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How to Structure and Organize Your Nonfiction Manuscript

Structure and Organization of Your Nonfiction Manuscript
Last week a minister contacted me to help him edit his 113,000 word book. His primary concern was that he felt scattered, unorganized, and as if his manuscript was not well organized. When I took a glance through the book, I quickly realized why he felt this way, the points were well made, but the entire book was not well structured.

Although an obviously brilliant man, he had failed to determine both an outline and structure prior to writing his material. So, as I read I noticed that his subjects and subtopics were throughout the text and that, in some instances, he almost seemed to repeat himself. He wrote like a man with a bad case of adult ADD, without focus.

It doesn't matter how bright or educated you are, if you cannot keep your manuscript together so that others easily understand it when they read, then you are not producing salable nonfiction work. An editor looks for writing that people will not only be interested in, but which they will easily be able to follow and appreciate. The writing has to have a built in added value for the reader for it to keep their attention. So, if your writing is difficult to follow, or focus on, or if it doesn't really tell the reader anything he didn't already know, then you can expect difficulty in marketing your work.

What Is a Good Writing Structure?

A good writing structure is one that is created immediately and directly behind the thesis or subject sentences. There are plenty of books you can buy from your local bookstore that deal with how to structure a paragraph, an article, or a book, and I will reference some of them here at the end of this section so you can shop and study. But here in this section I will talk more generally of what to put in and what to take out.
The first thing to remember is back to your secondary education days when the teacher taught you about structure funnels. Funnels are still used today although they are used in a looser manner than you may have learned about them. The important thing to remember about structure funnels is how they physically look. For those who have never heard of this term, think oil funnel. The physical shape of your car's oil funnel (the one you use to add oil to the engine), and the inverted funnel are how you need to see your article or book's structure.

Indeed, most all writing opens with general statements narrowed down to specific statements. Then the specific statements are expanded upon. These are followed by a restating of your opening specifications and the concluding statements which essentially restate your thesis.

Your high school English teacher taught you about writing funnels because they are congruent with most peoples' thinking patterns. For nonfiction writing they are essential because they follow logic and most all nonfiction writing has a logical flow to it.

Boxing Yourself In

The purpose of your structure is to box yourself in to a degree. By outlining and creating a structure using thesis, titles, subtitles, and section titles, you box in the subject and the contents in each section or subsection. This has a focusing effect so that your work comes across as articulate. The last thing a nonfiction writer wants to accomplish is a piece where the editor or reader responds with, "He never made his point!"

Want to learn more? Take an online course in Nonfiction Writing.

While your creative side may want to wander all over the subject matter and explore every pig trail that pops into your mind, for nonfiction writing this is an inappropriate and ineffective approach to writing. Save the wandering down memory lane, or any other lane, for the poetry and free flowing stream-of-consciousness works that you write for fun or for friends. One of the main keys to successful nonfiction writing is to state your point, explain your point, and make your point again. To do these things, you must first get to your point and you can never do that wondering down the trails of everything that pops into your mind.

Structure keeps you focused and articulate. It is ten times harder to put a structure into your writing after you have completed it than it is before you write. In fact, reworking an already written piece after it is completed so that it has a cohesive structure is called re-writing and editors charge a good price for it. As a nonfiction writer, you will not become successful by submitting work to your editor that requires him to work for free in order to get your material up to a publishing standard. In the sense that structure limits you, don't be afraid to box yourself in from the beginning. If you forget something, then you can always add an extra point to the thesis and an extra segment in the content.

Titles and Subtitles

Think of your titles and subtitles as the beams in your home, without them, it doesn't hold together. The same is true in writing, and even more so in the last 20 years or so in the U.S. marketplace. The American culture has shifted to a more and more informal communication style with less emphasis on proper language. This trend is reflected in our nonfiction writing as well.
While culture critics want to point to the elimination of rules and the post-modern trend in the arts as the cause for a looser communication style, our inclination to be less formal is primarily a result of technology. It is a point of efficiency to write in your text message on your cell phone: "R U up 4 the TRP?" as opposed to writing out the entire, "Are you going on the trip with us today?"
The place the current trend shows up in nonfiction writing is in the structure, and particularly in the titles and subtitles. In fact, subtitles are nearly replacing topic sentences and subtopics inside of a chapter or section. Again, this is a reflection of technology, but it cannot be ignored.

Your reader will likely be a typical reader with 5 extra minutes on their lunch break or 10 minutes in the doctor's waiting room. The general rule of thumb for nonfiction writing is if it takes more than 5 to 10 minutes to read, then the section is too long. To write in such a way that your reader can break every 10 minutes and pick up the article again at the end of his day and not feel lost, you must build an abundance of subtitles into any work that is substantially long.

Even in project work where the reader is expecting to concentrate and is expecting to read longer passages, there is a fair amount of subtitling inserted. Try to make subtitles your friend because they help you to put beams into the house called your writing. Subtitles help to keep it together and help the reader to flow with your points. They also work to help you be a little more creative than the older, traditional structuring of nonfiction. It is easier to add a point when you structure using subtitles; and it is easier to correct your work if you forgot something important.

Facts and Structure

Facts are another way to impact and affect structure for your work. Facts concerning your topic can be used as subtitles, sections, or chapters in and of themselves. Depending upon the subject of your material, the facts can be used as beams in the house of writing also when they function as chapters.

Logical Flow

The writer of nonfiction primarily deals with facts or things that can be verified as factual. In this way, the writing is very logical. In the flow of reason, your nonfiction writing must also be logical. If you have never studied logic as a philosophical or mathematical subject, it is worth a few hours to delve into it to sharpen your ability to reason within your text and to draw solid conclusions in your writing.

There are primarily three types of sentences in the English language and you must have an understanding of each and how they function in the logical reasoning of your reader or editor.

The three types of sentences are:

  1. Declarative. This type of sentence simply states something as a fact or declares something to be true. This sentence is an assertion of something as fact.
  2. Interrogative. This type of sentence asks a question of the reader or of the material. For the material or communication to continue, the question must be answered.
  3. Imperative. This type of sentence requires something of others. It is a command or a commanding instruction which requires a response.

To write nonfiction effectively, you will need to understand the basic elements of logic and logical reasoning.


  1. Structure. Writing pattern that you should be able to diagram, such as the secondary school teacher's funnel, which gives your writing its physical form.
  2. Logical flow. A nonfiction writer's style that is marked by logic and reasoning.
  3. Declarative. A statement of fact.
  4. Interrogative. A questioning sentence.
  5. Imperative. A commanding or instructive sentence.

Writers Write; Getting Comfy in Your Own Skin

To get comfortable in your own skin as a writer, is as an essential part of developing into a productive and effective nonfiction author as is learning the language. In some ways, this sense of naturalness can be compared to sex; it is best developed by practice, practice, and practice. When you are comfortable with yourself and as a writer, your personal writing style will flow naturally. The best way to get there is to practice your art. As we say at our publishing house, "Writers write; all others just talk."

Time and Place

In the beginning of a nonfiction writer's career, the most difficult things to adapt to are some of the most basic, such as time and place. A writer must steal time if you have a family you are committed to or a career that otherwise requires long hours. Finding time to write is always something that must be personally resolved for each writer. Personally, my writing career has required me to simply put in long, long days. I am first a wife and mommy and then a writer; so my writing time often begins in the late night hours or is stolen when my guys are at a ball game. The point is, you will have to determine where and when you are going to have the opportunity to write and you must be disciplined enough to stick with your work during those times.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is no substitute for practice; without it you have no career or opportunity to become a published author. I once had a promising young man join my team that simply needed practice to polish his work for additional assignments. But he believed that his educational level exempted him from having to refine his efforts. At one point, he didn't talk to me at all for several weeks because he believed I had insulted him by suggesting that he practice on other writer's assignments. Unfortunately, he did not learn what he needed to learn for me to put him on assignments with confidence and I was not able to send him any work because he had not practiced his art.

If you do not have enough assignments of your own, there is no shame in borrowing someone's subject or outline and creating your own article or project as a course of practice. A writer cannot expect his or her editor or client to hold their hand and outline or define the work in detail. Most writing assignments do not happen that way at all.

Editors and clients normally post or present their subject to the nonfiction writer with the understanding that the writer will create the thesis, outline, structure, titles, and subtitles. Even if you receive an assignment that is already defined for you, you must be able to create a work from scratch in order to stay busy in this business. The best way to be prepared to create and produce a work from a simple given topic is to practice, practice, and practice.

Knowing Who You Are in This World

Highly creative people can sometimes come to believe that they can handle any subject, especially if they are educated, refined, and good at what they write. In the world of writing, it does a writer good to learn and be adaptable to various circumstances in life so that writing on a variety of subjects does not break your brain.

In a very practical sense, the more sociable you are and the greater variety of jobs you hold, the better prepared you are to make a career out of nonfiction writing. If you have no experiences in life, then you will struggle to write on anything except a few limited subjects. Your perspective will be severely limited and your writing approach will be somewhat elementary.

Hand in hand with experience and creativity is the importance of knowing who you are in society and in your world. This may seem like an obvious and small thing to say, but it comes into play in ways that you sometimes cannot anticipate. While you may think you can handle any subject, you may get into an assignment that you accepted in good faith and slam right into a wall.

The first time this happened to me was in 1989 while I was still a student at the University of Florida. My literature professor had assigned 16 books, one for each week, for which the class had to write a summary essay. The essays were due at the end of each week and we charged into the next 500+ page book. I was fine until we got to Saul Bellow's Herzog , and then I lost my balance.

A mere 100 pages into the book, I totally lost my cool, slamming the book against the wall, breaking its spine and busting it into chunks in my apartment. The worst part was that I was young and didn't really understand why I couldn't handle reading the book! It took me the better part of a week to figure out that I hated Bellow for rolling all of his five ex-wives into the main female character to create a monster that portrayed a woman I had never met in my entire life! How dare he?! But, in truth, how dare I? After all, he is the Pulitzer Prize winner and I was the mere student. Although you are not reading a book when you take an assignment, some of these dynamics are important to remember in your work.

It is good to understand who you are at the core. Know your core values, your likes and dislikes. Yes, if you are a woman reared up as anequal, and then know if you run into hard core bigotry, now you will likely have to make time to deal with your own response. The same is true of any hard core bigotry that is hurled at you or anything else that flies in the face of your core values. Even when you know who you are, you will not be perfect in discerning such situations. Try to be as kind as possible when you fall into such things because your client or editor will appreciate your straightforward handling of it.

Bad Habits to Break Right Away

I doubt that a bad habits list needs much commentary, so here's the list of things that most nonfiction writers will need to check off.

  1. Moral habits. Any habit which can interfere with your writing, your reputation, or your ability to produce in a timely manner. Drinking, late night partying, and the like all come to mind. If you are getting in at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, then your entire Saturday is gone for putting in writing time.
  2. Harsh judgments. The more a writer writes, the more engaged with the larger society you are required to become as you develop. Unless you suspend harsh or religious judgments, you will not produce a work that is good for your editor or your client. This does not mean that you surrender your values; it simply means that you refrain from carrying your hard line thoughts into your writing.
  3. Sloppiness in your writing or speaking. If you write the little notes in life in a sloppy manner, then you will do the same in your serious work. The same is true of speech. If you speak slang or ghetto in your day-to-day life, then your professional efforts at writing will suffer.
  4. Having to have the last word. If you have this habit, give it up now. It will hurt you in the world of nonfiction writing. Your job is to produce what your editor or client is looking for; it is not to argue with them or prove them wrong. Pride will cost you in the world of writing.
  5. An inability to handle criticism. Your editor will always , and yes, I do mean always, do something to your best work. In time, you will learn to let this roll off of your back like water. You must understand the art of writing to understand why this will always happen; even the best writers get too close to the work as they produce it. There is a myopic event in the process of writing that prevents you from seeing all of the ways in which you can improve what you have written. As long as you are not sloppy in your writing and as long as you write with excellence, then you need not worry that an editor will always change your final product. The editor's job is to help perfect it and to make it fit publishing standards. Even amongst editors it is not normal to expect to produce a work without having another editor take the pen to it.

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