Four ways to structure your nonfiction book

There are many ways to go about writing a nonfiction book. Some writers take years to finish their books. Some take months. Some take weeks. Some can even finish their book in a few days.

So what’s the secret to writing well and writing quickly? Structure.

Simply, if you have a clear structure, not only will your readers love you, but you’ll boost your credibility as an author who’s written a damn good book.

Yet the most common issues my editing team and I see in our clients’ books are related to structure. Their chapters don’t have a logical flow. They have repeated the same ideas several times throughout the book. They have rambled and gone of on tangents (sometimes for thousands of words at a time). And there are gaping holes in their content – holes their readers will need filled in order to get the most value from their book.

But you’re not a writer, and this is probably your first (if not only) book. Isn’t it expected that your first draft will need a lot of work.

In most cases, yes – you’ll need a good editor to overhaul your draft. However, if you have a clear structure in mind before you start writing, not only will you know what to include and where, but you’ll avoid much of the heartache that can come in rounds of edits and rewrites. Ultimately, you’ll make the writing and editing process easier, faster and cheaper.

So how should you structure your nonfiction book? Here are four of the best ways to structure nonfiction books, as well as some tips to help you decide which is right for you.

1. The how-to book

Often structured as X steps to achieve a certain result, in a how-to book you teach your readers how to do something using your unique process. If you own a service-based business and work with one-on-one clients or groups, this will probably be a good choice for you as you will already have a process you take your clients through to achieve a certain result. (Warning – you may not realise you have a process at first. But look deeper and you’ll find the common threads that exist for every client – this is the beginning of your step-by-step process.)

How do you structure a how-to book?

If you’re wondering how to write a how-to book, the good news is that this is the simplest structure:

  1. Introduction
  2. Step 1
  3. Step 2
  4. Step 3
  5. Step 4
  6. Step 5
  7. Step…
  8. Conclusion

Start with your introduction, finish with your conclusion, and then each chapter in the middle should cover one of the steps your readers need to complete, or topics they need to address, to achieve the results they want.

How do you organise those chapters? Check out my other article on chapter structure.

Who does it well?

Some great examples of client how-to books include Property Prosperity by Miriam Sandkuhler, which goes through seven steps to investing like an expert or Secret Mums’ Business by Angela Counsel, which takes mums in business through six steps to create balance in their lives. Some how-to books with a slightly different structure include Elizabeth Gillam’s Would You Like Profits with That? and Adam Hobill’s Nail It!, which take their readers through broader processes that take place in phases (e.g. Nail It!, which gives you the ins and outs of building a home, takes readers through the Idea Stage, through to the Design, Quote and Build Stages), and each phase is broken up into areas or steps.

2. The thought leadership book

Rather than taking readers through a process to achieve a certain result, this book is more persuasive, focussing on making your case for something you believe in. This can work well for entrepreneurs who:

  1. Have a highly customised process that can’t easily be broken into steps.
  2. Have a highly involved process with many steps that happen at the same time, so they are difficult to explain in a sequence (this often happens with very large corporate projects).
  3. Work in a field that isn’t widely understood or accepted.

How do you structure a thought leadership book?

Unfortunately, while these books can be very powerful, they are much more challenging to write than how-to books. The reason for this is because the content you include, and how you organise it, is very dependent on your research, meaning it’s less formulaic.

So how do you write a thought-leadership book? Here are the major points to cover:

  1. Discuss the problem facing your industry/society – expanding on this with evidence that demonstrates the prevalence of the problem.
  2. Introduce your solution to this problem – expanding on this with evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of your solution.
  3. Introduce your framework at a high level.

Who does it well?

To give a client example, Graham Hawkin’s book The Future of the Sales Profession is a cross between a thought leadership book and a how-to book – Part 1 shares the history of sales, and how B2B sales professionals have gotten where they are today. Part 2 shares the problems facing the industry – not least of which is a prediction that 20% of B2B sales professionals will find themselves without a job by 2020. And Part 3 gives a high-level overview of Graham’s framework, which teaches readers how they can protect themselves from the impending cull.

Another example of this type of book is Lissa Rankin’s Mind over medicine, which makes the case for the power of the mind to heal our bodies.

3. The interview book

The bulk of the content in this type of book comes from interviews, which all relate to a certain topic. This type of book works well if you want to collate a number of views on a certain subject, but you aren’t pushing any strong idea, like in a thought leadership book. The challenge with this type of book is filling in some content between the interviews to help link them together into a cohesive story.

How to write a book based on interviews

While an interview book is a great way to gather a lot of content without needing to write it from scratch, the challenge is that a book where you’ve literally copied and pasted interview after interview doesn’t make the best reading experience.

Just think about it. First, giving your readers a selection of raw interviews to go through is making them do a lot of work to find the information that’s relevant. Your job as the author is to give your readers the information they need in a format that’s easy to digest, and making them read through transcript after transcript to find what they need is the complete opposite. Second, this approach can get very repetitive very quickly – if you’ve asked all of your interviewees the same 5-10 questions in a row, your readers are going to get sick of reading similar answers to those questions again and again.

Instead, I recommend using your interviews as the raw content, and then editing them and adding to them to create a cohesive story.

What does this look like?

  1. Write an introduction that shares the main message you want to convey through your book.
  2. Group your interviews in common themes/areas relating to that message.
  3. Add an introduction to each theme/area explaining what is to come, and a conclusion to consolidate the main learnings.
  4. Edit the interviews so you are only covering the most interesting information for your readers, and consider adding call outs and key takeaways so it’s easier for them to find what they need. Even consider removing the interview format, and telling the story of the conversation between you and your interviewee.
  5. Finish with a conclusion that summarises key learnings and gives your readers some ideas about where to go from here.

Who does it well?

If you’re determined to write a book based on interviews, I highly recommend reading Monique Bayer’s Devouring Melbourne, which is an example of an interview book done well. Monique Bayer’s company Walk Melbourne does foodie walking tours of Melbourne, and Devouring Melbourne is about celebrating some of the food secrets she uncovers on these tours. While the book goes into the history of some of the different cuisines you’ll find in Melbourne, the bulk of the content comes from interviews with the owners of the various establishments she frequents, sharing their own food journeys.

4. The memoir

The memoir sounds pretty self-explanatory – it’s just you telling your story, isn’t it? Yes, it is telling your story, but you need to do it in a way that people will want to read about it.

How to write a memoir people will want to read

Simply, your memoir can’t just be a chronology of your life. You need to be clear on a single message you want to share or story you want to tell, and share the experiences that are relevant to that message/story.

For the story approach, think of your memoir as sharing a single chapter of your life. Ask yourself, when did that chapter begin? When did it end? What did you learn along the way, and how will it benefit your readers? Having a container around what you’re going to share will help you stay on track.

For the message approach, you need to be very clear on the message you want to share. Is it about regaining self-love, building a successful business, or adapting to a new culture? Once you are clear on your message, break it into subtopics you want to discuss. Then, for each of those subtopics, think about anecdotes from your life that are relevant to that specific subtopic.

Who does it well?

When it comes to the ‘share a chapter of your life’ approach, one great memoir is Llew Dowley’s Crazy Mummy Syndrome, which shares her story of postnatal depression, from trying for her first child to raising $10,000 for the Black Dog Institute. Because Llew focused on this single part of her life, rather than her life in general, she ended up with a powerful narrative.

For the message/theme approach, I love Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. In the book, Sarah shares her experience of meeting a Frenchman in her late 20s and moving to Paris. The main message or theme of the book is adjusting to the new culture and, after a few positioning chapters about the initial move, her chapters each discuss a different area of French life – etiquette, fashion, food, pets and more. In each of those chapters, she shares a number of anecdotes related to the chapter topics, as well as her reflections on the French culture. If you love France or travel stories, I highly recommend it.

Can I mix and match book structures?

Regardless of which book type you choose, the key thing is to pick one type and stick with it – you can’t change your mind halfway through and expect a great result. If you do change your mind and think a different type of book would be better for your business, often it’s better to start again than to try to mould your old content into a new shape.

Now I know what you’re thinking, can’t I include my story in a ‘how to’ book? or can’t I use interviews in a thought leadership book?

Yes, sometimes content can cross genres. However, the difference is how it’s used. While you might have chapters detailing a particular life experience in your memoir, in your ‘how to’ book it would be a short example used as evidence to illustrate a certain point, rather than going into the same level of depth. Either way, you need to commit to one type of book.

Ready to write your book?

Awesome! This post is based on a chapter from my award-winning book, Book Blueprint. Order a copy or download the first two chapters for free at grammarfactory.com/bookblueprint.

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