Present Information in a Useful Order

The nonfiction equivalent to plot and structure is Presentation and Flow. The events of your story, or the information in prescriptive nonfiction, should be like links in a chain—connected and in the right order.

If you haven’t already, get the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist

As much as possible, present events in the order in which they happened. I once had a client* who wrote a scene about his kids before he had introduced his wife. He had written in the order in which things occurred to him rather than the order in which they happened. This is fine when you are drafting, but in editing, we sort things out so we meet the wife first, and then the kids.

Scrivener is a great tool if you need to rearrange things. Normally I work with clients in Microsoft Word, but when I need to move a bunch of things around, I pull it into Scrivener, which makes this kind of movement much easier. Highly recommended for all writers.

Information flows cleanly from one idea to the next.

Provide transitions and segues to avoid leaving the reader feeling bounced around. In expository writing, subheads can help. These also aid readability and in reference books they allow readers to easily find what they’re looking for.

story orderIn narrative, use scene breaks. That is, hit return twice, put three asterisks on a line by themselves, and then return twice again. You can see this on the manuscript formatting guide. This break indicates a shift in viewpoint, place, or time. Or any combination thereof.

Show the cause and effect relationships—how each thing happens because of the thing that went before. This is what I call the story chain, and it’s as important to narrative nonfiction as to fiction.

Your “plot,” as it were, may be a series of life events, in which case you will want to look for a common thread or theme to unite them. You may need to omit those that don’t support the point you are trying to make. If the theme of your memoir is coping with adversity, then you can leave out occasions that didn’t have to do with adversity.

In informational texts, show how concepts are linked or related.

If you’re an expert in your field, you may leap from Point A to Point G, leaving your rookie readers in the dust. They need you to walk them through all five of the intervening steps. If your book will be read by newcomers to the field, include basic information for their benefit.

For example, above I didn’t assume that you know what’s meant by “scene break.” I describe exactly what that looks like.

The information and organization enhance the story.

The information you include needs to be the information the reader wants. It must be integral to the story or point of the book, and not distract from it. The history of the Social Security Administration might be relevant to a discussion of Social Security reforms, but not to a discussion of great cities for retirees to live in.

It can be tempting, when we’ve had an eventful life or have done extensive research, to put in everything. But consider whether you’ve included information that’s extraneous (especially a hazard for memoirists) or whether you’ve omitted information that’s needed.

Concepts are presented in an order that will be helpful to the reader

Information should be presented in the order in which the reader expects to receive it.

For example, I worked on a book about construction in which the author had—almost as an afterthought—included audiovisual needs in the last chapter. That is, after discussing the final walkthrough and punch list. We moved that chapter up to right after the chapter about electrical and lighting, where it fit better.

Simple concepts should precede complex ones. Steps should be listed in the order a person is most likely to do them. And in narrative, although some literary writers like to play around with chronology, most writers stick to a linear timeline to avoid confusing the reader.


* — Once again, details have been munged for client privacy.

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