Organizing Around Subheads

When compiling material for a nonfiction book, an author is faced with the unending dilemma of what to place where. Certain topics lead easily to decisions about what should be leading principles. Yet others are intermingled, and a topic might work well in multiple sections. Examples of cases have the same problem of relevance: what points should they best support?

Luckily for a confused writer, most nonfiction books feature subheadings, those bold-faced lines of type that start a new section. While they can be overused, you can commit to a flexible template that organizes material into solid blocks. If you establish as a goal that 2-3 pages of text must follow every subhead, you will likely end up with 4-5 headings for each chapter, which is about right.

In concrete terms, that means that every chapter heading is broken into 4-5 divisions, or aspects of that topic. If a chapter wishes to discuss discrimination in hiring practices, as an example, you might think in terms of subheads that cover those sectors that are vulnerable: African Americans, women, Latins, and maybe workers overseas. The sections on each may be of varying lengths, but now you have a manageable way to collate like material.

In the process of selecting the big topics for a chapter, you will eliminate the common problem of using the same material in different parts of the book. You still would have to make choices on issues that overlap, such as black women in the example above, but you can devise a sturdy rationale for splicing apart those aspects that apply to her as part of a minority and those caused by her being a woman. Your subheads tell you what aspect belongs where.

The powers of organizing by subheadings also helps you make decisions about where examples should go. If you have a story about Lauryn’s struggle to be recognized for her programming talents, given the chauvinist culture of Silicon Valley, you can sift through the details to decide what affected the biased opinion of her most: because she was black or she was a woman? You may even realize, if the story is long enough, that you can split the example in two and use the shorter pieces in both sections.

If you think of your material in terms of an army, all of it is at first made up of grunts. In picking your chapter titles, you are selecting generals. Your subheadings are your lieutenants. The squadrons form up under their leaders, and presto: your book unfolds logically.

Exercise: If you already have written a chapter without subheadings, you can often find them in the first sentence of a paragraph. You are already covering different subjects, so look for where the direction turns. Just shorten the topic sentence, make it bold, and lift it out of the text—as your new leader.

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”
—Richard P. Feynman

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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