Frameworks for Your Ideas—Flat Structures

 

What I mean by a flat structure is just two levels of content in your manuscript. For example: part headings + chapter headings. Or: chapter headings + chapter subheadings.

In either case, there are only two levels of content for you to create—and for readers to consume.

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When it works, a flat structure is a thing of beauty—sparse, lean, and yet comprehensive. The benefits are:

  • Ease of reading. It’s hard for people to remember the differences between multiple levels of headings. Some readers will just skip them.
  • Ease of writing. With a flat structure, you don’t need a complex outline or table of contents. It’s easier for you to remember what level of content you’re creating at any given time. There are only two options.

Examples

To see flat structures with these virtues, consider two books by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson: Rework and Remote. (For a full table of contents, scroll down the page to “Full List of Essays Included in the Book.”)

For example, Rework includes a chapter simply titled “Takedowns.” This chapter includes the following essays:

  • Ignore the real world
  • Learning from mistakes is overrated
  • Planning is guessing
  • Why grow?
  • Workaholism
  • Enough with “entrepreneurs”

That’s just 2 levels—chapter + essays.

Contrast these books with those that use a complex structure—part headings, chapter headings, chapter subheadings, followed by sub-subheadings and sub-sub-subheadings. The full table of contents for such books would look like an outline with many levels of indentation.

Other flat structures

As books with flat structures, Rework and Remote  analogous to newspapers:

  • Like the chapters in these books, each section of a newspaper covers a single major topic—breaking news, opinion, technology, business, and so on.
  • Sections are collections of articles or essays related to separate major topics.
  • You can read the articles in any order, independently of each other.

Essays are just one type of chapter element. There are other options. For instance, you could create chapters that are collections of questions and answers. Or, you could group inspirational quotations into chapters and write a separate essay to explain the meaning of each quotation.

Three caveats

You don’t have to write every book with a flat structure. It’s just an option. You might even find that creating a simple structure for your book yields so much clarity on your topic that you can naturally transition to a more complex structure. If it feels good, do it. Then get a few people to read your manuscript and ask them if it flows logically.

Tell readers whether chapter elements are ordered. This is where your book might differ from a newspaper. Does your chapter present a list of steps that need to be done in a certain sequence? Does it make an argument that flows from premises to conclusion in a logical order? In either case, place your chapter elements accordingly. Consider numbering the elements, just to be clear.

Remember that a flat structure can make the task of writing simpler—but not easy. I doubt that finishing a book manuscript will ever become effortless. Annie Dillard observed that “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles.” A simple structure can decrease that challenge but not eliminate it.

The goal in any case is to discover the simplest possible framework that serves you and your readers. Look for structures that create momentum for readers and draw forth the notes from your commonplace book like a magnet attracts metal.

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