Have you ever wondered what separates a good book from a great book? When it comes to nonfiction, the structure of the book plays a big role in how much readers remember and enjoy the book. If you want to structure your nonfiction book like a NYT best-seller, you’ll need to prioritize clarity and cohesion every step of the way.
Like life, most people want the books they read to be structured. We all long for clarity and cohesion, and while living in a chaotic world (looking at you, 2020), we look for that in the content we consume. We want books (at least in the nonfiction, self-improvement space) to help us process the chaos, not add to it. So when setting out to write a book you want people to engage with, clarity and cohesion need to be top priorities.
It’s essential to keep in mind that readers can’t retain 150 pages of information and 30 different takeaways. You can have an envelope-pushing, perspective-changing idea, but if it’s not presented well, your reach and audience will be severely limited. People have a lot going on, so give them one to three memorable and insightful takeaways that will help them change the way they live, think, or act. You’ll obviously have other information and takeaways throughout the book, but if you keep drawing in those core ideas, then readers are more likely to remember the main point. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” you want to be able to tell them in one sentence what the topic of the book is and what the key takeaways are. If you can’t summarize your idea in one sentence, you’re not ready to write your book.
As the editorial director at The Fedd Agency, I help authors craft their ideas and restructure their books to create engaging works that change people’s lives. I want to map out some of the processes I go through with authors to draw out their core message and create the most fitting and inviting structure for their books.
Step 1: Gather your content.
Whether it’s sermon notes, speeches, podcast interviews, journal entries, notes app musings, or blog posts, gather the content you’ve created and ideas that you’ve had. You are not starting from scratch; your book idea is in the content you’ve already created; it might just not be in a Word document yet.
Step 2: Determine your core message.
Sift through your notes and ideas and find the underlying message in all of them. What are the throughlines and themes that you always come back to? What is central to your life and work? What does the world need more of? What is your catchphrase/what are you known for? These questions can help you determine your core message.
When I gathered all my content, it centered around writing. So, I know that writing is something I’m passionate about, and I want other people to experience the joys of writing. That’s my core message.
Step 3: Define the felt need.
How does your core message fit into a specific felt need of society? How is your core message distinct in the marketplace? How do you want readers to engage with your ideas? What will they gain from reading your thoughts?
If I want everyone to experience the joys of writing, I need to determine what the roadblock is that prevents people from writing. For a lot of people, writing is an overwhelming activity; they don’t know where to start. They figure they aren’t good at it, so why try? My core message that fits the felt need is: I want to help everyone feel equipped to write a book.
Step 4: Break the core idea into parts.
Once you have the core message, figure out how to break it up into three to five parts to help you communicate the idea with depth and clarity. Breaking it up into parts isn’t always necessary, but regardless, your ideas should flow and build on one other to ensure that your reader doesn’t feel like they are going in circles. Outlining your book in different sections at the start of the writing process helps cultivate clarity and cohesion, even if you decide not to use those clear delineations in the finished draft.
If my core idea is helping everyone feel equipped to write a book, my three sections might be:
1) the writing process,
2) the absolute necessity of editing, and
3) everything you need to know about the world of publishing.
Step 5: Brain dump ideas for each section.
Once you have the parts, write out bulleted lists under each of them with content you would include in each section. It could be a personal example, research on the topic, a biblical or literary reference, insights related to the core message, etc. At this stage, no idea is a bad idea; if it comes to mind, write it down—you can pare it down later. Go back to the information you gathered in Step 1 and determine what content belongs in each section.
Part 1 The Writing Process:
- How to find the perfect title and subtitle
- How to properly outline and structure your book, so the idea of writing a book becomes less intimidating
- Examples of different authors’ writing processes: Mark Batterson, James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell, Brené Brown, Joan Didion
- Discovering your core message and themes
- Who is your audience?
- What is the felt need?
Step 6: Group ideas into chapters.
Once you’ve racked your brain for all content and examples that you could fill your book with, start grouping them by topic. Each part should have roughly two to five chapters. So figure out the throughlines of all the content you gathered and break them into chapters.
Part 1: The Writing Process
Chapter 1 What Came First, the Title or the Book?
Chapter 2 Writing the Right Book
Chapter 3 Structuring Your Book Like a Bestseller
Chapter 4 Learning from the Greats
With your clear structure and some pithy chapter titles, you are on your way to writing a potential nonfiction bestseller. Here are the three key takeaways I want to leave you with:
- A book’s structure matters,
- You have a core message that people need to hear, and
- Everyone can write a book.
Have a book or an idea for a book you want us to read? Contact us through our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org