Writing Nonfiction, how does one organize it?
January 13, 2006 10:45 PM   Subscribe

I think it would be a kick to write a nonfiction book. Any advice on how to organize one?

To specify, I'm looking for both advice as well as any recommended books on the topic. Also, if people know of any books that are great examples of organization, that would also be a great help. But please, nothing about publication.
posted by TwelveTwo to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Erk. That shouldn't be hobbies, though fitting. It should be writing. I believe my scroll wheel must have conspired against me.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:46 PM on January 13, 2006

Do you want it to be a reference book -- that is, a book that the reader will dip into and read bits of out of order, and probably won't read all of -- or do you want it to be a book that people will read from beginning to end?
posted by jjg at 12:13 AM on January 14, 2006

Depends on what you're writing.
posted by raaka at 12:16 AM on January 14, 2006

You might want to provide more details, specifically about what it is you want to write about. The question so far is as vague as "How do you cook?"
posted by wackybrit at 12:35 AM on January 14, 2006

I've recently finished writing a non-fiction book called Zero To Superhero (more truthfully, the last few chapters are in the process of a final rewrite and I'm publishing the book online first before physical print) and I found the book organizes itself as you write it.

Sure, it's ok to begin with an idea and structure, but it will likely morph into something different and better as you flesh it out. Unless you're querying a publisher with a book idea, organization at this point won't matter near as much as the words you fill it with.
posted by rinkjustice at 12:53 AM on January 14, 2006

Are you writing a

Technical manual
Analysis of current events
Math/biology/language/chemistry/whatever textbook

or what? Those are all "nonfiction", and they would be organized in one of numerous different ways.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:31 AM on January 14, 2006

If you are writing on biography, history, or politics, read Robert Caro's The Power Broker, one of the most exhaustively researched nonfiction books ever written. At least you'll know what you're in for. In any event, the most successful nonfiction works draw on newly minted primary source materials (usually those developed or discovered by the author.) Good luck.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:16 AM on January 14, 2006

Have you ever written a thesis or anything? There are some similarities of process. I'll tell you how I write long stuff:

1) Jot down ideas on paper, try and connect them if I can.
2) Start reading the sources and general info around the ideas I find most interesting.
3) When some ideas start to gel, write some informal stuff about the ideas. If nothing has gelled, keep reading.
4) Start to specifically research whatever ideas are standing out. Don't be afraid to discard things that are now dead ends.
5) Begin to outline the larger work, aided by all the new research.
6) Begin to write sections from the outline.
7) Begin to organize work as a whole.
8) Pull it all together and tighten it up, again, don't be afraid to discard dead ends.
9) Profit!
10) Not really.

This has gotten me through two ~150 page theses, I don't see why it wouldn't work for a book per se.
posted by OmieWise at 5:34 AM on January 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't get stuck on 2) above for several decades like many people do.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:53 AM on January 14, 2006

A lot of creativity comes into step 7).

It often seems that the organization of the material is what makes a nonfiction book either compelling or dull. Facts are facts -- they just lie there until you organize them -- so creating a narrative that draws a reader in is all in the ordering and presentation of the content.
posted by Miko at 8:08 AM on January 14, 2006

As others have noted, the question's so vague i don't really know how to respond with much specific advice (I'm a book editor -- specifically exhibition catalogues for an art museum, though I've worked in publishing and as a freelancer on other types of books), but Miko's point about narrative is a good one. Strictly chronological narratives can be deadly dull or incredibly exciting, depending on the material and the way in which the story unfolds. You can organize around individual topics. You can splice two narratives together (Erik Larsen's The Devil in White City did this quite well).

But again, the subject matter and type of book you want to write really determine a lot of this. Reference books, biographies, social histories, and technical manuals are all nonfiction, and not really written or organized the same way. TwelveTwo, if you'd care to weigh in about what you're interested in writing, I'm sure we can give more examples of well-written and well-organized books in that genre.
posted by scody at 11:44 AM on January 14, 2006

Response by poster: Ah, sorry. Let me be more specific, it would be the form of a long essay. Omiewise seems to have given me an answer that spins the wheels the most. Additionally, after sleeping on the idea I think I already got a roadmap. Though what is still quite useful is if anyone has other examples of things well constructed.
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:20 PM on January 14, 2006

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