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Is there an accepted or suggested structure for writing non-fiction (specifically, popular science) books?

As an example of the type of book I mean, there's Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: a very successful non-fiction popular science book that is wholly engaging.

Should I adapt a typical narrative structure to fit with non-fiction (no idea how, though), or is there a recommended structure?

When looking at the first chapter, I'm wondering whether this should:

  • Be a summary of the books main thesis (or should this be the last chapter?)
  • Provide background information on the topic
  • Intrigue the reader with unanswered questions and the odd fascinating finding
  • Something else?
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A summary of the main thesis should be at the beginning (Probably best before the first chapter). People want to pick up the book, read this abstract and decide if they want to go any further.

If your book is not written in English, you also can think about adding an English abstract. That's a standard for diploma theses, so foreign readers can decide, if they want to translate the thesis or not.

If you have no specification for your book structure (from university/publisher), then it is up to you. Do you like Ariely's style/structure? Try to copy it. Don't be afraid that it can be too obvious, because copying style and structure is not as easy as you might expect. If it really ends up to be an obvious "rip-off", you have learnt a lot and can still change it.

So the only suggested structure is: make it readable. It doesn't matter how you achieve that. It looks like a burden, but that's the fun part of being creative. There are enough dull books out there. Pick up books you like and analyse how he authors did it.

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There's no one structure for popular non-fiction, but many. One structure that has been successful for many science books is to structure it around a narrative history of the field. This is a hybrid form combining biographical details of the main figures in the field, interviews with them, if they are alive, AND the technical details of their research or findings.

You'll want to stick strictly to verified fact, but still edit and select material and incidents in order to create a compelling storyline, much the same as you would do in fiction. A strong narrative of this kind will include ups and downs, tension and surprises, conflict and all the other treats of fiction, but as drawn from real life.

Chaos by James Gleick is a great example of a bestselling science book with this approach.

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As John Smithers says, have a summary at the beginning. I will add that make it very short, maybe 2-3 pages. I want to quickly read through the summary to see if the book is worth buying. I have read too many books with a 20 page introduction where the author tells of his motivations for writing the book, and I haven't even decided if I want to buy the book.

I think the gold standard for engaging non fiction is The Black Swan by Taleb. He gives as much technical information as is needed, without boring the reader. He also uses stories to illustrate his point, and his style is humorous.

Stephen Hawking was told by the publisher for his book A Brief History of Time that every equation he put in would reduce his readership by half. While some say this is an exaggeration, I have found that too many equations turn people off. It's hard for a layman to make sense of Greek symbols. So try to keep equations to a minimum. Also, don't use big and uncommon words, especially technical ones. If you have to, make sure there is a glossary of technical terms at the end.

Finally, the same rules as for normal fiction apply. It should be easy to read, and you have to keep the reader interested throughout the book. If you feel something is breaking the flow of the reader, put it in the appendix. Give every reason for your reader to turn the page - don't assume that just because they read the 1st 100 pages, they will stick for the next 200.

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