What’s a book? Well, it’s about a hundred or two hundred pages of writing. But it’s more than that. A book has a beginning, middle, and end. It communicates a cohesive idea or story. And a book takes the reader on a journey that builds trust as it goes—trust that the author knows what she’s talking about, trust that the story will be satisfying in the end.
So if you want to write a book, you can’t just open up a Word document on your computer, type until you hit 50,000 words, and call it done. A book is planned, crafted, fine-tuned. It’s an idea executed in a way that effectively communicates to the reader.
Now, you can fly by the seat of your pants and write without a plan when you’re writing your first draft. But you’ll save yourself multiple revisions and countless hours if you understand how to structure your ideas effectively and can plan your book accordingly. In other words, writing a book is much easier if you know how books work and fit your ideas into an effective structure. Even if you’ve never written a book before, executing that idea will be easier when you understand how to do it.
How I Learned Book Structure
I remember the first book I worked on—I was excited and completely nervous all at once. And it wasn’t even going to have my name on it—I was ghosting it for someone else. At the time, I was working at a self-publishing company under another ghostwriter and I had been there a few months—long enough to prove my stuff—and my boss gave me my first book project. On one hand, I was excited by the challenge and my boss’s belief in me. But then when I went back to my desk and sat down with this assignment, reality started to sink in. I had to write a book—a whole book—all by myself!
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time working on books and figuring out what makes them successful—how they are constructed, how the author leads the reader, and how the author keeps the reader hooked. And I’ve learned that all books have an underlying structure that takes the reader from point A to point B.
Structure makes a book an effective and successful form of communication, and structure makes books satisfying to read. Nonfiction books, like self-help and business, have core elements that are arranged and compiled in ways that engage their readers, communicate the author’s expertise in the absolute best way, and ultimately compels their readers to take action. Stories, like memoirs and other narrative books, all have a beginning, middle, and end. So when you consider your material and your ideas, you have to find the core elements of the book, and then work everything else in around them. In other words, once you figure out the essential pieces, you just have to put them together.
Structuring Your Ideas
I had a client a few years ago, for example, who came to me with a collection of articles that she wanted to turn into a book. They were all written on the same general topic, nutrition—she was a nutrition coach—and she wanted to make a book out of them. She definitely had enough material, but she didn’t have a thread running throughout the book to tie them all together. Once we figured out the big-picture problem that her articles could combine to solve for a reader, she was able to repurpose all her articles into a cohesive manuscript that really helped her target audience and helped establish her expertise and attract clients.
Another example: one of the biggest problems people who want to write a memoir face is how to make the book more than just a chronicle of events that reads something like, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” I recently worked with a woman on her memoir about overcoming a rare and very painful health condition. She’d written a blog as a journal of her experiences, but she was struggling to elevate those events beyond just things she’d experienced. She wanted to tell a meaningful story, and she had a meaningful one to tell. Once we figured out what her story was really, really about, she could write her experiences as meaningful turning points on a path to transformation.
The secret to fitting all your ideas into your book and writing them as a compelling read is book structure. Once you understand how to fit your ideas into an effective structure, your book starts to take shape. And that’s pretty exciting!
Structuring Your Ideas
Structure is different for different kinds of books. Writing a memoir means using a narrative structure. Writing an instructional nonfiction or self-help book is about leading the reader through a process that solves a problem or teaches them something new.
But at the most basic level, structuring any book is about figuring out where to start and where to end. Remember books take readers on a journey from point A to point B. What journey are you promising your readers? What’s your point A? What’s your point B? Use these questions to get a sense of how to execute your book idea effectively.
Planning your book not only saves time during revision, but it also makes drafting easier too. When you sit down at your computer, thinking about what to write can eat away time. When you know how a book should be structured and you know how to write a chapter, then every time you open up that draft on your computer, you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to be writing.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit on writing nonfiction books. It includes checklists, templates, worksheets and more. Check it out!