Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Behind the Books: Thinking About Structure

Back in September 2009, I wrote two posts about structure. The first was called Building a Book and the second was called Turning Structure on It Head. I still like those posts, but now I have more to say on the topic.

I’ve been continuing to think about structure. A lot. A whole lot. The truth is that until you have a structure, you don’t have a book. As nonfiction becomes more visually sophisticated, the way authors present the material is just as important as the information itself.

Structuring a book—making decisions about organization, format, design, and art is a highly creative process. And while editors and art directors and photographers and illustrators all play a role in making the final choices about how the book will look, the process starts with the author.

In the last few years, I find that publishers want me to provide much more than just the words. They wan tto understand my complete vision for the book. That’s a lot of responsibility. And that’s why I’ve been thinking about structure so much lately.

Because I’m a writer, writing is the best way for me to solidify my ideas. So I’ve decided to take you along on my journey as I think deeply about structuring nonfiction.

In my Turning Nonfiction on Its Head post, I said that I often begin writing using a traditional structure. But that as I wrote, I was struck by inspiration and then started approaching the material from a different angle.

That’s no longer true. Now I begin thinking about structure from the moment the idea strikes me. I think about it the whole time I’m doing research too.

As I gather information, I’m searching for a unique way to present it to kids. I’m looking for something that is fresh and fun. If the same old same old bores me, I know it will bore kids too. They deserve better than that. Actually, they demand better than that.

I want to surprise kids in some way and make them think and wonder as they read. I want to make them say, “Oh, wow!” How do I do that? You’ll find out in a series of posts that begin next week. In the mean time, why don’t you start thinking about how you make decisions about structure. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. This is interesting, Melissa. I wonder how many authors think of the stucture right from the beginning now. I'm interested to learn more about your process.

    With my recent non-fiction manuscript, I had the structure in mind right from the beginning. I have a clear picture of the format and what I want to convey through that format.

    The part I find challenging is submitting my manuscript, since my idea doesn't fit into the formats that are commonly seen. "Snake! An Ecuadorian Adventure," includes the true story of my encounter with a poisonous snake while doing research in the rain forest. Then I have lots of other "extas" to bring the setting to life- items I envision as sidebars or insets. I have photos, journal entries, scientific information about our research, details of life in a field station, etc.

  2. Have you seen Antarctic Journal: Four Months at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Owings Dewey? It might have a structure similar to what you have in mind. If so, you could refer editors to that book to get a sense of what you envision.

    There is also My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal and some of the book sby Peter Lourie, which describe his own travel adventures for kids.

  3. I agree with you 100 percent on the importance of structure. I've edited (and written) dozens of nonfiction book over the years and it always surprises me on those rare occasions when an author presents a manuscript that is basically a collection of facts on a subject.

  4. I also think about structure right from the beginning with my science poetry books, Melissa. When we write non-fiction, the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming. It helps to know how you want to organize it on the page. And I'm with you: if the project doesn't hook the writer, it won't be fun to work on OR to read!

  5. Thanks for the book suggestions, Melissa. I'll check them out.