Leading at the Top

When faced with an undifferentiated mass of material in a nonfiction manuscript, a writer can become confused about the best way to organize it. In a marketing book, for example, you might have pages upon pages on the subject of branding. They include not only your useful ideas but plenty of examples of the ideas being put into practice. You know vaguely that all of the material would fit in a chapter, but where is the beginning, middle, and end?

Harking back to the days of English class is a good place to start. There you were taught about topic paragraphs. If you remember, the teacher instructed you to summarize the main points of a paper in a sentence apiece. How that basic principle could be applied in a book seems unclear at first, since it is a far more sprawling enterprise.

Or is it? Most books are broken into chapters, and each chapter is broken into sections, led by boldface headings. A section is roughly five pages long. Now, I ask you, how long were many of the papers you had to write for school? About five pages?

That’s where you start. Review the chapter and separate the material into associated lumps. A section of a chapter on branding might consist of points related to the idea of distinguishing what sets a product apart. Look over that smaller chunk with the idea that you are going to list 4-5 selling points related to distinction of a brand. Write them out. Then place them all together in one paragraph and rewrite so that one sentence leads to the next one. There is your topic paragraph. Not only that, but the process works in reverse. You now know how to line up the material in that section. The progression makes logical sense—because you had to make the sentences in the topic paragraph follow each logically.

Once you have compiled each of the 4-5 sections that make up the chapter, you can extend the use of the topic paragraph to encompass the entire chapter. You take each of your subheadings, in boldface, and expand them into a sentence. Put them together into a paragraph, and repeat the process of linking up the sentences so that they flow together smoothly. You may have to move sentences around to make that work. Once you are done, then place the sections of the chapter in the order of the sentences in the topic paragraph. See? You’re the most organized person on the planet.

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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