Organizing Your Non-Fiction Writing

Non-fiction Writer Friends,

Do you wake up with brilliant ideas for your writing, but struggle with the outline when you sit down at your computer?

I do.

When I have an idea for a book, I grab a piece of paper and draw a circle with the main idea in the middle and the spokes become all the topics I could use to fill in the book.

Once I begin, my writing becomes haphazard. First, I start telling stories, and then I try to convey strong ideas by inserting subtitles and explanations around my stories. Often it seems like I’m going backwards, trying to fudge an outline around my stories. If you’re thinking this is a path to frustration, you’re right.

Sometimes I wish I had a simple and clear method for outlining each chapter.

Two months ago, I attended a speaker training led by speaker and comedian Ken Davis. Previously the workshop was called Dynamic Communicators Workshop, but now Ken is teaming up with Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, and they have renamed the workshop The SCORRE Conference.

At this workshop, what I learned about speaking easily translated into my writing. The SCORRE method gave me an easy template for both. Attendees of the SCORRE Conference are taught how to pick one of two choices for their talk: It will either be enabling or persuasive? It can not be both.

The reason for the choice is because it forces you to distill your talk into a single objective and forces you to stay on track. This is important because 75% of people leave a presentation with no idea of what was communicated. Even sadder, 50% of speakers cannot articulate the objective of their talk.

With my new strategy in mind, I went back to my previously written chapters so I could clean them up and make them purposeful. As I read my first chapter, I wondered, “Is this a persuasive chapter or an enabling one?” To make things more confusing, I came across a quote attributed to Zig Ziglar:

“All great books convey the HOW and the WHY.”

For awhile I wrestled with the direction. Should I have my book be a WHY or a HOW? Should I make each chapter contain a WHY and a HOW? Was there a way to incorporate Zig Ziglar’s quote and adhere to the SCORRE method?

As I prayed, the answer appeared. The bulk of each chapter was a persuasive speech — It answered the question WHY.  But, at the end of each chapter I had tips for implementing the chapter ideas — these became the HOW.

I think I finally came up with a really good way to organize my non-fiction book.

(Just to clarify, if I were giving a speech, I would still pick a HOW or a  WHY, not both)

What about you? How do you organize your non-fiction writing?

*A few years ago I bought Ken’s book Secrets of Dynamic Communication. The book was helpful, but to be honest I did not implement his method until I attended this workshop. Now that I’ve learned the method, it’s all I’m going to use. There is a SCORRE conference coming up in April in Rome, GA and another one back in Vail, CO next October. I highly recommend writers attend.The accommodations were deluxe, the coaches were supportive, the opportunities for networking were immense, and the learning was easy due to the skill and humor of Ken and his associates. I’ve been to many speaker conferences but this was by far the best.

14 Replies to “Organizing Your Non-Fiction Writing”

  1. I’ve studied under Ken Davis (years ago) and I really like a lot of what he teaches. However, I have to disagree with having only the HOW or only the WHY in a talk. Unless your talk is specifically going to be followed up with one or the other I think it needs both. The best would be if you briefly covered one and focused on the other, but covering just one can leave readers and listeners very frustrated.

    There’s nothing worse than (on the topic of organization, for example) be given three solid, compelling, heart-changing reasons to organize my kitchen but not given any clue on how to do it. It’s like putting gas in the car and then parking it in the garage. That kind of speech doesn’t lead to change, it leads to good ideas and great intentions. And I think the same would hold true for books.

    And I’m really not likely to pay any attention to HOW to do something unless I have a very good reason WHY I need to. So I can’t see separating them and still capturing your audience for anything more than the 20 minutes of your talk or the end of your book.

    Just my thoughts! 🙂

    1. Carla, I really appreciate you taking time to give input. I know several of the students struggled with this idea. I’m pretty sure what I got out of it is that it is okay to give a little of the other side, but the main focus should be one or the other.

      So I might give a talk about why self care is so important: health, sanity, Being able to give back to others, etc. That would be my speech. Then I could say, “In the back of the room is a handout with all the ways you can do self-care.”

      I’d love to know what others think about this. Maybe Ken or Michael will even chime in…

  2. Great post Lucille! Love the simple choice of inspire or enable in order to focus. I have one nonfiction book under my belt about the reemergence of US orphanages and that would have been a very useful tool! I was terrified for months in the beginning because I couldn’t see the path. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    1. Hi Martha, thanks for commenting here and for reposting on Facebook. I think we’ve all grown up with the idea of having a topic sentence and then adding three bullet points to back it up….

      But when it comes to an entire book I need more strategy.

  3. Lucille, that HOW and WHY division is very interesting. I can see how it would clarify the purpose of a speech. There’s probably some official rule of classical rhetoric that covers this distinction. I wish I had studied more rhetoric in school! But there’s still time…

  4. I’m working on refining some nonfiction books today, so this is helpful. Finding more help in the discussion through the comments. Thanks, everyone!

  5. Interesting!

    I have found, for myself, it is very important, both in speaking and writing, to try to have a clear idea of what objective I am trying to achieve. I often stumble around, jotting down ideas and related topics, until I manage to get a clear picture of the primary objective.

    Once I have a clear definition of the intended audience and the primary objective (the two tend to go hand-in-hand), everything else becomes much easier, and I often wind up discarding much of the material that I had earlier thought to be important.

    I haven’t ever thought, though, in terms of separating How and Why (Enabling versus Persuasive). I’ll have to give that one some more thought. I think I may have stumbled across the same thing by simply learning to focus on a primary objective…not sure, yet…

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Hi Joe, I’m telling ya, it makes ALL the difference.
      They tell us to pick one of two “ugly sentences” – You can pretty it up once you have the outline.

      Michael Hyatt writes about it here:

      It sounds easy in theory, but doing it with the help of a coach was really powerful.

      Now every time I write, I sit down and write out my ugly sentence:
      All people can___by ___
      All people should because_____

      It really does narrow in your talk or essay and keeps you from meandering all over the place.

  6. Lucille,
    While I’ve transitioned from focusing on nonfiction to fiction, I do still write nonfiction articles. I greatly appreciated your post because I still speak to groups on occasion. I just may attend Ken Davis’s workshop in Vail, CO next year.

  7. Lucille, what a great post! This has provided me some clarity on my current non-fiction WIP. I tend to believe that we can have both, but keeping those two questions at the forefront certainly helps crystalize my thoughts. Thanks!!

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