How to Select the Strongest Nonfiction Structure
When it comes to writing nonfiction, organization is key to success. No matter how well you research, no matter how smoothly you craft your prose, if your material isn’t organized in a fashion that makes it clear and easy to consume, you’ll lose the reader. Because of this, it’s important to think about your nonfiction structure and how to organize it to best suit your topic and the things you want to accomplish with it.
When Time Matters
Some nonfiction practically seems to organize itself. If, for instance, you are doing an early elementary nonfiction book for an educational publisher on the life-cycle of the butterfly, it doesn’t take long to decide the organization needs to be sequential. Butterflies lay eggs. Eggs hatch into caterpillars. Caterpillars eat and eat and eat. Caterpillars enter the chrysalis stage. Then butterflies come out, mate, lay eggs and die.
Clearly if you broke out the order and talked about the caterpillars, then eggs, then adults, then how butterflies may make it through the winter inside the chrysalis, the reader is going to get confused. In a life-cycle explanation, order matters. Readers expect this kind of nonfiction to be presented in sequence.
Biographies also often use time as structure, though while the start and end time for a butterfly lifecycle doesn’t involve very specific days, biographies and many historical event nonfiction books do. So the sequence for this sort of book reflect a very specific time frame. With sequence books, the outline of the book can be done with a timeline, which can help you identify if sequence is a good nonfiction structure for you.
But Can Cause Be More Important Than Time?
Sometimes even a nonfiction piece where a timeline makes sense, you may want to draw the reader’s attention to something specific about the forces that affected events. In that case, a cause-and-effect organization might make more sense for the book, or for specific selections within the book.
Let’s consider a book about westward expansion and the homes people lived in. A timeline could follow westward expansion, but looking at the homes people lived in requires something beyond time. Why would people change the way they build homes during this expansion? Why did colonial homes use building techniques common in Europe, but then pioneers moving to the grassy plains do something totally different, creating homes that were holes dug in the ground with walls and roofs made of piled sheets of sod? Because the availability of natural resources affected the kinds of homes people lived in, a book on such homes would probably follow two structures.
The order of the chapters would follow the timeline of Westward Expansion (and thus be organized by sequence) but within each chapter, we would use cause and effect to look at how pioneers built homes in that specific location and why they used the materials and techniques they did.
Time Doesn’t Always Matter
Sometimes time and sequence don’t play any part in the organization you choose for your nonfiction article or book. Consider, for example, a book about bird beaks. In such a book, we would need very different organization. We would probably have lots of pictures with verbal descriptions in the captions. This kind of descriptive organization is popular for animal books because young readers love looking at photos of animals, and photos are usually easily obtained.
But maybe we want to go beyond just showing that some birds have odd looking bills and start talking about what makes all these beaks the same and what makes them different. We might explain why different birds have different beaks—what specific purpose does each type of beak serve well. In that case, we might explain how a pelican’s long bill and deep flexible throat pouch functions as a kind of net to scoop up fish for the pelican to eat. We might compare that to other fish-eating birds like heron which have a long beak for striking down into the water to capture its dinner.
So our book on beaks might compare beaks that developed for eating the same food (fish) but still look quite different and why that might happen. This kind of compare-and-contrast organization can be a great way of examining how things are the same and how they are different.
Open-Ended Nonfiction Structures
Some nonfiction is written in response to problems. For example, we might write a book about the problem of plastics in the oceans. We know that plastics end up in the ocean and that efforts at recycling haven’t effectively reduced the amount of plastic. The plastic problem continues to grow. So what could be the solution? What are some solutions that have been tried?
If I chose to use a problem and solution structure for such a book, I would begin by showing the reader why plastic in the ocean is a problem. I would touch on the damage to wildlife, but I would also look at the scope of the problem and how it is increasing.
Then once the problem has been presented, we would begin looking at all the solutions that are taking a bite out of the problem including plastic-eating microbes and efforts to reduce the amount of plastic produced as well as efforts to produce something that works like plastic but doesn’t last as long. In a good problem/solution book or article, young readers are offered ways to join in the solution, but these books work best when the reader doesn’t get an overwhelming “it’s all up to them” feeling.
Sometimes nonfiction might present a less cut-and-dried problem, one that readers need help believing. This can be true for nonfiction for upper middle grade and YA where nonfiction can look at more controversial subjects or complex subjects.
For example, a book that looks at what choices a high school student might make about the future can attempt to make the reader see there are multiple positive alternatives. In the case of this kind of book, you would present your argument then give carefully researched, factual support for your case.
Sometimes persuasive nonfiction can be about very serious topics such as health care or education or practical handling of money, but sometimes it can be about less critical subjects such as why you should try some unusual vegetables or why you should plant native flowers in your yard. The key to success in persuasive nonfiction is in making clear, logical, orderly arguments that are well supported with facts and research.
Whatever organizational structure you choose, be certain that it is a choice, not something you simply fell into when you started writing. Without clear thought about what organization you intend to use and why, you’ll often lose sight of what you’re trying to do with your nonfiction book or article, and that doesn’t impress editors or readers. So for best success, think your choices through and be ready to defend your choices. If you know why you did something, there’s a much bigger chance you did it right. And therein lies success.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.