Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I often think that the great secret of nonfiction is structure. That is, no book, no series of books, no ten-part documentary with accompanying website could possibly say all that there is to say about any nonfiction topic. Thus each time an author sets out to write he or she must select how much to discuss and, most crucially, in which order. This fall I am teaching an graduate class in Nonfiction and the Common Core for future K-12 librarians. I think I will devote an entire week to looking at the Table of Contents in many books. The TOC is the spine, the skeleton, on which every word in the book rests and it is entirely a result of choices -- of artistry.

Think of the author's options: in a book about history, s/he can go in chronological sequence. That has the appeal of following a seemingly natural and utterly familiar flow.Yet chronology is not self-evident: what is the pace of events: by date, by event, by theme? And what if, to set up or explain the next beat the author needs to cut away to a distant time or place? Is that best accomplished with a sidebar? With an earlier foreshadowing chapter? Through before and after contrast within the chapter? Through images and captions and maps? When is the march forward of the calendar too much of a snail's pace as against the larger goals and themes of the book -- which expand out from daily events to panoramic vistas and broad conclusions? And all of these questions come only within a chronological structure. What if the author comes to realize that chronology might be best confined to timelines within the book, while the real driving force of the book is thematic questions, or vivid personalities?

What if, when we shared a nonfiction book with students, we first looked at the TOC and tried a thought experiment: how else could this have been organized? What beats might the story have featured? What would have been gained or lost with a different structure? Then, ask them to take some familiar nonfiction subject -- anything from grand events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence to some event or result that was in the news that day -- and craft two different TOCs to retell it. And here is the kicker: the TOC needs to be linked to the intended reader.

A TOC splits a subject by space. That is, each chapter is so many pages, with this many headings, subheadings, and images. Multiply chapters by pages and you have the full length of the book (setting aside yet more real estate for front and backmatter such as the TOC itself in front and glossary, notes, bibliography, index, etc. in back). Clearly a TOC for a 48 page elementary age book needs to be different from a TOC for a 256 page study.

Analyze the subject to find the most compelling sequence of subjects. Figure out how to move through that sequence within the limitations of space. That is the secret key to creating -- and understanding -- nonfiction.


  1. Here's a question I discussed in the past with author Penny Colman. What if an author wrote about the same topic in two of three different ways? What a useful book that would be!

    1. i did that in the opening chapters of Master of Deceit, and Susan C. Bartoletti and I are working on a proposal that is somewhat similar.

  2. This is precisely what Lucy Calkins and Colleen Cruz teach students to do at grade 3 in the Unit of Study program from the Teacher's College Readers Writers Project. They encourage students to play around with different TOCs and different structures. Does a compare/contrast structure or a cause/effect structure do a better job of conveying the what the young writer hopes to achieve? How would the presentation change if the writer switched to a Q & A structure? Structure really is one of the key tools nonfiction writers have in their toolboxes.