by Vinnie Kinsella, Collaborative Designer and Vinnie KinsellaPublications Consultant

When you walk into a building for the first time, what do you notice? Is it the art on the walls or the fact that some walls are load bearing and others aren’t? If you’re like most people, you notice the art first and the structure second (if at all). Similarly, when you thumb through the pages of a book for the first time, you most likely notice things such as chapter titles and illustrations before noticing the structure that undergirds them, unless something is odd about it.

When you’re the author, though, knowing your book’s structure sets you up for both better revision work and a more visually engaging final product. In the writing process, it’s a good idea for you to step back from focusing on the individual words you are writing to look at your book’s overall structure. Here are two tips on how to do that.

Do a Reverse Outline
A lot of writers outline their books before they start writing and then quickly deviate from the outline once the writing is in progress. There’s nothing wrong with that. Rigidly forcing yourself to follow an outline can stifle your creativity and lead to stilted writing, so by all means, let yourself be free.

When it comes time to revise your writing, though, it helps to do a reverse outline to see if you’ve gotten off track anywhere. For example, here’s a comparison of what one author might have intended to write and what he actually wrote:

Original Outline

  • Why I like bunnies
    • They are furry
    • They hop
    • They have floppy ears
    • They have fun little noses

Reverse Outline

  • Why I like bunnies
    • They hop
    • They make great cartoon characters
      • Bugs Bunny is the funniest bunny character
      • Roger Rabbit is quite funny too
    • They have fun little noses
    • They are furry

When you do a reverse outline, you can quickly see where you might have compromised the structure of your writing by going down a rabbit trail (pun totally intended here). This makes it easier for you to look at your writing and know that some sections just don’t need to be there. That’s a huge revision aid! It also helps you to spot places where you’ve introduced inconsistency in your structure, which aids with the book’s design.

Strive for Consistency in Similar Elements
If every chapter of your book has a three-word title except for one that has seven, that seven-word chapter title becomes the most important one during the design phase of your book. Why? Because design is limited by the variables in your structure.

When a designer receives a manuscript, one of the first things he or she does is to look for deviations in the structure and plan around those. When there are no deviations, your designer has more room to play. If your book’s designer sees a way to beautifully present all the three-word chapter titles in your book on one line at the start of each chapter, a seven-word title won’t fit the style and the designer will have to abandon it. Instead, the designer will have to come up with a style that works best for the longer title and then make all the others consistent. The same goes for all other types of elements: bulleted lists, section heads, exercises, footnotes, etc.

When you’re revising, look at how each element is treated throughout your book and identify abnormalities. Let’s say you find one exercise in your book that doesn’t follow the format you use for the others. It’s a good idea to assess why. A deviation should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, do yourself and your designer a favor and revise it to fit the others.

There are, of course, other ways to look at your book’s structure, but these two tips will get you going. Before you head into another round of revision, take the time to do a little structural analysis of your document and see how it impacts your work.

Vinnie Kinsella has held many titles over the course of his book publishing career: writer, editor, journal publisher, book designer, workshop speaker, college instructor, and publications consultant. But there is one title he prefers over all the rest: book lover. His book, A Little Bit of Advice for Self-Publishers, will be available on March 22.