Home > The Editor's Corner > Editor’s Corner: Basic Nonfiction Structure

In all my years at school, writing and speech teachers told me one simple rule for writing nonfiction and giving speeches:

Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.

how to write a nonfiction book

 

The reality is a bit more complex than that, of course, and in a very short book or speech, it can get too repetitive, but for a book chock-full of important information that’s going to have the reader’s brain working hard, it’s a good approach to start with.

  1. Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The introduction sets the stage. It should be concise and give a preview of what you’re going to tell the reader. It should also lay out the following:
  • the book’s main purpose,
  • the main ideas that will be covered, and
  • what the reader should know or be able to do by the end of the book.

That’s it. That’s all the introduction needs to do. That’s all it should do.

  1. Tell ’em. Next comes the body of the book. This contains the main points and is where you educate the reader. The chapters should have a logical progression from one to the next, each (1) building on the information learned in earlier chapters or (2) sometimes running parallel to the information learned in earlier chapters, with the separate ideas to be pulled together in one or more subsequent chapters.

If your book is instructional, then quite often, the body of the text will begin with background information the reader needs to know before he or she can begin to do something.

For example, a book about bread making would cover

  • necessary tools,
  • basic ingredients (and possible substitutions) in any bread recipe, and
  • ideal temperature and humidity ranges for bread to rise and bake.

It would probably also cover some of the science and/or chemistry behind how the ingredients work to

  • bind together,
  • rise (for leavened bread),
  • give the bread its crumb, and
  • combine to create special flavors.

Then it would go on to provide a basic bread recipe and likely some progressively more challenging or varied recipes—sweet breads, unleavened breads, sourdough breads—and explain how to work in less-than-ideal conditions (e.g., ingredient substitutions, high altitude, too little heat for rising).

  1. Tell ’em what you told ’em. Finally comes a summary. This can be in the form of a final chapter or a conclusion. It summarizes the main points—the truly important things the reader should be taking away from this book. If your text is meant to be persuasive or instructional, the conclusion may also include a call to action, which may encourage your reader to stay the course, change his/her thinking, or do something specific.

This nonfiction formula is also a good approach to use in each chapter of the main body of the book, particularly in a book loaded with information that is technical or likely new to the reader. The more complex or novel the topic, the more you need to help the reader stay empowered and hopeful so as to not abandon your text.

A preview and a summary for each chapter helps with this (think of all the textbooks you’ve seen in your life).

  • A preview keys the reader in to what to really pay attention to.
  • At the end of the chapter, the summary:

○     refreshes the reader on the chapter’s key points, further strengthening the message you’re sending, and

○     allows the reader to identify whether he/she needs to review some topics again for better understanding.

For example, in Suze Orman’s The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke, each chapter has a preview (“The Lowdown”) and a summary (“Quick Playback”).

 

nonfiction writing

Finally, this most basic of nonfiction formulas is a tremendous aid in organizing your thoughts. The order of writing does not follow the order of the text, however. When you write the manuscript, you do so in this order:

  1. chapter content (body)
  2. preview and summary for each chapter
  3. introduction and conclusion for the book

Once you have written the bulk of the content, go back to craft/re-craft the preview and summary for each chapter as well as for the book, verifying that you have organized your ideas in a logical and orderly fashion. Reading back over things should also help you notice if you have left anything out or have included something that should not be in the book.

Although the formula “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; tell ’em what you told ’em” is simplistic, it’s a great place to start from when crafting any nonfiction text. And if you’ve already begun to write and find yourself getting overwhelmed by a topic that’s too complex, going back to this basic structure can help you focus on the key points and eliminate unnecessary complexity for both yourself and your reader.

 

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.