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Organizing a Non-Fiction Book

Writing any book, especially a non-fiction one, is a mammoth undertaking. Heaps of ripped out magazine articles, web page printouts, books spewing neon sticky-notes, pads of scrawled out thoughts, and a file drawer’s worth of chapter starts and outlines can drive a writer into enough of a frenzy to gather the mess and haul it out to the trashcan. Hold it—you can turn those piles of data into the book you want them to be. All it takes is some productive thinking time, a good filing system, and periodic fits of organization.

Getting Started
A non-fiction book may not have a plot, but the information needs to be communicated in a logical order. If you have a book idea, you also have a feel for the topics that might be included. Begin by brainstorming. Write down everything you want to cover, and then rearrange your ideas into topics and subtopics to develop a working outline. Now, write a brief introduction that covers the book’s premise and how it will benefit the reader, and make up a working title.

On Your Computer
Create a computer folder and label it with your working title. For example, my working title for a book about cooking was “The Stomach Growls.” It’s folder on my computer is labeled “Growls.” This folder will hold all files relating to this particular book, including research files, a bibliography, and all created and discarded versions of the book.

Next, create a single file, also labeled with the working title. This file will ultimately become the entire book text. Some folks prefer to use a separate file for each chapter or section, but I find this makes moving data around cumbersome, as it requires opening and closing files. Having a single book file also facilitates document searches and permits one-time set up for fonts, headings, and general formatting (and is often preferred by publishers.)

In your File Cabinet
Make up a physical hanging folder for each main topic using your working outline as a base for file labels. Use manila file folders to separate subtopics. For example, a section on Cold Storage might include files for various types of cold storage-- such as portable, non-portable, or built-ins. Set up your system in a file drawer, a portable file box, or a cardboard carton. You will be adding sections as you go along.

Data Collection and Management
Collecting information is integral part of developing any topic. Researching a subject breeds new ideas and broadens your perspective. Every website, magazine, newspaper, book, and every person you speak with about your subject will have something to offer.

The internet has taken the place of many reference guides as an updated source of information on almost any desired topic. Cut and paste pertinent info from websites into a word file by topic, then print out the actual article for your physical file. Copy the link into your bibliography file.

Jot down pertinent info from library books, magazines and newspapers. If you own these sources, sticky-note pages or rip out and save articles germane to your book. Pay attention to what others are writing about your topic; note the types of information included and how it's arranged.

Tackle the Piles
Begin by sorting the clippings and notes you’ve amassed into piles by subject. Lay these out on a large table or on the floor. Now, store each pile into its appropriate folder, those created from your working outline. Add folders for new topics or for those you want to sub divide, and then update your computer outline to include the changes.

Leave books and magazines stacked in a corner somewhere. Mark the page holding the information with a Post It and either jot down the subject on each tab or color code by topic.

Control the IN Box
It would be wonderful if we had the time to file as we go, but this seldom happens. What I found works best is tossing everything into a designated IN box. When the stack spills over, file everything away. The job will be done quicker than you'd expect and your box will be cleared for continued accumulations. Should you be collecting information for several books, use the same IN box, but keep the file systems for each book separate.

Ready to Write?
Now you've done the thinking and organized your materials, so let's get that book on the road to completion. Begin by pulling the hanging folder for your first section--for example, Cold Storage—from the file you created. Sit down and go through it. Beginning with the file for your initial topic, such as “ice,” read through each item and highlight important information. To keep this file ordered, set aside or toss out extraneous papers.

Next, Check your stack of tabbed books. Remove those containing information relating to this folder (Cold Storage). Next, type into the computer data from the files and books you’ve deemed important. You may opt for a different method; but I find this process provides gives me a strong base to work from, and it’s convenient.

Start a Bibliography
—you’ll need it anyway. Write down the name of the article, author, and other pertinent information, including the computer link to on-line articles. Assign a number to each source and use this to identify information drawn from it as you are writing. This simplifies tracking the origination of a statement or idea, reaffirms it is correctly recounted, and helps recheck spelling.

Create an Outline
As you process each item, use headings and bullets to form an outline. Subtopics on a chapter on “ice,” for example, might include types of ice, its uses, and ways to transport and buy ice. Label each section with the number linked to its source. Save outline as a file under the computer folder for your book, such as, “Research-Cold Storage.”

Think and Organize
Once you’ve done the research and entered the data, it’s time to do the thinking. Read over the information you have typed, and revisit your outline. Using your research notes, create a working first draft. Cut and paste sections-via either computer or scissors and tape--into their appropriate spot in your book file’s outline.

Order your Topics
Research makes a topic grow, and often the information planned as one chapter may grow to several. Move topics into a logical sequence; for example, in my section, Cold Storage, I went from simple to complex with chapters on ice, coolers, built-in iceboxes, and refrigeration. If the subject fills a single chapter, the outline sequence remains constant.

Next, begin forming the data into paragraphs, using your own words and taking care not to misrepresent or twist the facts. Let it rest, and then go back and put your spin on the information. Make stiff-sounding facts reader friendly, based on your expected audience-- technical engineers, historians, or plain folks who want to understand a subject. A little humor will make a dry topic palatable. Let your personal style shine through. Relay your experiences, as well as information gleaned from conversations with others.

Give Credit
Can you make an analogy or tell an anecdote? Quote accurately and give credit where it’s due. I use footnotes when developing a book; and then before sending it to press, I convert them to endnotes to keep the data available--but not in the reader's face. Your publisher will have particular thoughts on this. Lastly, cut and paste the bibliography file you’ve created to the end of the book—and you’re done!

There you have it. You don’t need to be a magician to produce a book out of a heap of data when some simple, systematic organization and hard thinking will do the trick. You will, of course, continue to research and enhance each area of your book with new findings, and to fine tune the text until you can’t tolerate looking at it one more time. Finally, when your manuscript is as flawless and comprehensive as you can make it, it will be time to get it off to the publisher or sold. You’ve done the hard part. The rest will be easy. Right? Good luck!

Selected Works

Storybook about birds
Non-Fiction Books
Helps mom plan weddings
A guide to recreational boating for men or women.
Romantic suspense
Managing your facts
Take action: write that book.

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