How do I Organize my Chapters in Nonfiction and Memoir?

writing coach cynde christie

First, you have a great idea for a nonfiction book or memoir. You’ve done the research, compiled the notes, or lived the life you want to share with your readers. Now what? Your chapters are in rough draft form, (hopefully you have been working with an editor so they are not too rough), but how do you know the best way to present this information to a reader so that they will get the most out of what you are trying to impart? How do you make the story or non fiction study flow? Do you start at the beginning or present the results and then go back to the beginning. Should you organize your chapters in chronological order?

This is where the substantive edit comes into your writing process. For this step you will need the help of a good coach/editor who understands logic and organization. When I begin a “sub edit” I have to focus on that one book, no matter how many manuscripts I am working on at the moment. I clear my desk and my mind and I work the chapters like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes chapter 4 must become chapter 10, sometimes the second paragraph on page 14 needs to be moved to page 23, first paragraph, and so on. After all of the organization is complete, I create an actual manuscript, with a table of contents, and a title page.  I know this sounds confusing, but believe me, at the end of this process, my authors are thrilled to read their writing as a book, similar to what their readers will see.

In addition to creating the flow necessary to keep your readers interested, tuned into your book, and turning the pages, not to mention recommending it to their friends, the “sub edit” also shows you and your editor the areas in which there are holes that require filling. Also, you can clearly see where the repetition is, and there is always repetition. When you are writing a book, it can take a couple of years, and you will not remember what you wrote in chapter 2 when you are writing chapter 8. Yet another reason for the “sub edit.”

So, the “how to” of the substantive edit is to have an experienced editor do it. This is not a job for your buddy down the street, and it is not something you can do for yourself. As the writer, you are so close to the words that it is impossible for you or any author to read objectively and see where the pieces of the puzzle go.

The “why” of the organization process for your chapters is that your writing will transform from a bunch of notes to a real, readable, marketable book. So, start writing and don’t worry about what goes where, that’s my job!