Writing for the Self-Help Consumer, Pt 2

Organizing your Content or: How to Be Understood

Posted Apr 02, 2017

 As an editor, the second most common problem I see with book proposals, aside from the book’s concept being targeted too broadly (see part 1 in this series for ideas for narrowing your audience) is a lack of clear organization of the ideas.

Organization is absolutely key for getting your ideas across to the reader in a way that they can digest. Think about when you’ve read something where the ideas jump around and you have a hard time following them. Did you get much out of that article or book? Do you remember the key concepts? Probably not. A book or any type of content that is not organized well is frustrating for the reader, and is harder to write.

When I start working with authors, after we’ve discussed the book’s concept and target market, I ask the author to write up an outline of the book. The point of this is to create a skeleton for the book, which makes the writing go much more smoothly. It’s a step-by-step plan, an overview of what you want the book to cover. With this skeleton in place, there’s no more staring anxiously at a blank page because you don’t know what to write next. What to write next is in the outline!

To start your outline, write a list of all the major concepts you want to cover in the book. Don’t worry about limiting the number of ideas you write, or about making them sound nice; you’ll make changes later. For now, just write. When you’ve listed the major ideas you want to include, go through the list and pick out 10 or so of the ideas that are the most important. You may also see places where more than one idea can be bundled into the same chapter, such as treatments for a condition, or stress-relieving techniques.

Once you have 10-12 chapter titles, it’s time to organize them. The best way I was taught to think about book organization is to imagine that you’re a trail guide for the reader, leading them on a trek. They don’t know anything about the terrain, how to prepare for the journey, or where they’re going. They trust you to get them there. Another metaphor I’ve found helpful is that of building a house: first you need a foundation, then every other brick you place is building on the one before it.

In practical terms, this means that you start with the most basic concept that your reader needs to know in order to understand what you have to say. You might start with defining the problem you’re setting out to solve, and then building on that. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your ideas are obvious enough that you don’t have to explain key concepts. They may be obvious for some of your readers, but likely won’t be obvious to all of them. And if you’re steeped in a field of expertise, things you think are obvious probably aren’t to other people who don’t have as much knowledge of that field as you do. When in doubt, have someone read the outline who is not involved in your field of study or the ideas the book is presenting, and see if it makes sense to them.

Once you have the major concepts outlined with chapter titles, it’s time to add headings. Headings are like little mini chapter titles within the text of the chapter. They serve two purposes: to break up big blocks of text, making the information easier to digest, and to act as trail markers within the chapter so the reader always knows where he is on the path. The most common structure for headings is the ‘A-B-C’ structure. A-level headings are the chapter titles, B-level headings are the section titles within the chapter, and C-level headings (and even D- and E-) break up the ideas even further within the sections.

Here’s an example from a possible book on addiction in the family:

  1. A: Chapter 1 – Help! I have an addicted loved one!
    1. B: What research tells us about addiction
    2. B: How addiction can affect family dynamics
    3. B: How is addiction affecting your family?
    4. B: My approach to helping family members with addicted love one
  2. A: Chapter 2 – How Can I Help My Addicted Family Member?
    1. B: When to intervene...and when not to
    2. B: Talking to the addicted loved one
    3. B: How to talk about addiction with other family members
    4. B: Keeping strong boundaries with an addict
  3. A: Chapter 3 – Treatment Options for Addiction
    1. B: Inpatient treatment
      1. C: Hospitals
      2. C: Private clinics
    2. B: Outpatient treatment
      1. C: Working with a medical professional
      2. C: Psychological approaches
      3. C: Peer support

Notice that the concepts start more broadly and get more specific. For your outline, I’d recommend starting with the chapters, and then adding the headings later on, once you’ve got the most important broad concepts outlined. As you work on your outline, you can add as many headings and subheads as you wish, though the more granular you get, the better off you are just writing the book.

The concepts should flow in an intuitive way; it should make sense as to why one chapter follows from the prior chapter. It would be jarring if, in the above example, the second and third chapter were switched, since the family member needs to have some grounding in how to communicate about addiction and how to interact with the troubled loved one before she can even begin to think about treatment options.

One way to think about organization is to consider how you might talk about the book concept if you were giving a speech on it. What do you need to say first, second, third?

By using an outline, not only will writing come more easily because all you have to do is flesh out the skeleton of the book, but the book will be better, and thus will be more accessible, understandable, and useful to your reader, which is the real reason to write the book in the first place.