Organizing your nonfiction book

Posted By on April 21, 2011

Your idea for a book may have been percolating for a while. But when confronted with the task of organizing all your research, perhaps you feel like you know exactly what to do, but where should you begin? My coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition and several other books, Marilyn Ross, usually begins on the floor with Post-it Notes labeled with possible subject areas. She sorts through ideas or research material like a deck of cards, dealing them out to the various subject areas fanned out around alphabetically. Once they are in what appears to be the appropriate stack, look for the common denominators. When these patterns begin to emerge, you can often see the best way to order them. As you begin to group thoughts and materials, the book’s skeleton takes shape.

Now use file folders to represent chapters, placing appropriate data in each folder. This way, you start to flesh out the book’s skeleton. Review what you have gathered to see where you’re rich with material—and what areas are thin and need further research, or perhaps reshuffling and combining of chapters.

Of course, this method won’t work for everyone. Some people like to group their material into notebooks with section dividers. Still others—like me—prefer to do it electronically. I keep separate folders on my computer for articles, quotes, anecdotes, and so on, organizing them by category or subject. A major advantage to doing it this way is that they are already keyboarded when it comes to the actual writing.

I have been asked more than once how long a chapter should be. How about long enough to reach from beginning to end? Seriously, there is no way to say ten pages or twenty pages. Organize the material carefully and make logical breaks. Some topics will naturally be more meaty than others. Of course, if you end up with one chapter out of all proportion in length to the rest, see if there isn’t a natural break where you could divide it. Or combine meager information with another chapter. Once you’ve grouped material this way, refine it further into a working table of contents (the “outline” from your college days). Group like topics together, and consider a part one, part two, part three structure.

Next week, I will address the actual writing process.

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