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Academic Coaching & Writing

VI. How to Find the Right Structure for Your Book

Oct 16, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

Think of an academic book that made you say “Wow!” as you finished reading it—a book that was stunningly compelling for you. Got that image in mind?

Now, what can you remember about the organization of that book?

Generally, what we remember most about compelling books is their originality or masterful presentation of extensive, persuasive data. Such qualities, of course, matter tremendously. A less obvious quality, though, can also greatly enhance a book’s impact. Without a structure that reveals the argument’s coherence, even brilliant ideas may fail to register with readers.

Highly effective organization allows readers to perceive a meaningful sequence in the order of chapters, rather than a string of somewhat related arguments. A strong sense of coherence across chapters, after all, is a key distinction between books and journal articles. Unlike a single issue of a journal, we expect a book’s sections to build thematically on each other to illuminate the author’s central idea or question.

Sometimes, a glance at a book’s table of contents reveals a meaningful pattern that builds from beginning to end. However, a sound, underlying rationale for the order of chapters often is augmented in passages within the text itself. Such moments in the text help readers connect the dots. They help readers perceive, for instance, why chapter three logically follows chapter two or how chapter four calls forth the substance of chapter five.

Sadly, no single formula for organizing a manuscript works for all projects. I encourage you to closely study the structure that underlies several academic books you admire. Make notes of techniques you can adopt and adapt. What’s fun (or frustrating, depending on your personality) is that there is room for creativity here as you experiment with various techniques to strengthen the coherence of your book’s structure.

So, there are indeed many paths up this mountain. To find the right path for structuring your work, try to keep two things simultaneously in mind:

  • The big-picture version of your argument and
  • The most likely audience for your book.

When the demands of argument and audience are skillfully integrated, the reader finishes the book with a sense that every bit of included material was essential to convey the argument and there was not a single unnecessary page. Wow!

Admittedly, such “wow” experiences are rare. Even excellent books often fail to fully sustain this ideal of perfect craft. Yet, it is important to hold this ideal as a goal when you are struggling with what to leave in or cut and how to weave chapters together.

To weave chapters together well, many editors stress the importance of a “though-line.” Basically, a great though-line makes it easy to see how all the pieces of evidence come together to illuminate the book’s central claim. If you’re building a book manuscript from your dissertation research, check out William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Even if you’re working on your second or third book, you may well appreciate Germano’s advice on through-lines in Chapter Seven because he shows how to bring this lofty metaphor down to the level of your desktop.

However, some techniques that work beautifully in one project flop miserably in a different project. So, if the image of a through-line doesn’t resonate with you as a way to find the right structure for your work, there are plenty of other ways of describing it.

Relying on metaphors to explain something so critical to a book’s success may feel, I imagine, frustrating to some academic authors. However, figurative language is one of the best tools we’ve got to convey the subtle truths of slippery concepts about structure. Some editors and writing teachers describe a great book structure as the barely visible string that connects precious pearls into a necklace. Others talk about a “narrative arc.” I like to think of structure as a strong needle of thought that stiches my pages together, enabling them to last over time and endure much use.

How to Visualize the Content of Your Book

If you feel uncertain about how to find the right structure for your book, don’t lose heart! For many writers, these issues remain a bit murky during the process of drafting the book. Often, it is only after a full draft is produced that the process of clarifying the structure truly takes off. If you feel stuck, try this exercise to visualize your book’s content.

  1. Make a spatial map of elements of your book’s argument. You can do this digitally or just draw a map on paper.
  2. Draw lines between related points, literally connecting the dots of argument.
  3. Then, rethink the book’s organization. Would it make sense, for example, to group a series of dots or points closer together? Are some points, in the end, redundant or simply not needed to make your over-arching claim?

When wrestling with these questions, try to imagine what your readers need to know and when they need to know it in order to find your argument compelling. Getting feedback on your manuscript from colleagues, an editor, or a writing coach are ways to help you identify what gaps need to be addressed.

Here’s one hint: adding overt transition statements can often make apparent gaps disappear. Because authors implicitly (if sometimes subconsciously) know how the pieces of their work relate to each other, it may be fairly late in the process of developing a manuscript that they realize they have not fully articulated those connections on the actual page.

Think of such transitions—to offer a final metaphor—as functioning in your book as joints function in the body. The soft tissues of joints connect the muscles and bones of our legs to our hips, for example. This feat of biological organization enables us to move, run—even jump. Skillful transitions, similarly, can help your argument “jump” from the page to the reader’s mind.

In the final analysis, building the right structure for your book matters for one simple reason. It not only meaningfully connects diverse aspects of the book’s argument, but also increases the chances of meaningfully connecting writer and reader. Wow!

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