If you’re writing a nonfiction book other than a memoir, you’ll need to break up your text with headers. Good headers are like signs on the highway that reassure you that you’re going in the right direction (“Chicago/O’Hare”), orient you (“Chicago 45 miles”), and tell you when you need to switch roads (“Exit for Dundee Road”). If you’re going to start a new topic, you’ll want to signal that with a header that gives the reader a good sense of what the next section is about. Ideally, your headers will be somewhat provocative without being too mysterious, clear without being boring. “Recite Affirmations to Focus Your Mind” is much better as “Power Mantras for Overcoming the Monkey Mind.” (Of course, if you use the latter, you have to be certain that you explain what a “monkey mind” is.)
You’ll want a header to appear every three pages or so, sometimes more often. You’ll also want to mostly use A-heads, meaning, headers that all have the same weight and are styled the same way.
A Typical A-Head Style
Quite often, I style A-heads in boldface and italics, in the same size font as the type, with two spaces before it and one after it, as I’ve done here. If I wanted secondary heads, called “B-heads,” I’d make them look subordinate to the A-head by not using all the many tools for emphasis. If my A-head is boldfaced and italicized, and the the first letter of each significant word is capitalized, my B-head might look like:
Centered, Boldfaced but not italicized or capitalized B-head
Centered, italicized but not boldfaced or capitalized B-head
Keep in mind that the subjects you encapsulate in B-heads have to make sense under the A-head. Think of the old college outline with its multilevel heads:
- Introduction and theme of paper
- Jane Eyre as an independent woman
- Her rebellion as a child adopted by another family
- Her defense of Helen at school
- Her refusal to teach at the school and pursuit of a governess position
- Rejecting Mr. Rochester’s “deal”
Adding a third tier of C-heads is often confusing, so try to stick with just A-heads and occasional B-heads. You can also use bulleted and numbered lists for material. In general, bulleted lists are in no particular order whereas numbered lists have items that must be addressed in a specific order, such as Step 1, Step 2.
Spend some time looking at other nonfiction books in your genre and get a feel for how the books you find engaging and well-organized use subheads and lists effectively.
Writing a business book, parenting book, how-to book, or self-help book? Headers, bullet point lists, numbered lists, and call-out boxes (also known as sidebars) can complicate your design but help make your book more engaging for your reader. Personally, I love summary text at the end of the chapter whether it’s a bulleted list of key points in the chapter, a call-out box, or a combination of the two. If you’re self-publishing, be sure to check with your designer or production helper (for example, a project manager or “book sherpa”) if you have one to be sure you’ve been consistent in styling everything in the manuscript. When you have the book proofread, make sure your proofreader is checking for any glitches in the design as well as any typos or mistakes in the manuscript.
Working on a transformational nonfiction book? Whether it’s a life lessons book, or prescriptive book (self-help, for example), or even a memoir meant to inspire, I offer professional developmental editing and writing services and also do coaching and consulting for authors. If you’d like to learn more, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what type of help you’re looking for. I love to assist authors in making their dream of writing a publishing a book a reality!