Book Writing Tips for Nonfiction: Avoiding the Expressway Syndrome
The Expressway Syndrome When Writing Nonfiction Books
In reviewing many authors’ book manuscripts, one of the issues I frequently encounter is the expressway syndrome.
Like the nondescript miles of asphalt on today’s expressways, these books drone on, chapter after chapter after chapter. No turnoffs, no rest stops, no signals that tell readers where they are and how the trip is progressing.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with writing a book this way. But I think a more reader-friendly approach to structuring a nonfiction work is to break it up into logical and topical sections. (Even fiction novels can benefit from this by thinking of the book as a play in acts.)
Breaking Up a Nonfiction Book Into Sections
When I read nonfiction books organized into sections, it’s much easier for me to digest and mentally absorb or process the information I’ve just consumed. For example, if it’s a how-to nonfiction book:
- Section 1: Chapters with background information or basic principles.
- Section 2: Chapters with specific instructions.
- Section 3: Back matter with resources for expanded learning or suggestions for next steps beyond the book.
Giving the Reader Visual Cues with Divider Pages
Each section should have a divider page that visually signals to the reader that new information or a shift in focus is ahead. The divider page has the section title on a right hand page, and the reverse of it is blank. The first chapter in the new section starts on a right hand page.
Nonfiction Book Detours
One of the other problems I’ve observed with nonfiction books that are a fire hose of chapters is that the chapters are often out of sequence in terms of idea development and presentation. The book was written chapter by chapter and, as the chapters got done, they were added to the book regardless of sequence or relevance.
I believe this is prevalent in nonfiction books because authors are usually experts in their field. As they dig into the book writing process, they keep thinking of more points they want to address in the book. So they keep adding chapters as these random inspirations occur.
Unfortunately, each inspired impromptu chapter takes them and their readers on a variety of off-topic detours. Because these books try to discuss every possible point, the word count soars, creating a never-ending journey that never comes to a satisfying end for both the author and the reader.
When I wield my editor’s red pen like a machete with these meandering manuscripts, cutting away chunks of chapters as I work my way through the mass (or mess), it can be disheartening for authors. Sorry, authors! I’m just trying to clear the road for you and your readers.
Subheading Signposts Within Chapters
Within a chapter itself, never ending stretches of text are more acceptable in fiction since the story moves the reader along.
But in nonfiction—which might include explanations, step-by-step instructions, or build arguments for a particular point—droning on and on can bury key information that would be difficult for a reader to identify on the first read. And if the reader wants to go back to a particular point at some time in the future, it may be difficult to find it in a sea of text.
Breaking up the chapters themselves into logical, topical chunks, broken up visually and topically with subheading signposts, can improve the user experience for the reader. Including these subheadings in the Table of Contents for the book can help readers revisit passages of interest later on.
Putting visual emphasis on key points, such as with bold or italic text, can also help readers focus.
Helps Authors Avoid Writer’s Block, Too
Breaking a book into sections helps the writer, too, since it naturally provides an outline. Writers taking the expressway approach to writing, simply write on and on and on, feeling that they have to start at the beginning and muscle on through to “The End.” Then they wonder why they’re exhausted or get a bad case of writer’s block.
Breaking a book’s plan into sections can provide a way to focus on those sections where inspiration is coming easily for that particular day. Then the writer can circle back to those roadblocks and tackle them when better prepared mentally.
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© 2018 Heidi Thorne