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Book Writing Tips for Nonfiction: Avoiding the Expressway Syndrome

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

What is the expressway syndrome?

What is 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 the right-hand page, and the reverse is blank. The first chapter in the new section starts on the right-hand page.

Example of a section divider page in a nonfiction book.

Example of a section divider page in a nonfiction book.

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.

Example of a nonfiction Table of Contents showing a book chapter divided into subheadings.

Example of a nonfiction Table of Contents showing a book chapter divided into subheadings.

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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 26, 2018:

Hi Laura! Glad you found it helpful. Good luck with the essays and let us know if you publish them!

Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on June 25, 2018:

Really good suggestions. I'm starting to write essays, and if I ever decide to put them all together into a book, these tips will help to organize them.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 14, 2018:

You're welcome, Dianna! Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 14, 2018:

Natalie, it really depends. Many times, my books are often based on blog posts. So I'm not starting from scratch.

But for a short book (about 10K words) that I did do from just some notes, it took a few weeks to finalize.

It really depends on length of the intended book, if any work has been done on it, and the writing experience of the author. I've heard of some taking months or even years.

Wish I had more data on that. Might be a good question for a survey! :) Thanks for chiming in and have a great week!

Dianna Mendez on May 11, 2018:

Thank you for sharing this excellent advice for writing with confidence.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on May 09, 2018:

I'm just curious - how long does it take you to write a nonfiction book - I'm sure the answer is it depends on the topic and length but do you have a ball park estimate? Thanks

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 09, 2018:

Hi Natalie! Just take that nonfiction book one step at a time to avoid the overwhelm. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with the book!

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on May 08, 2018:

Very useful article. I haven't written a non-fiction book at this point but am getting closer to the possibility. Every time I start to think about it though I get a bit overwhelmed. This information has helped me think it is an option. Thanks again for a well-written article.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 24, 2018:

Hi Dora! Glad you found it helpful. Sadly, yes, it is a topic a know a bit about. :) Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a beautiful day!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 24, 2018:

Great information. Very helpful and thoughtful. Tank you for sharing on a topic you obviously know well.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, Liz! Glad you found it helpful. Have a great day!

Liz Westwood from UK on April 24, 2018:

There are a lot of helpful tips and ideas in this article, which makes a lot of sense.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 24, 2018:

You're welcome, Linda! As I think them myself, I'm sharing them. Have a beautiful day!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 23, 2018:

Your articles always contain new and useful things for me to think about. Thanks, Heidi.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Hi Larry! Thanks for wandering by. Hope all is good with you. Have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Nicole, you have so many topics you could write a nonfiction book about, that I think the biggest thing for you would be deciding on which one to do first! :) Thanks so much for stopping by and have a blessed week ahead!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Hi Carrie Lee! So true. It is challenging to organize one's thoughts, especially when we have so many ideas we want to share. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Hey, Bill, sorry you don't have time for your fiction adventures these days. But when the weather's calling, you need to heed the call! Enjoy the spring and rest assured that winter will be back before you know it.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Flourish, it sure does! I think we've all encountered the "road to nowhere" fiction books that we're just glad when they end. :) Thanks for highlighting that point. Have a lovely week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 23, 2018:

Mary, ugh! When you have to compile the works of several authors, it is ALWAYS challenging. I don't envy you. The "herding cats" thing comes to mind for me. :) And, yes, having an outside editor who isn't personally invested in the work can be helpful in getting it organized and on track.

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with this issue! Have a great week!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 23, 2018:

Great tips!

Kitty Fields from Summerland on April 23, 2018:

Awesome tips!!!! Timely for me as I am being inspired to start a non-fiction book soon.

Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on April 23, 2018:

Very informative hub. It is a challenge to organize thoughts . Thank you for sharing

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 23, 2018:

I don't see myself ever doing another non-fiction, but thanks for the information and suggestions. I can't even find time to do fiction...sigh...and now the weather is gorgeous and I'm screwed! lol Enjoy your week!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 22, 2018:

This is fabulous and certainly applies to fiction books as well. A little planning goes a long way.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 22, 2018:

These suggestions are very useful. I have experienced meandering when putting together into a final report some of the reports of different consultants all wanting to highlight their own expertise. Sometimes, we have to engage an editor as it becomes too confusing.