Sunday, February 8, 2015

Making Your Book's Structure Serve You, Your Argument, and Your Reader

Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced with this project was that its complexity seemed unwieldy. The book has multiple intersecting story lines, including accounts of the postwar labor, civil rights, and conservative movements. It travels in and out of numerous institutions, including courts, Congress, the White House, and multiple federal agencies. And it is populated by a bevy of individuals, offices, and organizations.   

There is nothing unique about this problem. As my colleague, friend, and editor extraordinaire Sally Gordon (a.k.a. Mrs. Peppercorn) is wont to say, telling us that the past is complicated isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know.

But I may find managing this unsurprising complexity more challenging than some. A friend in graduate school once told me I was blessed with a fertile mind. This was her kind response to a paper idea I had just shared that went in at least twenty different interweaving but distinct directions; a mess of an idea in other words. She said “blessed” but she also meant “cursed.” If you’re someone like me whose mind makes things even more complicated than they already are, then you too may find managing the complexity of your material an extra challenge.

I couldn’t change my hardwiring, but for the book project I eventually came up with a strategy for managing it: structure. The dissertation had five massive and chronologically progressive chapters. As it moved through time, it jumped back and forth confusingly between actors and story lines. It was a narrative and analytic morass.

When I sat down to plan the book, I knew I was going to have to totally rewrite the dissertation. This was partly because of the book’s longer chronological sweep and because of the much larger role the right-to-work movement was going to play throughout. But I also knew that I needed a whole new approach to the history I had already covered, one that would help untangle rather than exacerbate its complexities and curb my “fertile-minded” tendencies.

As I did for other writing puzzles, I turned to books I admired for inspiration.
One of my favorite legal history books during graduate school was Barbara Welke’s Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race,Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge University Press). Most probably know the book as a brilliant history of the late-nineteenth-century state and a field-changing examination of bureaucracy’s dark side. But the book’s structure is also ingenious. Intricately designed, Recasting American Liberty mimics the railroads about which Welke writes, complete with narrative junctions, argumentative spurs, and granular ties all of which are worth a journey on their own but which also knit together, forming an ambitious and expansive network. The book’s structure isn’t a container for Welke’s argument but a dimension of it.
Recasting American Liberty reminded me to find a structure that would advance my argument and tame my penchant for intricacy. Chronology was important to me for narrative reasons. I also wanted to make some broad historiographic points about several key periods. But I knew I couldn’t let chronology drive the book’s organization entirely. 

My first idea was to make the history more modular. I broke my dissertation and my new material down into a series of contained stories, each of which advanced one or two key points. Then I played around with various groupings and progressions. Eventually, I settled on four chronologically progressive parts. Each of these I broke down into three or four topically and analytically distinct chapters that spanned the part’s entire period.   

Take Part I on the New Deal 1930s and 1940s. The first chapter tells how civil rights advocates came to argue that black workers had a constitutional right against discrimination by employers and unions. A second chapter examines how these advocates began making their claims to federal agencies, not just courts. The final chapter shows that anti-New Deal conservatives found their way to related claims that the Constitution protected them from having to financially support unions.

Separating these stories helped me focus the narrative and emphasize a discrete argument. Civil rights advocates did not seek out workplace constitutional claims but were channeled to them by court procedure, for instance, and New Deal agencies gave these advocates the idea of making their constitutional claims in administrative fora. The right-to-work chapter demonstrates that a conservative civil rights movement grew up alongside African Americans’ better-known mid-century litigation campaigns.

At the same time, gathering the stories in a single part let me make a point about the period. Advocates are thought to have turned away from constitutional claims to workplace rights by 1950. Instead, the part demonstrates that the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the often accidental, largely experimental beginnings of these efforts, rather than their end.

The book’s structure has another advantage. Because it is somewhat modular, it allows readers who are interested in one of the book’s story lines—say civil rights litigation or anti-New Deal conservatism—to focus on the most relevant chapters. While I hoped people read the whole book, I also wanted it to be easy for them to “choose their own adventure” by reading about a single period or a particular movement.

In the end, there is nothing exceptional about my structure. Unlike Welke’s, my book is built like a lot of other books. But choosing which structure was right for the project and what to put where was crucial to keeping my tangled narrative from tangling the reader. At least that’s my hope!

How have you chosen a structure for your book and/or managed narrative complexity in your writing projects? Do you have any books to recommend that, like Welke’s, make particularly good use of structure?