Creating a Framework for Your Ideas

You might have a thousand juicy facts, stories, and quotes for your book. But without a framework, they’re toast.

In his masterful book about making a living from your ideas, John Butman defines framework as :

… a limited number of key elements that are basically descriptive in nature, such as principles, characteristics, parts, or themes. A framework may also include a number of elements that are more prescriptive, such as strategies, methods, rules, and the like.

For example, consider:

Powerful frameworks can burn your ideas into the collective mind and boost the impact of your work. Even if your ideas are not wildly original, giving them a memorable framework can lead to a breakout book.

The challenge is that frameworks can be hard to create. They result from a mysterious dance between discovery and intention. Sometimes you impose a framework on information. Sometimes you just let the framework emerge organically after months or years of immersion in a topic. Often it’s a combination of these two methods.

One of my goals is to create a meta-framework for book authors—a framework of frameworks that you can to turn to for structuring ideas. For now, use the following as starting points.

The Five Ultimate Hatracks

Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman includes a sentence that makes me cheer: “While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not.” In fact, he reduces the options to a handful of structures—the “five ultimate hatracks”:

  • Category
  • Time
  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Continuum

He gives these examples:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

The Numbered List

This is often the structure for books with a number in the title or subtitle, such as:

  • 42 Rules of Marketing by Laura Lowell
  • Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
  • 101 Ways to Love Your Job by Stephanie Davidson

The numbered list is sometimes maligned as simplistic. When done well, however, this structure is intuitive for both reader and writer.

Certain numbers appear to be favored in book titles:

  • 5
  • 7
  • 10
  • 12
  • 99
  • 100
  • 101

Don’t ask me why.

Just be clear about whether your big list of ideas or strategies is unordered or ordered. If it’s unordered, then it’s OK for people to begin with any chapter and choose their own path through your content. If your list is ordered, however, then your book is based on a sequence of steps that readers need to follow (step 1, step 2, step 3, etc.). This is a distinction that you’ll want to make clear.


Many nonfiction books focus on a major problem (dilemma, challenge, limitation, constraint, obstacle) that readers face and recommend a solution. Often the solution is complex, meaning that it needs to be implemented in gradual steps or phases.

In chapter 1 of your book, then, present the problem as a pain point that cries out for immediate relief. In chapter 2, give an overview of the solution and its benefits. In the remaining chapters, explain each major phase in implementing the solution.

See this post about using a bare-bones outline to troubleshoot your book for more details about the problem-solution-process structure and an example. This is another common structure that while simple on the surface, can expand in rich and intuitive ways.


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