How to structure a non-fiction book?

Welcome to the second guide dedicated to academic and non-narrative non-fiction writers, which I created to celebrate Non-fiction November, an annual initiative challenging book lovers to read more non-fiction, and Academic Writing Month. This time, I walk you through how to structure a non-fiction book, starting with the working outline of the content, then the introduction, conclusion and, of course, all the chapters in between.

1. Book outline

Start structuring your non-fiction book with creating a high-level map of the chapters, including their titles, summaries and outlines. It is likely they will change, but it is a good start. At least, at this stage, it will function as a compass, a beacon anchoring the writing process. If you have previously written a book proposal, you could use the book overview enclosed there (you can read about it in my previous blog post). If not, recreate the following steps for every chapter:

  • create a title,
  • write a one-sentence summary,
  • list all subheadings and subsections to be included in the chapter.

2. Introduction

A well-written introduction is like the first date — it is often enough to determine if the two parties (in this case, a reader and a book) are a match. I always read introductions. When I look for materials relevant to specific themes, topics or questions, sometimes it may even be the only part of the book that I read. That is to say, I judge a book based on its introduction. And although I find them endlessly captivating, introductions follow a simple recipe. By the rule of thumb, they will include the following:

  • book hook,
  • main thesis and its significance,
  • background,
  • methods and methodology,
  • chapters outline.

Book hook

A book hook is a statement or question designed to generate immediate curiosity and captivate the reader’s attention enough for them to want to know more immediately. Here are some ideas on how to write an attention-grabbing non-fiction hook:

  • Use language accessible to a wide audience.
  • Showcase your unique voice, language and style.
  • Introduce the most compelling piece of your argument or thesis.
  • Make the reader feel as if you are addressing them directly and individually, for instance, by sharing a relatable anecdote.
  • Offer a promise of more interesting insight available to the audience if they continue reading.

Main thesis and significance

This part is the great reveal — it gives away the fundamental idea behind your book and lays out why it matters. It should posit how the book fits within the existing research landscape and, more importantly, what new knowledge or methods it contributes to the topic.

Methods and methodology

You have told your reader the ‘what,’ now, it is time to detail the ‘how.’ Here, try to answer such questions:

  • How did you arrive at your findings?
  • How (using what methods) did you construct your argument?

Chapters outline

The chapters outline should read like a short story, explaining how the consecutive chapters relate and build on each other or push back and offer an alternative. In essence, to be successful, this section must summarise the individual puzzle pieces and how they fit together.

3. Chapters

A generic chapter structure of a monograph or any non-fiction book includes chapter hook, main body, summary and a smooth segue to the next chapter. Building a chapter hook is not much different from a book hook, as described above, so let us look start with the informative paragraphs of the main body.

Main body

This section should offer well-structured, solid research that does not read like an encyclopaedic entry. Instead, you want to structure your thesis as if telling a story, leaving the reader with answers to the following questions:

  • Why did they choose to read your book?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Did the contents of the chapter address their questions and doubts?

Summary

The chapter summary should comprise the key takeaways that constitute the crux of your argument.

Segue

The transition to the following chapter offers room to connect the chapter to the next and answer the ‘So what?’ question. This is the moment to briefly contextualise the significance of the findings of this chapter within the sequence of the chapters and the entity of the book.

4. Book conclusion

Conclusion, the final element of your non-fiction book structure, offers no new material and reuses what you have already presented to the reader, including hook, thesis, chapters summary, implications and recommendations.

Still, this is your chance to reinforce the reader’s impression of your work, emphasise the connections running through the chapters and restate the core message. It should end with the research implications, or in other words, a conclusion inferred from your findings. Research implications contextualise the importance of your findings within the practice, theory or policy. Additionally, you can also provide the research recommendations pointing to further studies in other disciplines or outside the specs of your research but still building on your findings. Such recommendations may increase the relevance of your book in the scientific arena.

Conclusion

Without a well-presented book structure, your ideas, argument and storytelling might get lost. And even if your findings are impactful and significant, when the structure does not support them, the readers might not find the book captivating. I hope after reading this post, you will be able to create a book structure worthy of a bestseller.

And so here we are — nothing else left to do but start writing the structure of the non-fiction book. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds. If you would like a second pair of eyes to review your book proposal or manuscript, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount). For more writing and editing tips, follow me on MastodonTwitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or sign up to my newsletter.

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Magda

I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a student member of the Society of Indexers.

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