You hear all kinds of slogans at writer conferences. “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” “You learn how to write by rewriting.”
Those are typically understood. But one that puzzled me was “Study the form.” So I figured out how to do that. Often writers say, “Just get it down on paper.” However, when we understand writing form, we can write more efficiently.
Here is a process I use:
- Find a “mentor” book (or article, devotion, Bible study etc.). For example, if you want to write a Christian living book, find one written by someone else that you believe is a standout—in terms of content and structure. It can inform you about how to structure your own book.
- Study the title and subtitle. Typically, a title is short and catchy, and the subtitle offers significant promise to the reader.
- Study the table of contents.
- Are there sections for the chapters? How are those sections titled? Do you see a thematic thread? What is that thread? Would sections work for your book? If so, what could those sections be titled, and what kind of thematic thread could you create?
- How are the chapters titled? Do you see a pattern? Is the tone serious or clever or even funny? How do the chapter titles evolve from a problem through a process to that promise that the title/subtitle offers? Nonfiction books guide the reader from a pain point through a problem-solving process.
- Is there extra material—a dedication foreword, introduction, study guide, appendices? How might you include that extra content?
- Do the “word math,” which can help you pace your book. Here’s a counting process:
- How many chapters are there? As you’re planning your book, keep in mind that chapters are running shorter as people’s attention span shortens.
- How many words are in a chapter? Two methods can help. One is to count the words in a couple chapters of your mentor book—then figure the word count for the overall book is. Another method is to divide the projected word count for your own book by the number of chapters you’ve already titled. For example, if my proposed Christian living book is 48,000 words with 16 chapters, each chapter will be about 3,000 words (counting the chapter’s study questions, end notes, and other possible special features).
- How many sections do you find in a typical chapter? Three headings lend themselves to three major process pieces for a chapter—just as your pastor may have a three-point sermon. You can think of chapters as four writing chunks: the anecdote and then three teaching pieces.
- How many words are in each of those sections? You can count them or do simple division to figure out a sense of pacing.
- Notice how the writer develops thematic content for each chapter. Instead of noticing what the writer is SAYING, examine what the writer is DOING.
- What is the balance between personal anecdote and teaching content? In Christian living books there should be a balance of about one-third personal anecdote to two-thirds teaching content. We owe the reader the hard work of teaching what God’s Word says about our subject.
- How does the writer develop an ebb and flow of paragraphs, sentences, and sentence transitions? Notice the following:
- How does the writer offer an idea (a teaching concept, an argument)?
- How is that idea explained?
- How is scripture introduced and explained?
- How are examples drawn in?
- How are those examples tied to the original idea?
- In other words, how are good paragraphs written and tied together? Liz Heaney, my editor for four of my books on prayer (also Max Lucado’s editor), taught me to explain what something means. We don’t just plop scripture into text and make the reader figure out its context or application. We explain what it means. And then we challenge ourselves to offer another way to look at the concept by bringing in additional ideas. These can certainly be others’ ideas (with complete citations) and quotes and analogies, but it’s our responsibility not to make a book a research paper. We want to create original ideas that sync soundly with the biblical text.
While I’ve used the example of a Christian living book, you can also apply this same kind of analysis to other genres, including fiction. Pick up your new favorite novel. Notice how the writer offers action, dialogue, internal dialogue, and description. You can use colored markers to distinguish between the different kinds of language in a chapter.
Noticing what a writer is DOING helps us understand what it means to study the form and then apply it as we try something new.
Question: What book has helped you the most with giving you an outstanding model of how to structure your own writing project?
About Janet McHenry
Janet McHenry is the author of 25 traditionally published books—eight on prayer, including the bestselling PrayerWalk and The Complete Guide to the Prayers of Jesus. The creator of an online Teachable course called Prayer School, she is also a speaker, writing coach, and the host of the Sierra Valley Writers Retreat. The community manager for the She Writes for Him Tribe, Janet weekly teaches writers and loves watching lightbulbs go on! She and her husband Craig have lived in the Sierra Valley for the last forty years, where he is a rancher and where they raised their four kids. She offers a free e-book called Prayer Helps on her website, where you can contact her and follow her social media links: www.janetmchenry.com.