How to Use a Book Map

If you’ve read the last few posts, you may have decided to make a book map of your current project, whether it’s in progress or in editing. Great! But once you’ve built a book map, what do you do with it?

You use it to examine the structure of your book and see whether it shows any anomalies or holes.


In an informational nonfiction book with multiple elements, the book map can be used to ensure everything is in place.

Nonfiction book map

I built this book map for a small group study I edited for a client. (For my clients’ privacy, I’ve removed the distinguishing information from these sample book maps.) The chapters were originally handouts the author made for her own small group. The publisher had several concerns: epigraphs, exercises, and permissions.

The book map verified that the epigraphs were consistent. There are two per chapter, which is unusual, but that’s the way the author wrote it so the publisher was OK with that. The introduction and conclusion don’t have epigraphs, but the publisher decided that didn’t matter. If only one of them had an epigraph, we probably would have edited so that the introduction and conclusion matched each other, even if they didn’t match the chapters.

The number of exercises per chapter was fairly consistent, but the book map did reveal an anomaly: One chapter had far more exercises than the others. After discussion, the publisher chose to leave it, but he could also have asked the author to revise. The map showed what was going on so he could make an informed decision.

The book map highlighted the four elements of the book that needed permissions. The author secured reprint permissions for three of them. The fourth had to be cut and totally rewritten from our own research.

One thing I was taught to check for—both in fiction and nonfiction—is chapter length. How long your chapters are may vary by your style and genre, but it’s a best practice to keep them about the same length, give or take five pages.

Chapter length map

In this case, the book map showed that one chapter was longer than average, and another was far shorter. We decided to beef up the shorter one, but the lengthy one had a topic that warranted the higher page count, so we let it go. I also used the book map to call out to the author that one of the chapter titles was a little too vague.

The Mechanics of Chapterization

Note that I use a formula in Excel to calculate the average chapter length. I take that number and then use conditional formatting to highlight the chapters that are more than five pages greater or less than that number.

Next time we’ll look at applying book maps in fiction.

How to Make a Visual Book Map

Last time I wrote about how to use Excel to create a book map. My friend and editor Travis Perry once declared spreadsheets to be “antithetical to coherent communication,” and maybe you feel the same way, in which case a graphic representation may work better for you.

Especially for people who learn visually better than verbally, a diagram like Gustav Freytag’s pyramid structure can provide a framework. On the “Rising Action” part of the structure, you would list your major turning points from bottom to top, with the inciting incident at the bottom and the turning points above it.

Because of concerns about permissions I hesitate to share some of the better plot graphs that are floating about the interwebs. But do a search on Google Images or Pinterest for “plot chart template,” and you’ll find an abundance of inspiration.

Of course, this kind of chart works best if your plot follows Freytag’s plan or the hero’s journey. If you have a less structured plot, you may need something more like a mind map or flow chart. In that case you may want to draw your plot map freehand on a poster board or butcher paper.

A mind map starts with a central idea and spreads outward circularly, possibly in multiple unrelated directions. A flow chart is more like tree roots, starting at the top and branching downward (or left and right) as decisions are made. If drawing is not for you, there are apps that can help you with either:

Lifehacker: Five Best Mind Mapping Tools

Tech Republic: Five Flow Charting Applications

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you may prefer something hands-on instead of digital. There are plenty of options. You can stick Post-it notes on a wall, pin 3 x 5 cards to a bulletin board, write on a white board … anything you can use to get ideas out of your head and into the world where you can manipulate them and see them all at once can work.

For more ideas about how to make all sorts of book maps, have a look at  Heidi Fiedler’s Pinterest board Book Mapping Like An Editor. She includes examples of all the ideas mentioned above, and a few more besides.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler's Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler’s Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Your book map can be, and should be, as unique as you and the story you are writing.

How to Make a Text-Based Book Map

There are lots of ways to build a book map, and once I describe my method, you may think of better ones. Whatever works for you will be the method to use. You can write your book map on paper as J.K. Rowling did, or you can get a little more technical with it.

Remember that the first step in editing is to do a fast read-through. When working on client manuscripts, I often build the book map during the read-though, but sometimes I wait until I’m done. Some manuscripts don’t need a map because all the major pieces are in place, or there are only one or two that need fixing. Other times, I start building the book map at the first sign of trouble. If I come into a project knowing that it will require restructuring, I will build the book map right away.

When I made my first book map, I didn’t realize I was doing that. It was basically a scene list in Excel, with columns for each character and subplot.

My scene list for Hope and Pride.

My scene list (or book map) for Hope and Pride. I don’t chapterize until I’ve finished editing, so it shows scene numbers instead of chapters. The ticks in the columns on the left show which subplots the scene affects.

I first learned the term “book map” from Heidi Fiedler, who teaches book mapping for the Editorial Freelancers Association. Her course Book Mapping for Developmental Editors will be offered again in October. Heidi recommends Excel because you can make the fields as big as you need them to be. For example, where there’s a long scene with a lot going on I can expand the description.

When the timeline for Hope and Pride got too complicated, I copied the scenes onto a calendar.

When the timeline for Hope and Pride got too complicated, I copied the scenes onto a calendar. This book was written before I started using Scrivener.

Calendars make excellent book maps, especially if you have a story where timing is critical. Vertex 42 has an abundance of free Excel templates in calendar form. You can set the date to almost any year, which is handy for historical fiction and science fiction. Not only do the dates update, but the holidays do, also, which helps you ensure, for example, that your characters in 1898 are celebrating Easter in the right month.

Apps that Map

Scrivener has two display options that qualify as book maps. The main view shows the manuscript and all its parts. The sidebar is more an outline than a map, but it’s still a visual representation of the contents.

I don’t normally use Scrivener for client manuscripts, though the one time I did, it was because major structural revisions were needed, and Scrivener’s mapping and editing tools made worlds easier than if I had done the job in Word.

But if you’re already using Scrivener, then congratulations—you have two book maps readily at hand.

The cork board view of my novella “Flight.” The scene list is in the left column, the cards in the middle represent each scene, and the fields on the right can be used to add whatever data you want about each scene.

The cork board view of my novella “Flight.” The scene list is in the left column, the cards in the middle represent each scene, and the fields on the right can be used to add whatever data you want about each scene.

Scrivener’s cork board view replicates that index-cards-on-the-wall method of working that Vince Gilligan described in his description of storybreaking. One of the things that makes Scrivener so powerful is that you can drag the cards around to change the scene order. Of course, you could do this with actual index cards also, if you have a big enough cork board. But then you’d have to edit your manuscript by hand.

Flight outline view

Outline view of “Flight.” Columns can be customized to show the data you want to see.

Scrivener’s misnamed outline view is far more powerful than an ordinary linear outline, because you can edit the columns to include whatever information you want to include, such as timelines or subplots. This is very similar to the Excel map, except that if you drag your scenes in the cork board view or in the sidebar to change the order, the Scrivener outline automatically updates accordingly.

Yes, I am a mad fan of Scrivener. I use it for all of my long-form writing.


If you don’t want to shell out bucks for Scrivener and face its massive learning curve, try Hiveword. This web-based app offers similar features: a scene sorter that uses boxes like index cards to help you arrange your scenes, and a scene list that gives information about each scene. It’s not powerful as Scrivener, but it gets the job done. The free version includes most of the features you need, but there’s a paid version that includes some upgrades.

Next time, we’ll look at mapping options that are graphical rather than text-based.

Use Book Mapping to Examine Structure

A book map is a visual representation of a book’s contents. This allows for easy analysis of elements and can reveal gaps in the content of a nonfiction book or the storyline of a novel. You may have used a book map without even realizing that’s what you were doing. It’s really just a visual way of rendering an outline. You may also have heard book maps called story grids or plot charts. Anything more complex than a simple outline could be called a book map.

There are many different ways to map a book, and I think often writers find them by accident, just out of the necessity of keeping track of a complex work. I know that was the case for me.


Click for large version.

The world’s most famous book map is probably J.K. Rowling’s book map for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was shared in a workshop by Scholastic Books Editor Cheryl Klein, the continuity editor for the series in the US.

If you open Rowling’s chart in a large window, you can see that she has chapter numbers down the leftmost column, and then next to that her timeline, showing the month in which that chapter takes place. In addition to a description of the contents of the chapter, she has columns for the various characters and themes that are critical to the story. This is just the map for Chapters 13–24 of one book in a seven-book series. So Rowling must have had dozens of these, in addition to her other notes and research materials.

When to Use a Book Map

Like outlining, book mapping can be done at the creative stage, to help you plan. But I tend to use them when editing. In other words, I write from an outline, but I edit from a map.

With client books, I often map out the contents while I’m editing so I can ensure that everything is as it should be. If it’s not, the book map helps me show the client what the problem is and how to solve it.

A table-of-contents style outline works well for most informational nonfiction, but sometimes we need more detail than an outline can provide. A book map can show when necessary elements are missing.

In book-length fiction and narrative nonfiction, we may detect an imbalance, such as too much time being spent on one subplot and not enough on another. The book map will reveal these kinds of problems. A linear outline will almost always be insufficient in these cases because of the number of characters and subplots to keep track of. A book map can track multiple plot lines more effectively than a linear outline.

Consider using a book map in these circumstances:

  • When chapters contain multiple elements to keep track of
  • When you need to quantify imbalances in a story or in the treatment of a topic
  • When a linear outline is insufficient

In future posts, I’ll explain some of the different ways of making a book map, and what to do with it once you have one.

Use Storybreaking to Edit Your Novel

One of the hardest things about editing your book is keeping all of the information straight and in the right order. That’s one reason I advocate for outlining. A plain outline doesn’t suit everyone during the drafting process, but once we reach the editing phase, having a visual depiction of the story will help us edit more efficiently.

One technique that’s not often taught to novel writers is storybreaking, which is a screenwriting technique. Screenwriter Vik Rubenfeld calls storybreaking “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of.”

When Rubenfeld wrote his article, he expressed surprise that more writers don’t know this technique. He linked to this interview with Vince Gilligan, a screenwriter for The X-Files and one of the creators of Breaking Bad.

If you click through to Rubenfeld’s article, he has a transcript of Gilligan’s comments.

Storybreaking involves identifying each turning point within a narrative. This ensures that we hit all the points we need to and omit those that are not moving the story forward. In Hollywood, this is done at the creation stage, but we can also use it during our editing.

The key point Gilligan makes is that each plot beat the writers identify is indispensable to the scene. He explains that they might spend a week or two on this process for each episode, which might only be a 45-page screenplay. So you might not want to use this technique for an entire book. But if on reading through your first draft you identify weak scenes, storybreaking can be useful for working out what those scenes need to make them indispensable.

Storybreaking can be used in two directions. First, you can use it to figure out, from where the hero is now, what happens next? How does he get from Point A to Point B? Second, you can use it to reverse-engineer the desired ending. If he finishes at Point Z, what were Points Y and X?

Storybreaking can also be used to fill in gaps in a narrative that moves too fast or that loses readers because important information has been skipped over. For example, you might have a first draft in which the hero uses a rocket-propelled grenade to destroy the villain’s private jet. That’s a spectacular climax, but if you haven’t shown how the hero gets access to an RPG, storybreaking can help you figure out how to plant everything that’s needed for your climax.

When to Reject Your Editor

Last time I mentioned that when working in Track Changes with an editor, you should accept most, if not all, of the editor’s changes. It should go without saying, but listen to what your editor has to say.

Yes, there are bad editors who will try to impose their voice and vision over your own. And some editors have a tin ear—a writer at a conference once told me her copyeditor had replaced every gonna and coulda with going to and could have. When faced with those kinds of changes, reject away, kiddo.

At a conference last year, I heard Orson Scott Card say he had once received a manuscript back from a copyeditor who was apparently unfamiliar with science fiction and had therefore made hundreds of changes that ruined his story. The damage was so severe that he sent a copy of his original back to the acquiring editor and demanded a new copyeditor, because the first had fouled up the manuscript so badly that the job had to be started over.

Bad editing does happen. If you don’t trust your editor to give you good advice, then you need a new editor.

editor rejection

Illustration © tumsasedgars • Fotolia

But most editors I know—and I know a lot of editors specializing in multiple topic areas—have your best interests and those of your readers in mind. They will only make changes that make your text more clear and readable. So keep an open heart and mind as you review your editor’s changes to your manuscript. Those changes are most likely there not for the editor’s self-aggrandizement, but so you can deliver a better book to your readers.

Too often editors encounter writers who refuse to make recommended changes. In one recent case, a colleague asked how to handle a client whose narrative was disjointed but who refused the editor’s advice for restructuring the plot on the grounds that beta readers had not seen any such problems.

We acknowledged that the story belongs to the author, who therefore bears final responsibility for the quality of the finished product. We can’t force the writer to make changes.

But if you are paying an editor to advise you and then you reject the advice, what are you paying for?

Beta readers, while very helpful, are not trained editors, so they can miss things editors will see. Also, a beta reader may feel that something in the manuscript is lacking, but they will not have the knowledge to figure out what it is or why is a problem. They may not have the vocabulary to describe the problem in a meaningful way. So they won’t bring it up at all, since they can’t explain themselves.

When your editor suggests a well-reasoned change, consider it carefully, at least a little while. Play out in your mind the ramifications of that change. You may decide that implementing the suggestion would change your story or its presentation in ways that are not acceptable to you. If you can articulate to your editor a compelling reason why you’ve chosen to refuse a particular suggestion, that’s fine.

For example, my client Shirin Humzani, in her book The Education of Amal, chose not to say where the story was set. When I recommended she specify at least a region, if not a city, she explained that she wanted the story to appeal to people from either eastern Pakistan or western India. So she deliberately left the setting vague. That was a valid reason for making her artistic choice.

But the writer who rejected her editor’s restructuring advice is refusing professional guidance in favor of amateur opinion. The most likely explanation for such a refusal is that the author is not willing to do the hard work of restructuring, so instead of following her editor’s recommendation, she is falling back on her beta readers to rationalize her decision.

When you’re deciding whether to reject an editor’s advice, your primary consideration should not be how the choice will affect your workload or your ego. Your primary consideration should be what will produce a book that will be most engaging for readers.


Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase Shirin’s book, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Editing Your Book with Track Changes

When you work with an editor on your book, you will probably use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. This can be a little daunting if you’ve never used it before, especially when you get a file back with more red on it than Sweeney Todd’s apron.

First, don’t panic. Remember your editor is there to help you, and those red marks are meant to be instructive, not destructive.

Schedule a time when you can go through your manuscript slowly. If there‘s a change you don’t understand, feel free to ask. For example, one client asked why I had replaced e-mail with e‑mail, since she had in fact hyphenated it. I explained that I had replaced the regular hyphen with a nonbreaking hyphen so that if the word fell at the end of a line, the e‑ wouldn’t be stranded by itself.

Reject or change the edits you don’t like, and leave the ones you approve of. You should have many more approvals than rejections—like, 20 to 1. If you are rejecting more than 5 percent of your editor’s suggestions, there’s a bigger problem to address than how to use Track Changes. More on that next time.

Using Word Track Changes

Save time by accepting all changes at once.

If you’re sending your manuscript back to the editor for a second pass, leave the Tracked Changes and comments in place. That lets them see everything you’ve done in context with their original edit. Often if we’ve worked on other manuscripts since the last time we saw yours, we may not remember what the original text said, what changes we made, or what we asked you to fix. So leaving all those changes and notes gives us the background we need to assess your latest revision.

Once you and your editor agree that the editing is finished and you’re ready to submit the manuscript to agents and editors (or to send to a typesetter or Kindle converter), you can use the Accept All Changes command to clear all the approved edits at once. You’ll find this command in Ribbon’s Review tab, under the pull-down menu of the Accept button.

You’ll also need to delete all the comments from the manuscript. This command is also in the Review tab, under Comments. There’s a New button to create a new comment, and a Delete button for deleting comments once you’ve addressed whatever issue they brought up. The Delete button also has a drop-down menu, where you’ll find the Delete all Comments command.

Note that my screen shot is from Word for Mac 2011. Microsoft seems to delight in moving commands around from one version to the next and from one platform to the other, so that no two versions of any Office app are entirely the same. So use a bit of Google-fu to get what you need. Start your search terms with your operating system, then your version of Word, then the thing you’re trying to find. I might, for example, search for Mac Word 2011 nonbreaking hyphen. Hypothetically.

Microsoft Word is often accused of feature bloat, and it does contain myriad functions some of us will never use. But its powerful change tracking and commenting features are the main reason it is still the standard software for writing and editing books. If you plan a career as a writer, you’ll do well to take advantage of these features.


Let me know if further teaching on this would interest you. I’m thinking a screencast may be called for. What do you think?