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book structure

Good Bones: Crafting a Solid Book Structure

A great title, cover and concept are often enough to get a reader to pull your book off the shelf. But what keeps her reading until the every end, and gets her to recommend the book to friends?

The answer is an amazing reading experience. One where the content of the book flows so seamlessly on the page that she’s sucked right in and barely remembers she’s reading. It’s the feeling of a book being nearly impossible to put down.

So what generates such a magical experience? The answer is something we in the book biz call “good bones.”

When we say a book has good bones, we mean the content of the book is clearly organized, easily navigable and supports comprehension as we read.

This firm foundation is more formally known as the book’s structure. And it’s so important that the first round of editing a book gets is often called a “structural edit.”

Book structures come in a wide variety of shapes and forms. The key is to have one, and for it to be coherent and easily digestible for your reader. Some examples of coherent structures include:

  • A step-by-step program for obtaining a goal your reader really wants
  • A chronological account of a transformational experience in your life
  • A set of lessons you’ve learned, which you would like to impart to others
  • A two-part format that explains “the problem” in Part I, and offers a step-by-step “solution” in Part II

Pick up any nonfiction book on your shelf and look at the table of contents to get a sense of what structure the author (and likely, his or her editor) decided upon for the book. You’ll see very quickly that there is no single formula to giving your book “good bones.” There are a million different ways to make sure your book content is orderly, symmetrical and complete.

The best way I know to ensure your book will have good bones is to create a strong outline for your book before you start writing. If you stick to that outline, you’ll be assured your book has the tightly crafted structure that will ensure a positive experience for your end users—including the agents and editors who will be the first to read. (You don’t have to do this alone…get our free sample outlines by signing up for the newsletter on our homepage.)

What if you’ve already written the lion’s share of your book’s content, without a specific structure in mind? No problem. I recommend two steps, in this order. First, do a “retroactive outline.” This simply means re-reading your manuscript and taking note of what you’ve included in each chapter, in order.

Now, look it over and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the content feel evenly distributed?
  • Are the chapters roughly the same length?
  • Is the topic of each chapter clear? Does all the content in the chapter relate directly back to this topic?
  • Does each chapter have roughly the same number of subtopics?
  • Are the chapters roughly the same length?
  • Have you included subheadings to help the reader know where she is in the book?
  • Is the content comprehensive? Does it answer all the questions your reader is likely to have?
  • Could you leave anything out to streamline the reading experience?

If the retroactive outline is well-organized, symmetrical and complete, congratulations! You’re good to go.

If not, then the second step is to retool your retroactive outline so it reflects these qualities. Give each chapter a topic sentence, the same number of subheadings and a word count goal.

Then, as you dive into revisions, retrofit your manuscript so it aligns with the new structure you’ve created. One great way to do this is to use the software system Scrivener—which I am going to talk about in an upcoming blog!

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