For every non-fiction book (particularly ‘how-to’ books), there is one chapter structure that works every time. It’s effective, interesting and easy to follow, which makes for happy readers who are not only more likely to finish that chapter, but to read the next one too. What is that structure?
‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘How’.
No matter what Simon Sinek says, I believe you should start with ‘what’ when it comes to your book chapters. ‘What’ is simply explaining what your chapter is about*, and it can range from a single sentence to a couple of pages, depending on how complex your subject is and how familiar your ideal readers are with that subject.
But what about creating suspense? To be honest, when you get to your chapters, the time for suspense is over. The time for suspense is your introduction – when you’re making your case for why what you do works, and why they should read the rest of the book.
If you look at the overall structure of a non-fiction book, it’s quite similar to the structure of the chapters. The introduction focuses on giving context and making your case (the ‘what’ and the ‘why’), while the chapters focus on the ‘how’. So because you’ve already written a compelling introduction, which creates suspense for the rest of the book, suspense isn’t necessary for your chapters. This is the bit when your readers learn how they can incorporate your teachings into their lives, which is why clarity is more important than dangling the carrot a few more feet out of reach.
Your ‘what’ is what gives your readers this clarity. It gives them context and tells them what to expect, and this prepares them to read what comes next, which is your ‘why’.
*Note – This doesn’t mean you say, “This chapter is about XXX”; there are more interesting ways to do this.
After ‘what’ comes ‘why’. In the context of your chapter, the ‘why’ is why the topic is important (this often includes benefits to the reader, as well as how it fits into the overall structure of what you’re teaching).
Now I know Simon Sinek has made a big splash with his Start With Why TED talk, book and more. And, in certain cases, I agree with him. A strong ‘why’ is far more compelling than giving a whole lot of technical specifications. However, when it comes to your chapter structure, I generally find it works best when your ‘why’ comes second.
When you’re doing a business pitch or introducing yourself to someone, your ‘why’ can be a powerful way to start. However, one of the reasons this works is because your pitch or introduction is likely to only go for a few minutes, which means you will still get to your ‘what’ fairly quickly, giving your audience the essential context they need to understand your ‘why’.
When writing a chapter, you don’t usually have the same restrictions. You could write for thousands of words and, if you start with ‘why’, you could potentially go on for pages and pages about why what you’re talking about is so important, and your readers will still have no idea what you’re talking about. Yikes! This leads to frustrated readers who are more likely to put down your book than keep going.
The ‘why’ in your chapter is usually where you include case studies and examples, as these are proof of the benefits, or why what you’re teaching is so important.
After ‘why’ comes ‘how’. This is how they can implement what you’re teaching, whether that is through answering questions, doing certain exercises or some other activity.
Chapters within chapters
Just as your book is broken down into chapters, your chapter topics can be further broken down into subtopics. Here, the same structure applies – you start your chapter with an overall ‘what’ followed by the ‘why’. Then, when you go into the subtopics, you again start with a brief ‘what’ and ‘why’ for each, followed by their individual ‘hows’.
Why this works
This structure works because it is both clear and compelling. It’s clear because your reader always knows exactly what you’re talking about and can easily follow your logic. It’s compelling because, even though you start with ‘what’, your ‘why’ still comes early enough for them to be sold on your message, which means they are more likely to implement the steps you outline when you get into the ‘how’.
And, if they actually implement what you teach, that means they are far more likely to say that what you teach works, and to turn into loyal clients and fans.
Ready to write your book?
Read more about this chapter structure in Chapter 4 of Entrepreneur to Author.
And if you’re ready to annihilate writer’s block, kick procrastination to the curb and write a book that gets results, check out the Entrepreneur to Author Select Membership.