First Draft: How to write a practical chapter

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Editor’s Note: First Draft is a monthly blog series that breaks down the book writing process. Written by the ASCD Book Acquisitions Editors, this series will help educators understand how to go from a book idea to a first draft in order to share their expertise and passion with the field.

By ASCD Book Acquisitions

What goes into creating a good book chapter? If you read last month’s article, then you’ll have an idea of what makes an effective introduction. The bulk of a high-quality education professional development book, though, should focus on what readers might do, that is, what actions they might take to improve practice and, ultimately, student outcomes.

While each book is unique, here are some recommendations to help ensure the book is focused on practical application:

  • Identify learning objectives. Before you even begin writing a chapter, you need to know your readers’ learning objectives. What will they be able to know and do by the end of this chapter? In your chapter outline and prewriting, make a list of learning objectives. If you look at your list and the majority of the objectives relate to what your reader will come to know, then the chapter is likely leaning too far in the direction of describing the issue rather than providing advice on how to address the issue. Focus less on what and more how.
    • Pro Tip: Incorporate your learning objectives into the opening passages of the chapter so that your readers know exactly what to expect (and exactly what they will get out of) each chapter.
  • Calling out actionable material. As part of identifying your learning objectives and knowing what you want the reader to be able to do after reading the chapter, you’ll need to brainstorm all of the strategies, tools, and activities that you’ll include to help readers put their learning into practice. Make it easy for your reader to quickly find these actionable items via clear headings, italics or bolding, bullets, and graphics (tables, charts, forms).
    • Example: In a chapter on building relationships with students, you might have four main strategies. Perhaps each one of those strategies will be a subsection of that chapter, and so each strategy will be called out to the reader by a bolded heading. For each strategy, you’ll want to explain what it is, but then also provide activities the reader can use to employ the strategy. For example, if the strategy is “get to know your students,” activities might include student surveys, personal essays, informal Q&As, and get-to-know-you games. How will you call out each activity so the reader can easily find it? Perhaps give each a clear name and make it a subheading of the section. Maybe a bullet or icon can be placed next to each activity for easy reference. As for tools, are there sample surveys or games that you could include? What flowcharts, forms, or tables will help your reader put the activity into practice? What reflection questions and self-assessments will help with transference of knowledge?
    • Pro Tip: Having a consistent chapter structure will make your book more accessible and easier to reference for your reader. It also makes the writing process easier because you aren’t remaking the wheel with each chapter. What recurring elements should appear in every chapter? For example. you may start each chapter with a story or vignette, include 3 to 5 big ideas with a bulleted “try this” list of advice under each one, followed by end-of-chapter reflection questions.
  • Including real school examples and stories. We often ask our authors “what does this look like in practice?” Providing an example or vignette of how a strategy has been used in a real school setting helps readers comprehend the concept, relate it to their own experience as an educator, and get a sense for how the strategy will play out in their classroom. It also adds credibility to the book’s advice, letting the reader know that you’re advising the use of this strategy because it’s worked in schools.
    • Pro Tip: Just as important as showing how something has worked in a classroom or school is showing when things haven’t worked out. These “non-examples” show the reader common mistakes educators make, providing an opportunity for reader self-reflection and perhaps the discovery that something you thought was best practice might actually be counterproductive.

Thinking about the learning objectives, strategies, activities, tools, and real-school examples you want to share with your reader before you begin writing your chapter will help keep your writing organized, focused on practical application, and formatted to help your readers find the information they need easily. Please note that not all books require visual elements (tables, charts, graphic organizers, etc.) to be practical, and indeed too many visual elements can be overwhelming. Make sure your strategies, activities, tools, and stories are always essential, practical, and tied to the learning objectives.

As always, you can head over to our Write for ASCD page to get more writing tips and to learn more about writing an ASCD book or article.

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