Every author with a message of worth must learn how to make their meaning flow with ease and consistency for their readers. When an author skips steps in the progression from their basic premises to their grand conclusions, the knowledge is not integrated and requires the reader to hold many unconnected ideas in their mind at once. The reader cannot check the new system of information for internal validity on their own. They must place too much trust in the unsupported assertions of the author as a dogmatic authority whose word is law.
Organizing the Ideas in Your Book
How do you categorize the information in your book? If you were writing a book about the history and production of coffee beans, two obvious ways to classify the totality of your information would be either by time period or by part of the world (or a combination of both).
You might have chapters on coffee bean cultivation practices in modern day Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and India. You might trace the journey of the coffea genus of plants from its origins in East Africa, beginning in the 1400s up to Yemen, before spreading to Persia, and Turkey, then throughout Europe and eventually becoming most prominent in Brazil. Such a book would be quite different than one that categorized its information through chapters on espressos, cappuccinos, lattes, and americanos.
If your book is meant to be more biographical in tone and focus, the most obvious way to structure it would be chronologically. Simply divide the important events of a person’s life by the rough ages at which they occurred. This, of course, is still subject to your interpretation as the author of what is considered important and similar enough to be grouped together within the same subsection or category.
If you are writing from your own life experiences, your memoir is probably meant to make a grand point about what some selection of your life experiences has taught you about something you consider important. Readers don’t want to hear your whole life story unless you have achieved something of historical importance. You can make the focus of your message the conclusions you reached, backtracking to the various events that instigated, supported, and developed the philosophy you espouse.
If your book’s focus is practical matters and giving advice to people who don’t know what to do about a specific set of problems, structure your chapters by the order, prominence, and/or severity of their issues. Each chapter should be designed to be taken on its own if a reader was in a position where its advice would suit their immediate concerns but also as a complementary whole for readers starting from total ignorance about your subject.
Shaping a Book around Reader Motivations
Your readers might approach your book thinking they already know a great deal about your subject. They may have already read other introductory books that outline its basic tenets or cover a different specialty than yours. Any previous exposure will bias their interpretation of your work. As an educator, you must bridge the gap between the condition readers come to you in and the condition you want to bring them to.
It should, therefore, be clear that the most important role of a good teacher is to ignite curiosity in the people they are teaching. All people have some level of natural inclination to seek new information about the things they care about. The transmission of new concepts depends on it. Without curiosity’s activation, new information will be lost among internal noise and automatic defenses to foreign concepts. You must work with your readers’ natures, not against them.
To that end, the function of a nonfiction book description, preface, and introduction are to prep your reader for why they should care about what will be covered in the book. They are your opportunity to set the tone and objective of the book on your terms so that your readers will not have false expectations or overlook the significance of your words. They should stoke curiosity by revealing the motivation and importance behind the book itself.
Finding the Premises of Your Knowledge
Until you’ve explicitly spelled out each logical step in your hierarchy of knowledge, it’s difficult to see what you might be assuming to be true without confirmation. Writing out every pertinent detail makes it impossible to overlook your blind spots any longer. You may even realize that something you long assumed accurate simply doesn’t hold up. It’s much better to have these realizations during the writing process while you can still modify your views than after you have publicly published something you cannot support.
Always ask what unstated assumptions must be true for your cherished conclusions to stand. Determine what truths a reader must have already accepted to reach the same end you have. If you present only conclusions, relying on your status as an authority for your readers to believe you, you will have failed as a teacher. Walk your readers through the steps between where they are when they begin the journey and where you would like them to arrive.
When you know what mental place your readers ought to be in when they begin consuming your work, you will have a clearer idea of the kind of person who is best suited to read it. Is your book a beginner’s guide to something? Is its purpose only to introduce the foundational concepts to a broad topic? Or is it meant to take people with functional knowledge to a higher level of specialty and proficiency?
When you consider all these elements of your book structure, you can produce content organized in a manner that optimizes reader comprehension.
How have you organized your book? Tell me in a comment below.
About the Author
Gregory Diehl is the author of the new book, The Influential Author: How and Why to Write, Publish, and Sell Nonfiction Books that Matter. The book takes a unique and in-depth look at all aspects of book planning, writing, editing, and promoting for self-publishers. Learn more about Gregory’s work at identitypublications.com.