I’m going to share three ways that you can approach the structure of a nonfiction book.

This is for you if you want to know how to write a how-to book, a self-help book, a leadership book, a wellbeing book, a health book, or any type of nonfiction book that teaches or shares something that is not based on a narrative. For info on narrative nonfiction, check out my posts on memoir writing, which can be applied to narrative such as biographies or creative nonfiction.

Some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read year have had a really simple chapter structure: from business and self-development books to consciousness, leadership, and how-to guides, I’ll share how you can adapt these book formats to structure your own how-too book.

I want to preface all of this by saying that you do need to understand the fundamental principles of storytelling, even if your nonfiction title is not narrative in nature.

One really crucial principle of storytelling is the structure of story, which is what I’m giving you a little brief lesson in, with this article on writing a nonfiction book outline.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR CHAPTERS FOR A NONFICTION BOOK

The structure of your chapters needs to be presented in a way that people can digest very easily to make sense of it. By simplifying a complex task or technique or idea or concept into a how-to nonfiction book, you are doing the work for the reader and making it super simple for the reader to ‘absorb’ your teachings or lessons.

This is the work involved in writing a nonfiction book: You, the writer, are comprehending, sifting, rearranging and prioritising the information and turning it into a digestible format that doesn’t take much for readers to understand.

Bestselling nonfiction books have compelling concepts that are easily digestible.

OUTLINE YOUR NONFICTION BOOK WITH LISTS

The first option you can use to structure your chapters is to write lists.

This would mean that you come up with your book topic and premise (the thing that you want to write a book length work about), which needs to be important to you, otherwise you probably won’t do the work required in developing it into a book!
Example: A how-to book on filing your taxes for solo-preneurs based in a certain country.
Example: Cook a pumpkin pie.

Then, you will literally list everything involved in getting to that outcome or learning that particular thing.

So if it’s a how-to book or a business book about some particular aspect of business, finance, running a business, being an entrepreneur, you can literally just brainstorm your chapter outlines by listing all of the things that you would need to know, learn, examine, do to get to that outcome of mastering that particular aspect of business or financial literacy or whatever the topic is for your non fiction book.

OUTLINE YOUR NONFICTION BOOK WITH STEPS

The second way that you can structure a nonfiction book is steps, which is very similar to making lists. The difference with steps is that they need to be sorted and categorised in order of priority.
For example, a how-to book on building a house from mudbrick, would require you to figure out the priorities of the steps they need to take to get to the outcome.

You do need a strong premise and all these other aspects of a compelling story. Even if it is not a narrative nonfiction, you still need storytelling skills or people will literally just type the info into Chat GBT and never pay for your book!

Now, assuming you have a strong premise and there’s a unique hook to your title (ie. something you’re showing people to do in a way that saves them time or effort or money in some way or another or has never been taught or done this way before)…you’ll go through the steps involved to reach the outcome that you’re teaching.

You would make a list of all of the steps that you either went through or teach people or give people or all of the steps that they could potentially go through to get to that outcome, and ensure that the order or the sequence is absolutely fail-safe. As in – they must do step one before step two.

Writing a book is like writing a nonfiction article, just a bit longer…

This is how I approached nonfiction articles as a freelance journalist. I would brainstorm the topic and the most important people to speak to, list all the steps and aspects of the topic that I would need to explore, and then, I’d have a mass of steps.  Through interviewing experts and authorities on the subject matter, I would then be able to prioritize these steps that people could go through and sift through the less important information to only include what mattered to getting the outcome.
This is how I wrote hundreds of articles on health and wellbeing topics for Body + Soul magazine for a number of years.

This is  also how I would approach writing a nonfiction book if i were to ghost-write or edit a book for a subject matter expert or leader or an authority.

You start by condensing the information into a series of steps and then, as you go through the work of interviewing, you’re assessing whether or not each step matters and is crucial to the outcome, and why.

By doing this work, you know the priorities that these steps need to take. And you make it much simpler for the reader to get the ‘takeaway’ to the book!

HOW-TO NONFICTION BOOKS THAT USE LISTS AND STEPS

I’ll give you an example of a published nonfiction book that uses this approach. Dr. Anthony Williams, also known as the medical medium, has written numerous health titles related to inflammatory issues and autoimmune diseases. I have his excellent books LIVER RESCUE and THYROID HEALING. He has a number of excellent other health titles but the recipes and the data and cleansing protocols in the Liver book are excellent. I also recommend the artichoke dip recipe from THYROID HEALING!
In these books, Williams takes you through the steps and the priorities that you need to go through to cleanse your liver, autoimmune system, and your lymphatic system. He has recipes, he has arranged chapters around areas you need to understand for each of these protocol, and he also includes an index for certain supplements and foods and terms. So, as you’re writing your nonfiction book, you could start with a list of all the terms you want to write about, or all the concepts readers need to understand, and then sort them into chapters in order of priority (ie. what do people need to understand first, in order to move forward with this goal).

And then the recipes flow from there, a blend of both steps and lists because you would include recipes in lists.

Do this before you write the draft:

It’s most important to get the priorities or order of the steps right before you actually start the draft.

That’s where you’d be gathering all the information about the steps involved and which ones need to go first.

So you want to picture it like a pyramid or a temple. When you have the information required you can then make decisions on which steps need to go at the bottom before people can then ascend up that pyramid or ladder to the ultimate outcome of your book.

So, the first way you can outline a nonfiction book is with lists. The second way you could outline a nonfiction book is with steps. And the third method you can use is…

WRITE A NONFICTION BOOK OUTLINE WITH STORIES

The third way that you can approach the structure of a nonfiction book not narrative in nature… is with case studies or stories.

I have Atomic Habits on my bookshelf behind me. It is a very, simple book. James Clear did this stories method very well in the bestselling Atomic Habits.

Now, stories can be case studies. Stories can be examples. You can use yourself as a case study if you want to, and simply work your way through separate ‘stories’ or events when you used the protocol that you’re teaching.

This is an interesting way that you could write a nonfiction book that is actually about yourself such as a leadership or a business book about your own business journey or your own learnings in this area. That is not a deep dive narrative nonfiction. You could do stories. And stories are really good if you are writing on a topic that requires case studies.

So people really need to see, feel, hear, understand how this looks, how the change looks, how the problem looks, how the friction points look on a day to day level.

So in Atomic Habits, for example, with each of the habits that he talks about, he shares a lot of case studies and examples and stories of real people and their results. This is a really good one for raising your platform in the industry to which you’re aspiring to be a thought leader. You’d be using lots and lots of case studies of people that you’ve worked with.

In Summary

These are the three ways that you could approach your chapter outlines, or the structure of a nonfiction book that is not narrative in nature:

  1. Lists is the first one.
  2. Steps is the second one.
  3. Stories is the third.

I hope that this has helped you see how some of the bestselling nonfiction books use this approach to outline.

You can mix it up a bit, but it’s good to have one overriding structure when you’re mapping out your chapter outlines.

What’s your personal favorite? For me, I like case studies and stories. I like to see and feel how something looks in real life. And I think that the case studies and the stories example helps you to relate to it and see how that could be apply to you. Sometimes I like the simplicity of a list as well, because you really need that for things like recipes or data based books. I have a really good book called Profit First, which is for entrepreneurial solo-preneurs and online business owners, and this lists aspect is used really well, as well as case studies.​