Sections and Subsections
22 May 2014
Today’s topic comes from Christopher (@EldritchFire on Twitter), one of my favorite clients.
One of the things an editor does is assess a manuscript’s structure. Today I want to talk about sections. You know, those things that break up the wall of text that you’ve managed to carve out of your brain and put on the page? You need to be able to break that wall of text up into manageable chunks.
There are a couple of ways to do this. If you’re the outlining sort, the outline should have given you enough structure that you can start with it. If you’re not the outlining type, you have a little more work to do. Regardless, you’ve expressed those ideas in words. Words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, right?
A section should be one or more paragraphs. Ideally, you should be able to read a section and get a complete idea out of it. It may depend on other concepts, but it should stand alone. For example, most RPG books have a Skills section. That section better have everything in it that I need to know about Skills. (Choosing good titles is a separate topic. If there’s interest, I can do that post later.) I should be able to read that section by itself and not feel like I’m missing a whole lot when it comes to Skills.
Knowing when to divide into sub-sections is a bit trickier, but the concept still stands. Keeping with our example, if I’m in the Skills section, and there is a way to categorize skills into sub-groups (like Combat and Social), then those can be subheadings if you as the author want them. I can’t give you a hard line here because so much of it depends on how much content each subheading would have. A good rule of thumb I’d use is whether the words you want to turn into a subheading take more than a paragraph to describe, make it a subheading.
Now, this rule of thumb might break down if you have a complicated hierarchy of topics that take multiple paragraphs to describe. Once you get past three to four levels deep, it’s a good idea to step back from the manuscript and see if you can refactor the structure. Honestly, if you’re that deep, I’m going to suspect (both as a reader and an editor) that you’re padding word count or having trouble getting the concept across.
Honestly, some of this comes from experience in writing and conveying ideas. A good editor should be helping you gain that experience as they work with you on a manuscript, showing you its flaw and its strengths. Over time, you should learn how to convey a thought and use the structure of the document to help you trickle your ideas into the brains of your readers.
Oh, one last tip. Look for documents that have a structure similar to what you’re doing, or that you like. See how they broke down their concepts and how it flows. Pick a section and see if it follows what I’ve said above. It’s not necessarily a bad document if it doesn’t, but you should be able to see what they did and hopefully gain an appreciation for why they did it a certain way.
If you’re still got questions, leave a comment, and I’ll see if I can answer it. Now sit down and write!