A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the most common issues with a book’s Substance raised by First Look Readers giving feedback on non-fiction manuscripts. This week, we’re taking a closer look at another core feedback category: Structure.

Structure is the way in which an author arranges and presents their thoughts and arguments. In this section of each Target Reader Manuscript Analysis report, First Look Readers weigh on the blueprint of a book. Do readers think the organization makes sense? Does the content flow
well? Do they find any points repetitive or anything missing or underdeveloped.

Good structure is essential to any book, but it’s especially important in non-fiction, where clear organization is key to helping readers understand and apply the book’s lessons. Below, we’ve reviewed some of the most common structure-related issues First Look Readers identify in non-
fiction manuscripts.

Unnecessary Detail  

When writing non-fiction, authors often feel little need to craft a coherent story arc or narrative structure. These are “just facts” after all. Yet many types of nonfiction, such as memoirs or books incorporating lessons from the author’s life, tend to be most successful when they follow a narrative pattern akin to a novel’s plot. One common pitfall for non-fiction authors is including detail- or research-heavy asides that can interrupt the flow of the story.

In one recent Target Reader Manuscript Analysis report on a memoir by a medical professional, around 29% of readers disliked the detailed scientific explanations woven throughout the book.

“The storyline was often abandoned for long stretches of time to insert portions of text that were akin to a medical textbook,” one reader wrote.

A similar complaint emerged with another recent memoir in which the author repeatedly paused their dramatic autobiography to dig into relevant research. As one First Look Reader said: “The author periodically interrupts their story to add statistics or research, which hinders the overall flow. Maybe there’s a way to switch more smoothly from the intensity of the story to the dryness of the research?”

In both cases, the authors spent time explaining relevant technical issues and demonstrating their expertise and authority. Yet in both cases, readers just wanted to get back to the heart of the story. By diverging from the part of the narrative with which readers engaged, authors risked losing their interest.

Illustrative Stories

The opposite issue can emerge in less story-driven non-fiction. A common technique in more explanatory texts is for authors to weave personal stories and anecdotes throughout the book.

Done well, these sorts of stories can help capture and keep readers’ interest, as well as illustrate and help flesh out a book’s core themes and lessons. Sometimes though, these sorts of illustrative stories don’t work as intended. In one recent TRMA, around 38% of First Look Readers complained that the author’s character-driven anecdotes felt confusing or underdeveloped.

“The ‘story’ parts felt thin and underdeveloped,” one reader said. “I appreciated the use of this narrative device to help convey the ideas behind the book, but the stories often felt forced, strained, or tenuous.”

In other words, stories and anecdotes can add a lot of value to a book when done well but can hurt that same book when done poorly. Just because example stories aren’t the focus of your non-fiction project doesn’t mean you should craft them less carefully.

Framing Reader Expectations

Finally, in a third recent report—this time for a Christian non-fiction book—First Look Readers complained that they felt the book being reviewed failed to adequately explain up front what it was about, what readers should expect from the book, and how they should go about using it.
The core problem was that this book’s title and summary description never mentioned that it was organized as a daily devotional, focusing instead only on its core ideas and themes. When readers suddenly found themselves working through a book in devotional format, rather than chapter by chapter exposition, they found it jarring and confusing.

“At first, I was thrown off by the way the book is set up as a daily devotional,” one reader wrote. “The title itself, with no subtitle, does not lend itself to expecting such a structure.”

Once they got used to the format, many of these very same readers benefited from and enjoyed the devotional’s core lessons. Some even described it as “life changing” and “inspirational,” but picking up a book with a dramatically different format than what they were expecting threw
them off. The good news is that this is an easy fix: the author can make it clear in the book’s title and description that the book is a devotional and add an introduction and conclusion to help frame it appropriately. Yet without making this edit, the author risks disappointing readers by failing to meet their expectations.

Worth the Effort

Creating a well-organized and engaging book is hard work, but the effort is worth it. By carefully considering their target readers’ needs, authors can avoid common structural issues and craft books that readers will love. What structural issues have you struggled with in your own writing?