Clock with Organization spelled out

Photo credit: Dan Azzopardi

Published on the blog of the Women’s National Book Association

I’ve been editing nonfiction books for nearly 20 years, and a big problem I see with many manuscripts is that the author didn’t start with an organizational plan. The writing may be fine, the concept may be strong, and the content may be excellent, but if the manuscript isn’t organized well, the finished book will be hard for the reader to understand. It is vital that you learn how to organize your nonfiction book.

You may have a fabulous book idea. Your approach may solve a problem or answer a question for a distinct audience that wants and needs your help. But your thoughts need to be organized.

So how do you even start?

Four words: start with an outline.

Why Bother with Organization?

The human mind is an organization machine. We look for patterns in the world around us. Noticing patterns helps us free up processing space in our brains to solve new problems.

Rather than always having to wonder about or re-learn things that happen regularly, we become attuned to patterns around us. Instead of focusing brainpower on wondering when the sun will come up, for instance, we get used to it coming up during a window of time, depending on the season and where we’re located.

This might seem like a strange analogy, but the same is true of books. The first thing you need to know about book organization is to create a pattern of information-sharing, so your reader will always know what’s coming next.

Here are 4 steps for organizing your nonfiction book.

Step One: Create a book outline

I’ve worked with many authors who claim not to need to do this because they like to write “organically.” And that’s fine, you can do that. After you’ve created an outline.

It doesn’t matter what chapters you write first and last, but they do need to fit together in a cohesive way.

An outline is simple: it’s just a list of chapters in order.

To use another weird analogy, creating a book is like building a house. You need to begin with the foundation, then you build the framework, and then you fill in the details like windows, plumbing, and electrical. Only then do you add the paint, wallpaper, shelves, and cabinets. If you did it any other way, you wouldn’t have a house, you’d have a messy jumble of wood and concrete that doesn’t hold together.

Start with the foundation — the basic concept that the reader needs to get before they can fully understand your approach, ideas, or viewpoint.

Each subsequent chapter will then build on that foundation, adding more information, and more in-depth information, as you go.

Think of your book as a curriculum and your reader as your student. You wouldn’t teach a class on riding a bicycle by shoving a new rider into the street yelling at them about safety precautions before you even taught them how to get on the bike and ride it. I mean, I hope you wouldn’t.

What do they need to learn first in order to understand your approach? Then what’s the next thing they need to learn? And the next?

Step Two: Create a chapter outline

But wait: Isn’t a chapter outline just a little bit too granular, too controlled? Shouldn’t there be some room for freedom and expansiveness when writing?

Earlier I explained how the human brain is an organization machine that looks for patterns. When events unwind in our world in familiar patterns, we feel safe.

Think of something in your life that happens regularly but not consistently. Say the mail that brings your checks (I know, I know, but people do sometimes still pay with checks!) at any time during the day or night. You’re always, somewhere in the back of your head, wondering about it. Wondering when you’ll hear the sound of the mail carrier.

You want your reader to be learning what you’re telling them, to be focusing fully on your topic, not using one part of their brain to try to understand why this piece of information came after that last one that didn’t seem related.

Inconsistent organization of information make your reader work harder, which makes your book harder to read. And what do most people do when something’s hard to read? They stop reading it.

Organize your chapters the same way you organize your book. Start with the basic concept that your reader needs to learn and build on that.

Within chapters, though, you should also have other teaching elements, depending on your book’s topic. Things like story examples, case studies, a breakdown of the research, graphs, and other illustrations, exercises, or other actionable content, and a wrap-up of the chapter.

Create a template for each chapter that includes all of the elements that will help you teach your reader what you want them to learn. And then use those elements consistently in each chapter in the same order. The only exceptions to this are the introduction and the conclusion if you have those.

Step Three: Use a consistent heading structure

Another way to make it easier for your reader to integrate information is to use a heading structure and to use it consistently.

Headings help break information into chunks, which also helps the human brain retain that information.

Headings should have an A-B-C structure. An “A” heading is usually the chapter title. Then a “B” heading tells us when you’re getting into major topics under that “A” heading. Then the “C” headings further break topics down underneath the “B” heading. And if you need further breakdowns, you can use “D,” “E,” and “F” headings.

Here’s an example from a theoretical book on gardening in raised beds:

A Head (Chapter title): It’s All in the Soil

B Head: What soil should I choose?

C Head: Choosing soil based on your crops

D Head: Checking the Ph of your soil

As you can see, each heading gets deeper into the topic of choosing and working with the soil for your garden beds.

Step Four: Add Content to Your Outlines

An outline makes it much easier to write the book because you don’t have to guess about what information goes where. You simply add the relevant information to your outline the way you’d add necessary elements to your house’s framework.

This step is the fun part: write! Just be sure that the information you’re including fits in the template you’ve created.

I can guarantee that if you follow these steps, your manuscript will be easier to read and to understand and will be more useful to your readers.

Good luck out there!