sure you’ll be able to find one without too much trouble, particularly in self-published titles: too many consist simply of a bald list of chapter headings that tell you almost nothing about the structure of the book or the personality of its author.

The toc is one of the key heuristics readers use when they make barely conscious, lightning-fast decisions about where and how to direct their attention. Make yours do your book justice.

30 December 2014 at 23:26
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?

17 December 2014 at 22:38

...the clearer and more compelling the structure you can provide for your reader along the way, the more likely you are to achieve your purpose.

Following on from my previous blog on the Hero’s Journey as one overarching narrative structure, here’s a way of getting started with structure for narrative non-fiction.

Every single one of The Expert Author participants reported struggling with a structure for their book before they joined and they found this one of the most practical and helpful parts of the course – when you can pull all your disparate ideas into a coherent whole, when the pieces of your argument and evidence fall into place and flow naturally to the conclusion you’ve been trying to articulate, when the balance between sections is right and you can give your reader clear and consistent signposts to help them navigate through your content and identify the piece they need to read Right Now, it’s a beautiful thing. And it doesn’t happen by accident. You need a carefully measured blend of divergent and convergent thinking, and a dash of discipline.

So where do you start? For the divergent thinking phase I suggest a free-form mind-map. Don’t just write your ideas down tamely on an A4 piece of paper: use post-it notes and as much wall space as you can commandeer over a period of a few days. Scribble each thought or topic on a separate post-it, with as much detail as you can manage (you’ll be surprised how quickly you forget what that cryptic single word meant), stick them on the wall and keep turning things over in your mind while you run, shower, sort laundry – whenever you’re engaged in one of those occupations that allows your mind to drift unhindered. (Agatha Christie had it right: ‘The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.’) Don’t try and close things down prematurely – keep your mind open and accepting, keep coming up with ideas and letting the ideas you’ve already had trigger more in their turn. If you can manage a week in this expansive, exploratory phase, so much the better.

Once the ideas have dried up, it’s time to start with the convergent thinking. Stand back and take a long hard look at what you’ve got. Start moving post-its around to group related concepts together (this is where you’ll be thankful you didn’t just write on a sheet of paper). This is contents-page planning from the ground up: the clusters you identify will become your chapter or section headings, and there will almost certainly be a natural sequence or logic to help you order them.

(There will probably be outliers – ideas that aren’t quite right for this book: don’t lose these, stick them in a ‘pending’ file to be used as blog posts, marketing campaigns, interviews, even a future book.)

The structure of your work doesn’t stop there of course – you’ll want to identify consistent elements within your chapters so that you can signpost the reader through your content, for example – but it’s a great place to start.

Non-fiction writers have a purpose – to instruct, persuade, inspire, whatever – and the clearer and more compelling the structure you can provide for your reader along the way, the more likely you are to achieve that purpose.

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