Tenors. Magi. Bears.
Fates. Virtues. Graces.
Snap. Crackle. Pop.
There is something magical about the number three, which permeates writing just as much as anything else. This is perhaps why we have three-act plays; a beginning, middle, and end for stories; and sayings that come in three parts – from Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)” to Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Next time you review your favorite nonfiction books, look to see how many of them are written with three sections. Examples from my own library include: Daniel Pink’s Drive; Blue Ocean Strategy by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne; neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain; Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port; and Alan Weiss’ mega-bestseller Million Dollar Consulting.
For serial entrepreneur, Trevor Blake, the decision to structure his book this way is immediately apparent from the title: Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella Books, Inc., 2012). Part One: Escaping the Quicksand offers three chapters (there it is again!) on how to “reclaim your mentality” by focusing your thoughts more on what you want than what you are against. Part Two: Staying Out of the Quicksand – again, three chapters – offers one simple yet timeless and universally applied (at least by extremely successful folks like Henry Ford and George Washington Carver) technique for creating more winning ideas. And Part Three: Beyond the Quicksand articulates how to transform those ideas into achievements.
Written in the style of many of the truly great “self-help” authors of the early 20th century, Blake’s book is as much a memoir as anything – one you would advised to put on your reading list above books written by people whose only claim to fame and source of wealth has come from writing – well, self-help books. Contrast that with Blake who, like so many successful entrepreneurs, came from nothing to create businesses that were eventually sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. As the back cover blurb by Drew A. Graham, managing partner of Ballast Point Ventures states: “Finally, a book about how to succeed by an author who has actually achieved something before writing about it!” Not only that, I found Three Simple Steps to be a compelling read.
But back to the theme of this post: how to structure your nonfiction book. Oftentimes the biggest issue I see with manuscripts has to do with the way the author has organized their material – or, rather, not. Typically these books read like streams of consciousness with no discernible structure.
If you know what you want to write about but have no earthly idea how to set it out in a book, consider what I describe to my clients as The Power of Three. Of course, it’s easy if – like Trevor Blake – you have a three-part process to describe. But what if you don’t? Let’s go back to some of the other examples I gave earlier.
Take Blue Ocean Strategy. Part one outlines the philosophy and explains what it means to create a “blue ocean”; part two clarifies the strategy behind the concept; and part three explains how to execute it. Alan Weiss’s Million Dollar Consulting, on the other hand, begins by identifying what you need to do to prepare to be a million dollar consultant, then goes on to the tactics you would need to employ, and dedicates the final part of the book to ways to grow into the role.
One final example: Daniel Pink’s Drive first considers why we need to look at motivation in a different light; secondly he looks at what are the three elements of “Type 1” motivation; and thirdly shows you how to implement what you learn in his book.
So, even if you don’t find yourself with a neat “three-act play” as Trevor Blake did with Three Simple Steps, you can still find a way to make this structure work for your book. Part one might offer the philosophy behind your concept, why it’s important, or some foundational issues for the reader to consider. Part two could lay out the strategies for success and what planning needs to be put in place to use the book’s material successfully. Part three would then offer “how tos” or tactics to employ to help the reader successfully implement that learning for themselves.
What favorite book of yours is structured this way? Please let me know in the comments below. And for more about this topic, I invite you to go to Episode 6 of my audio series.
—Liz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website