Content structure maps can help readers understand how all the different parts of a non-fiction book fit together. In this article, I discuss the benefits of using them and give some examples of how they can look.
Part 1 of this series, an introduction to the concept of knowledge structures, can be found here. Part 2, a discussion of how the knowledge organisation hierarchy model can be used to understand how knowledge is structured hierarchically and how to approach the structuring of content, can be found here.
The importance of understanding the structure of the non-fiction books you read
Non-fiction books are such a familiar format that it’s easy to forget how much cognitive effort they often require to read.
An author combines multiple elements to make up a complex but coherent whole, namely the argument and/or explanation that they are using the book to communicate.
Because of this cognitive complexity, readers need the author’s help to understand how all the sentences, paragraphs, chapter sections and chapters fit together coherently if they are to extract meaning from the text and engage successfully with the book’s ideas.
Why readers have problems in comprehending structure and coherence
Even though it’s critical for readers to comprehend the structure and coherence of the non-fiction books they read, there are at least four underlying reasons why this isn’t necessarily a simple process.
1. The transient nature of memory
The transient nature of memory means that readers inevitably forget much of what they have read. And by forgetting many of the key points of what they’ve already read, it becomes impossible to understand a book as a coherent whole.
2. The fragmented experience of reading
Reading a book is often a fragmented experience. External distractions, like family interruptions and noise, and internal distractions, like daydreaming or an overwhelming urge to check WhatsApp, all reduce the focus a reader can bring to a book. So key points can end up being attended to only superficially or even totally missed.
In addition, very few books get read in one sitting. Books are set down and then picked up after often extended intervals, which exacerbates the problem of memory transience.
3. The limitations of working memory
It is now accepted that the capacity of our working memory, which is what we use to process the ideas we are reading, is limited to about four slots or chunks. People who already have significant existing knowledge of a topic can bring more information-dense units of knowledge into their working memory slots. Those with little or no existing knowledge can only rely on much more limited units of knowledge for processing in working memory.
That means that people with limited knowledge of a topic will struggle to comprehend the structure of a more complex book or even of its individual chapters. Providing content structure maps to those type of readers can help reduce the demands on their working memories and make the book easier to engage with.
4. The lack of visual representations of structure
Structure is inherently visual in nature. While structure can be expressed in text, Jill Larkin and Herbert Simon’s important 1987 paper Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words argues that diagrams are often more ‘computationally efficient’ than sentences and paragraphs.1
As they explain, representing ideas visually in a diagram means that people can quickly “read off” a large amount of complex and valuable information from it (eg. hierarchies, element adjacencies, groupings, relationship indicators). In contrast, when the same information is expressed in text, it “has to be computed, sometimes at great cost, to make it explicit for use”.
When readers aren’t given visual representations of structure, they are forced to do extra cognitive work in working the structure out for themselves.
The problem with current approaches to communicating structure
The approach that most authors and publishers currently take to describing the structure of a non-fiction book involves providing:
- a list of contents at the front of the book
- a written summary describing the book’s structure in the Introduction
- and sometimes a written summary of the structure of individual chapters.
The fact that this approach has been used so widely and for so long suggests that most authors and publishers think that it meets the needs of their readers. I am not convinced.
I think there are several problems with this approach.
- Too much emphasis on lists. The list of contents at the beginning is what it says, a list. The chapters of a book can exist in so many different structures in terms of sequences and hierarchies. Shoehorning structures into a list flattens out the organisational shape of a book and makes it necessary for readers to re-construct that shape themselves.
- A lack of highlighting of summaries. The summary of the book’s structure in the introduction is normally not highlighted in any way so it’s easy for a reader to miss it in a moment of inattention. In addition, readers aren’t encouraged to revisit the text later on to re-acquaint themselves with the structure of the book.
- A limited focus on the structure of the detail. As a rule, there isn’t enough focus on the structure of individual chapters in most books. This is a problem because it’s often in the detail of chapters that readers get confused and lose their bearings.
- A lack of diagrams. The current approach primarily involves text. The structure of the book is rarely shown in visual form.
- A lack of focus on solving the problem of structure comprehension. In general, the problem is that most authors and publishers don’t understand the critical importance of readers being able to easily understand the structure of what they are reading. Therefore they don’t make solving this problem a priority.
A suggested solution: A principle + three strategies
The solution to the problem, I believe, lies in implementing a new principle and following three practical strategies.
The new principle is that:
- Readers benefit from having content structure maps that show how the different parts of a book fit together. There are various reasons why implementing this principle would be beneficial for readers:
- Content structure maps help with the transient nature of memory and the fragmented nature of reading. They are always available to remind readers of the key points that they’ve already read.
- Content structure maps also help with the limitations of working memory. Complex structures become more understandable when they are put into diagrams. The existence of diagrams also allow readers to return to them repeatedly until they become a familiar unit of knowledge which can be much more easily processed in working memory.
- Content structure maps allow readers to benefit from the computational efficiency of the diagrammatic format.
The practical strategies are:
- Describe the structure visually with content structure maps. Explaining the structure of a book solely in words isn’t adequate. Since structure is inherently visual, one also needs to provide diagrams to show that structure.
- Include more levels of detail. Many readers get bogged down in the detail of individual chapters and struggle to work out how individual passages relate to the whole. Examples from Ayelet Evan-Ezra and Oliver Lovell below show how the content structure of individual chapters can be displayed in innovative ways.
- Make the content structure central to the reader’s experience. Readers need to be encouraged to experience how understanding the structure of what they are reading can help them understand and possibly remember more. To start off with, textual summaries of the structure and the content structure maps need to be highlighted to readers.
This suggested solution is, of course, just a hypothesis at the moment. However it is eminently testable.
Here are examples of content structure maps that relate to four different books.
1. Lines of Thought by Ayelet Even-Ezra
Ayelet Even-Ezra’s Lines of Thought: Branching Diagrams and the Medieval Mind is a fascinating and beautifully produced book discussing how medieval scholars used horizontal tree diagrams both as writers to communicate their ideas and as readers to organise ideas in their notes. What’s noteworthy for our purposes is the way she uses this format of horizontal tree diagrams for her own purposes as content structure maps.
Naturally she uses the conventional modes of communicating structure through a list of contents, which you can see below, and a two-page description of the structure of the book in the Introduction.
However the author also provides what she calls “the plan of this work” in the form of a horizontal tree diagram at the beginning of the book.
This content structure map is, for me, a much more effective way of understanding the structure of the book.
Firstly, it displays the hierarchical relationship of the content in a format that’s easy to understand. This hierarchy is implicit in the structure of the list of contents. However to fully understand the hierarchy, readers would need to draw it out in a diagram, which very few are likely to do. Therefore it’s much more satisfactory that the author provides this hierarchical diagram herself.
Secondly, the tree diagram conveys more useful information than the list of contents. The first column provides a summary sentence of what the book is about, which is missing from the list of contents. In addition, the second column adds useful information about the nature of the division of the chapters into two parts, which again is missing from the list of contents.
Ayelet Evan-Ezra also uses horizontal tree diagrams to describe the content of some of the individual chapters. Her diagram for Chapter 1 includes just the top-level sections of the chapter.
In contrast, her diagram for Chapter 2 goes into much more detail about the chapter contents.
2. Tools for Teachers by Oliver Lovell
Teacher Oliver Lovell’s book Tools for Teachers: How to teach, lead and learn like the world’s best educators (John Catt Educational, 2022) covers eight key educational areas, including behaviour management, motivation and the curriculum.
He hasn’t included a content structure map of the book as a whole as it isn’t really needed. The eight chapters are organised into three clear parts – Teach, Lead and Learn – and each chapter is quite self-contained.
However his approach to individual chapters is particularly interesting. At the beginning of each chapter, he provides a ‘knowledge map’ for readers with the aim of helping “you organise the ideas you are learning in a coherent schema” (p.25).
Each knowledge map breaks down the topics covered in a hierarchical manner so it’s easy for readers to pick up the top-level structure of that chapter at a glance. Below is the knowledge map for Chapter 1 on Explicit Instruction.
At the end of each chapter, he then provides a more comprehensive knowledge map, keeping the same overall structure of the initial knowledge map but, in addition, adding in a great more detail from the chapter, with instructions, strategies, procedures and clarifying points. He also shows the connections between related topics with dotted lines.
You can see the detailed knowledge map for Chapter 1 below. It’s the most complex chapter of the book so the detail in the map needs to reflect that complexity.
While Oliver Lovell’s approach of providing both a summary map and a detailed map for each chapter is very unusual, I think that it works fantastically well. Providing the summary map at the beginning orientates readers to the structure of the upcoming content. And then the detailed map at the end of each chapter allows readers not just to review the key parts of what they have just read but also to use it as a framework for implementation if they want to put the ideas into practice.
I think his detailed map makes a telling case for the benefits of content structure maps. It’s interesting to reflect on just how much cognitive effort most readers would need to expend to grasp that level of understanding on their own.
3. Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte
A map by Melanie Knight
Instructional designer Melanie Knight has created a very helpful content structure map of Tiago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organise Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential.
The map allows readers to see how the book is structured at a glance. What’s particularly useful is that it goes beyond the list of contents provided by the author as it includes the key topics covered in each individual chapter. It also includes definitions and elaborations of some of the key concepts from the book.
There are many different ways that readers can use such a map:
- they can read it before starting a book to get a sense of the book as a whole and how all the different parts fit together
- when returning to a book after a break, they can use it to remind themselves of the topics that the book has already covered and to see where the book is about to take them
- when they’re feeling bogged down in a particular section, they can zoom out to see how that section fits into the bigger picture
- when they’ve finished the book and then come back to it months or even years later, they can use the map to quickly remind themselves about the structure of the book and to direct them to sections that they’d like to revisit.
4. Deep Work by Cal Newport
A map by myself
In addition to a content structure map of the top-level structure of the book, the summary I created for Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World also includes:
- a definition of the concept of deep work
- a description of the book’s hypothesis
- a summary of the arguments the author makes for the validity of the deep work concept
- a description of the different strategies the author proposes to increase the capability for deep work.
Lessons that can be learnt from these examples
What I take away from these examples is that content structure maps can come in many shapes and sizes. How a content structure map looks will depend on:
- the nature and complexity of the content to be covered
- the number of hierarchical levels of content to be included in the map ie. how deep into the detail of the book should the content structure map go
- whether additional content such as definitions and elaborations are to be included
- the design aesthetic chosen.
One point to take away is that content structure maps should exist on multiple levels of detail. It’s not normally good practice to produce a map that covers the structure of all the detail in a book. That would be overwhelming to the reader.
One option is to follow Ayelet Even-Ezra’s approach: a top-level map to show how the chapters relate to each other followed by maps of the structure of individual chapters.
Another option is to follow Melanie Knight’s map of the Building a Second Brain book, which goes a bit deeper by including not just parts and chapters but also main chapter topics too. In this case, there could also be the possibility of creating content structure maps for each individual chapter too.
Oliver Lovell’s approach is also worthy of consideration: providing a summary map of the top-level topics of an individual chapter at the beginning of the chapter and then a map covering all the detail in the chapter at the end of it.
Information designer Oliver Caviglioli has often used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to emphasize the importance of providing visual representations of the structure of knowledge.
No one would dream of starting a jigsaw puzzle without seeing an image of what they are working towards or of carrying on with the puzzle without being able to revisit the big picture regularly.
But what is inconceivable for jigsaw puzzlers is sadly the normal experience for non-fiction readers. The lack of a clear map which shows how all the parts of a book fit together forces readers to work out the structure for themselves. This is unnecessarily demanding for many readers — and impossible for some.
Perhaps one day, people will demand to see a content structure map before they start reading a non-fiction book.
This article has focused on the benefits of content structure maps for readers. I would argue that they are equally as beneficial for authors.
I’ve often found that ideas that I thought were clear in a text format turned out to be unclear when I started diagramming how they fit together. Creating a diagram forces you to define precisely the relationship between your ideas in a way that writing text doesn’t. And the end result is often more clarity, more precision and an awareness of where gaps exist.
Assistance with your own content structure map
It’s not normally a good idea to wait until you have finished writing your book before creating a content structure map for your readers. By that time, it will be too late to make major changes to the structure even if the map flags up structural inconsistencies, gaps in reasoning and unclear relationships between ideas.
The process works best if you use content structure mapping to make your structure as strong and clear as possible as you write your book. And then when you’ve finished it, you will then be in a perfect position to create a useful map for your readers.
It’s perfectly possible to create a content structure map yourself. However sometimes writers can get so close to the detail of what they’re writing that they find it hard to zoom out in order to clarify the bigger picture. If you would like assistance in creating a content structure map for your book, please get in touch.
- Larkin, J.H. and Simon, H.A. (1987), Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words. Cognitive Science, 11: 65-100. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6708.1987.tb00863.x