Components of a Nonfiction Book

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Any book you read has various parts. However, nonfiction books tend to have specific components that fictional ones do not have. This lesson discusses those components.

What is Nonfiction?

Nonfiction and fiction. Did you know that every piece of writing can be classified into one of these two categories? Unfortunately, many get the two confused. Works of fiction are invented or made-up. They come from the author's imagination. Nonfiction includes any works based on fact or events of the real world.

The overall purpose of fiction is to entertain. Nonfiction, even if it is entertaining, aims to inform. Writers of nonfiction want to report on what they know or what is really happening. Biographies, autobiographies, newspapers, magazine articles, letters, encyclopedias, and textbooks are all works of nonfiction.

When discussing nonfiction, most books have certain components. The rest of this lesson discusses several of those components.

Table of Contents

The next component of nonfiction works is the table of contents, which usually takes up a few pages at the beginning of a book. These pages outline the organization of the writing. It lists the units, chapters, and/or sections in the order in which they appear. The page numbers of each section will also be listed.

A sample Table of Contents page
table of contents

The table of contents can be extremely useful. For instance, imagine your science teacher has assigned you a research paper on how plants reproduce. You have a science textbook, but have no idea where to find that topic. Use the table of contents! Look for a unit on plant biology, and determine where reproduction will appear.

This is also applicable when reading a work of nonfiction for pleasure or using it for some other project. You could pick up any nonfiction book, like a biography, and skim the table of contents looking for topics that interest you. Perhaps you only want to know about the childhood of William Shakespeare. Use the table of contents to skip to that part of his biography.

Footnotes and Endnotes

The next components are footnotes and endnotes. Footnotes appear at the bottom of each page and include short clarifications for specific terms or phrases. Each is marked with a number or a symbol to correspond to the section in the text. Endnotes appear at the end of the chapter or section. Endnotes might include the sources for the article or other important clarifications for the material as a whole.

To see how important footnotes or endnotes can be, imagine you are reading a scholarly article on education. You come to the term pre-assessment with a small 1 appearing after it. You might have a general idea of what that might mean, but follow the number to the bottom of the page. There you will find another small 1 with the clarifying note that pre-assessments are activities a teacher does before the lesson to see how much students already know. Without that footnote, you may be confused while reading the rest of the text. Footnotes and endnotes both add information helpful to understanding the text.

Appendix

The next component is the appendix, which is a section of additional material or information appearing at the end of a book. Not all nonfiction works have an appendix, but many do to provide any extra items that are important to the overall topic.

Use an appendix to extend beyond the basic concepts discussed in the book. For instance, imagine you are studying to become a teacher and are reading a textbook on reading assessment. One chapter details how you can create an exam to assess your students' reading skills. Wouldn't it be helpful to see a sample exam? The appendix would be the place to find that sample.

Many books will have multiple appendices, and authors will use them to provide their readers with any extra material that will extend their understanding of the topic. In literature books there might be samples of poems in the appendix, or in history books a short atlas or global map. Overall, an appendix can be a really useful tool when reading works of nonfiction.

Glossary

Another component is the glossary. This is a short dictionary usually placed in the back of the book. Instead of defining every word, the glossary defines important terms listed in alphabetical order. These terms are usually in bold throughout the text. Sometimes glossaries also include the page number where you can find the term.

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