There are multiple ways to structure a nonfiction book. The right structure can be the secret to writing well and quickly. Some writers take years to finish their books, some take months, and some take weeks. Believe it or not, some can even finish their book in a few days.
When you clearly structure a nonfiction, 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 spend the time to structure a nonfiction book properly, you'll know what to include and where. You'll also 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 a nonfiction book? Here are four of the best structures, as well as some tips to help you decide which is right for you.
1. Structure a nonfiction book: 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 business and work with clients or groups, this will probably be a good choice. You'll already have a process you take your clients through to achieve a certain result. (Note: you may not realize 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 ways to structure a nonfiction book:
- 2First step
- 3Second step
- 4Third step
- 5Fourth step
- 6Fifth step
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. Structure a nonfiction book: The essay (aka "thought leadership") book
Rather than taking readers through a process to achieve a certain result, this book is more persuasive, focusing on making your case for something you believe in. This can be an excellent way to structure a nonfiction book for entrepreneurs who:
- 1Have a highly customised process that can’t easily be broken into steps.
- 2Have 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).
- 3Work in a field that isn’t widely understood or accepted.
How do you structure an essay 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 an essay book? Here are the major points to cover:
- 1Discuss the problem facing your industry/society – expanding on this with evidence that demonstrates the prevalence of the problem.
- 2Introduce your solution to this problem – expanding on this with evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of your solution.
- 3Introduce 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. Structure a nonfiction book: The list book
The bulk of the content in this type of book comes from a collection of elements related to a certain topic. This is a very accessibly type of nonfiction book, especially if you aren’t pushing a strong idea or opinion, like in a thought leadership book. The challenge with this type of book is filling in some content between the list elements to link them together cohesively and add value as the curator and expert author.
How to write a list book
While a list book is a great way to gather a lot of content without needing to write much from scratch, the challenge is that a book where you’ve simply enumerated a list of items doesn’t make the most engaging reading experience.
Your job as the author is to give your readers the information they need in a format that’s easy to digest, and adding context and insight that helps them make productive use of what you're sharing.
I recommend grouping your list items into themes (which can form your chapters), then adding context to each theme through your chapter introductions and conclusions.
What does this look like?
- 1Write an introduction that shares the main message you want to convey through your book.
- 2Group your list items into common themes/areas relating to that message.
- 3Add an introduction to each theme/area explaining what is to come, and a conclusion that gives your reader context about how they can make best use of the list in each chapter.
- 4Curate the list items so each item is useful and provide enough description and detail about each item for your readers to understand each one, and consider adding call outs and key takeaways so it’s easier for them to find what they need.
- 5Finish with a conclusion that summarises how the complete collection of items in the book can be used and gives your readers some ideas about where to go from here.
Who does it well?
If you’re determined to write a list book, I highly recommend reading Stacey Platt’s What's a Disorganized Person to Do?, which is an example of a list book done well. The book lists "317 Ideas, Tips, Projects, and Lists to Unclutter Your Home and Streamline Your Life", all grouped by room.
4. Structure a nonfiction book: The Parable (including Memoir) book
The parable sounds pretty self-explanatory – it’s just you telling a story, isn’t it? Yes, it is telling a story (perhaps your story, in the case of a memoir), but you need to do it in a way that people will want to read about it.
How to write a parable or memoir people will want to read
Simply, your parable can’t just be a chronology of events. 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 or story.
For the story approach, think of the parable as sharing a single chapter of the hero's life. Ask yourself, when did that chapter begin? When did it end? What did the hero 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 how you're going to tell the story so that it effectively lands that message.
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 tell a parable in a ‘how to’ book? or can’t I use lists 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 the best-selling books Entrepreneur to Author by Scott A. MacMillan and Book Blueprint by Jacqui Pretty. Order a copy or download the first two chapters for free at entrepreneurtoauthor.com and grammarfactory.com/bookblueprint.