How to structure your nonfiction book

Perhaps the toughest question a nonfiction writer must answer is how to organize her book. Often there’s a lot of information to get out.

Writers can take a variety of approaches, and sometimes certain books require obvious structures. A history or biography, for example, ought to have a largely chronological structure. A travel guide usually should follow a geographical approach, addressing each city or landscape just as a traveler would head across them.

If writing a how-to book – whether it be about financial consulting, dating, overcoming depression, or a whole range of other topics – the structure isn’t so obvious, though.

In such cases, consider organizing the book based on what readers need to know so that your topic makes sense to them. Start by establishing a theme for your book. Then divide the book into three basic sections:
• Why your reader needs to adapt the attitude/approach your book espouses
• What the elements of this new attitude/approach are
• How the reader can implement these elements in their lives

Suppose you’re writing a book about how to build wealth. Begin by asking what is your book’s attitude or approach (i.e. the theme). Maybe it’s the “Apple Pie Wealth-Building Strategy” in which you draw an analogy between baking an apple pie to growing one’s personal wealth. Next, make an outline based on the three why, what and how sections form above:
• Why your reader should build their wealth this way (It’s proven, it’s easy to do, other strategies don’t work, etc.)
• What the elements of the Apple Pie Wealth-Building Strategy are (gathering the ingredients or obtaining all you need to become wealthy such as a good education and job; making the pie such as saving and investing money; letting the pie cool such as resisting digging into your savings and investment; and savoring the pie or how to enjoy your wealth without losing it)
• How the reader can implement these elements in their lives (gathering the ingredients: going to college, residing where cost of living is low but wages are high; making the pie: insurance policies, 401k, money markets, buying a house; letting the pie cool: bad investments to avoid, how not to play “Keeping up with the Jones; savoring the pie: health insurance, job security, living trusts)

Each of your answers to these three questions then becomes a chapter in the book. So, Part I, “Why You Should Use the Apple Pie Wealth-Building Strategy,” would consist of: Chapter 1. It’s proven; Chapter 2. It’s easy to do; Chapter 3. Other strategies don’t work.