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Any tips on how to structure a non-fiction book?

I'm working on a small book about surveillance. Mot as much about the potential danger of having your data used against you, but more about the emotional response; why is it that some people react so negatively to being under constant monitoring from governmental and commercial bodies, and why does other care so preciously little about it?

I think I have enough meat to fill out the pages. But I'm unsure how one structures a non-fiction work. I know how, in fiction, one must give the reader appetite for the story in the opening, how some people swear to the 3-act structure, how I must lead up to a scene with emotional contrast, all that. But how does one structure non-fiction? And what are the non-fiction tropes I should know?

Some non-fiction books are exceptionally well written. Two examples are Through the Language Glass and I is another. Both are dealing with topics related to language, so this may be why the books are such nice reads. Here's the juicy opening of I is Another:
In later life, Arthur Rimbaud was an anarchist, businessman, arms dealer, financier, and explorer. But as a teenager, all he wanted to be was a poet.
The other book I mentioned, Through the Language Glass, opens with the author building an argument over a whole page, then gleefully tearing it down in the next paragraph. The tearing-down is exactly the counterargument most readers would have to the book's thesis, so when the author goes counter to that counterargument, it works as a rebuttal. In another chapter, information is withheld to create suspense. Also, the blatant racism of a scientific study is exposed, not by the author labeling it a such, but by him sarcastically taking on a racist persona in his description.

I guess this is one way to learn how to really write non-fiction. Read enjoyable non-fiction and extract the mechanics at play. But do you guys have any tricks of your own or any recommended reading?


Myth Weaver
What type of book do you want it to be?
There are some great non-fiction but still very story like books - almost anything by Bill Bryson springs to mind.
Or do you want it to be more of text book "Dummy's guide to..." sort of thing?
I want my writing to be alive and invested. I don't really like the mechanical step-by-step approach of "Dummy's guide to...". Before writing the post, I tried doing an internet search on this, but all the top results were in the vein of "How to write a non-fiction book in 5 easy steps" ... :-/


You need to first figure out HOW you want your reader to interact with your book. You also need to figure out WHO your target audience is and how they tend to interact with said books. When people read nonfiction, it is generally to learn something. There's different ways to learn, which is different for everyone, but also for the subject at hand.

Look at reference books such as cook books. No one is going to sit and read it cover to cover. They're going to either flip through the pages for something that looks good or they'll use the table of contents/index to find exactly what they want. Things are organized into similar groups (appetizers, meats, deserts etc) for easy thumbing through. A lot of O'Reilly programming books are like this, too, but people might read a whole section/subheading instead of the entire chapter. These people want to get in and out as fast as possible, because there's something else they want to be doing (cooking, programming), your book is just a tool to facilitate that.

Now look at nonfiction titles that tell a story. This is pretty much every memoir and books recounting true events, such as Bad Blood. They're structured like a novel, because the reader is going to want the whole story, so they're going to read it cover to cover. Indexes are mostly for people who want to cite the book in their own works, not for a casual reader.

There's books where IDEALLY the reader will read every part, but there's a good chance they won't, or that they'll skip around. The book is structured into "chapters" about specific topics, with additional subheadings, and each chapter might build upon the previous one, but it's not the end of the world if you read it out of order. I have a book about organization for adults with ADHD that is structured like this because guess what! Adults with ADHD aren't going to read a "boring" book front to back (we struggle with reading FUN books!), so if I find that I'm having trouble with my bathroom sink, I know where to go to find that info. Core lessons are repeated in every chapter so that I'm not missing out, but if I find that one section is helpful, I'm more likely to read the other sections (and, ideally, look at your back catalog and buy your other books).

So who is your target audience? Why are they going to read your book? What are they going to take away? Why your book and not someone else's? How are they going to use that information? A cookbook for a beginner is going to be written and organized differently than one for a homecook or for a professional chef. Cracking the Coding Interview is for people who already know how to code pretty well. The For Dummies books are for complete newbies in an area and don't look down on people who know nothing, which is why they're so popular. So you say your book is about the emotional responses people have (or don't) about surveillance. Is this for psychiatrists to help their patients with paranoid delusions? Is this a "Wake up, sheeple!" message?

Nonfiction is all about finding your audience and giving them what they need in the easiest way possible. There are norms and conventions for different audiences and different ways to read and have a relationship with the text. It's very, very different from fiction, where there's room for more flowery language or subtleties or the ability for the reader to make up their own meaning. Nonfiction has a specific message you're communicating and how you structure the book has to be in service of that.


Write in your natural voice, explain it as you understand it. Make your jokes, make your references, consider the aptitude of the reader. Don't worry about structure, start where it makes sense to start the subject, and progress into the more complex variations of the topic as you lay out its nature. I want it explained firstly, described, analyzed with language. Frilly imagery and ancillary thoughts come after that. Explain it as you know and work with it, that way, you ease the reader's learning process, as there is already one structured in your text that ranges from the basic science to the more complex, yet graspable, outflows of it.

That's how I like non-fic to be anyway, depends on the subject matter. Darwin's histories are a good example, written from personal perspective yet intrinsically scientific and informative, as he often gives counter-arguments and then logically meshes them against the evidence at hand. If he is unsure about anything, he tells you he is, thought offering interesting solutions to such mysteries.