Where do you start writing business book, travel memoir or guide? What is the best way of presenting information to your readers?
To find out, we asked business book coach Alison Jones for her advice on the best way to structure a non-fiction book.
Structuring non-fiction – by Alison Jones
When you, as an expert, write a nonfiction book, you are acting as a guide for your readers in what is for them new and unfamiliar territory. The terrain may be so familiar to you that you can find your way blindfold, but you need to be able to lead them through it without losing them, so that they enjoy the journey, and so they can understand and appreciate the landscape you’re showing them. Do a good job here and your readers, having learned to trust you, will reach out to you as their go-to guide and companion in their further explorations.
Travel guides always include maps to allow the reader to see at a glance where exactly the ‘medieval market’ is in relation to the ‘recommended restaurant’, and what they should research for the next day’s journey. As a guide in your area of expertise, you too need to provide a map of your book: the great news is that creating this map is not just helpful to your reader, it’s invaluable to you as the author.
Start with its strategic purpose
I work with leaders of businesses and organisations with something to say, who want to publish a book to build their reputation as a thought leader or simply share their expertise or experiences. For each book we start with its strategic purpose – how it fits alongside their key business activities, who is the target reader, and what it’s intended to achieve.
This helps them clarify their thinking and create order from the vast unformed mass of ideas fizzing around in their heads. Once we have the purpose and the readership clear, we can establish the scope of the book, and the next step is to work out its structure.
Planning your book
To return to the map metaphor, planning your book has to be done at a number of different scales, much as when you zoom in on a Google maps location.
At the ‘earth view’ level, for example, it’s all about orientation: the purpose, topic, argument, and distinctive positioning of your book in the marketplace and alongside your other business activities.
As you zoom in to the continent level the outline takes shape: the prelims, book parts (if appropriate), illustrations and endmatter.
Yet further in and the topography begins to emerge: the individual chapters, the organization and sequencing of ideas and the trajectory of the overarching narrative.
Hovering at street level the labels become visible: structural elements such as headings, models, case studies, examples, exercises, quotations, infographics.
Finally, at ground level, are the signposts in the text itself: subheadings, the ordering of paragraphs, captions, and the use of key words to signal the progression of the argument (‘which means…’, ‘however…’, ‘therefore…’, ‘finally…’ etc).
Create a map of your territory
Many, maybe most, new writers start writing at ground level. Which is why many (most?) writers lose their way and/or their readers so quickly. But if you take the time to create a map of your territory up front, perhaps using a hierarchy to structure your ideas, you effectively create a plan for focused and purposeful writing, which is the best route I know to focused and productive reading.
For more on tools for structuring your book, see my recent series of blogs on ‘Taming the Ideas’. I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on how structure has worked for you, or if you’d like to know more about working with me on your book – drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Jones is an experienced editor, publisher and business coach, who specialises in helping entrepreneurs, businesses and organisations plan, structure and write books as part of an overall business and content strategy.
Further reading for non-fiction authors: