Structure of books

Can you make a point succinctly?

It’s not easy to be precise enough in one’s words to do this. Sometimes when I write something, the first draft sometimes ends up being too long, rambling, and not succinct enough. I’ll then make another pass through to edit out any redundant phrases or sentences to tighten it up. Sometimes after too much editing it will be difficult to think clearly about it, and I’ll set it aside and look at it again the next day. This particular post was sitting in the queue for quite some time.

Sometimes I read non-fiction books to get information, and I like the feeling that I’m learning something useful from the book.

Certain non-fiction books are specifically trying to present information to the reader, and if one of these books seems especially interesting or useful, I might go back over it again and take notes. This process helps to review the information but also lends some insight into the way the book was written and its structure. Sometimes I notice these things:

  1. Some books of this type have a clear hierarchical structure. They’re often divided into major parts, each with several chapters. Even without this hierarchy, they may have an introductory chapter to outline the topic and then a chapter for each item in the outline. I like this because when you’re reading it you have a sense of the structure that the information is fitting into. Also, it usually means the author had a good sense of the structure of the material and took the time to convey this.
  2. Some books of this type are more precise than others in making their points. Sometimes this isn’t evident on a first reading, but when I try to take concise notes I can see that the author was a bit wishy-washy about saying something definite. I wonder if this happened because the author didn’t know how to define things any better and hoped that some vague references would be enough for the reader to figure it out. Or maybe the author didn’t notice that the definitions were not clear. Or perhaps the author was in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to express the point precisely.

It’s great if a book does well on both the large-scale structure and the details. These qualities might be apparent even on the first reading; if so, the information was well suited to be presented in book form, as the structure and all the details are crucial to getting the point across.

If the top level structure is lacking, it’s difficult to grasp the scope of the material and hard to evaluate it; the reader feels lost and disoriented.

If the details are lacking, it feels like the book is largely padding and isn’t quite able to convey the information precsely; maybe the author had to stretch things out to fill the whole book, or could have edited it down to be more succinct and to the point.

I do have specific books in mind that have both qualities, and some that are lacking in each of the two. But those will be topics for another blog post.