The purpose of this article, which has been separated into two blog posts, is to show how multi-level summaries can make non-fiction books easier to understand, remember and act on. (Note 1)
Click on the image above to see a visual summary of the article.
Part 1 looked at the problems with the current structure of most non-fiction books. Part 2 now looks at how multi-level summaries can help to solve these problems.
A pdf of the whole document can be downloaded from www.makingideasvisual.com/multi_level_summaries.pdf.
In Part 1, I explained that:
- most non-fiction books have more of an implicit meaning structure
- having an implicit meaning structures causes problems with cognitive load and retrieval practice.
The alternative to an implicit meaning structure is an explicit one and one way of providing them is through multi-level summaries.
To recap, an explicit meaning structure looks generically like this.
This structure can also be simplified into a pyramid.
Multi-level summaries show the big picture at different levels of detail in the book and how the different elements of content are connected to each other.
The most effective way to do this would be to create the following:
i) a whole book summary, showing how the book is structured and giving details of the key ideas and concepts
ii) individual summaries for each of the chapters, which show the structure of the chapter and provide a summary of the key ideas/concepts and the supporting topics in that chapter
iii) visual elements within individual chapters. Diagrams, tables, flowcharts, timelines and other visual elements are a very effective way of summarising complex ideas and most non-fiction books could use more of them.
There are potential variations to this:
i) If the chapters are divided into parts or the book is made up of very short chapters, it might be better to summarise linked chapters together.
ii) If a chapter has a great deal of content and is particularly dense, it might be better to add summaries within chapter sections as well.
It is important that each summary is contained on a single book page (or across a spread of two adjacent pages, if absolutely necessary) so that the relationship between the different content elements can be seen in a glance.
Using Google Maps as an analogy
A good analogy for multi-level summaries is Google Maps in that it also provides the opportunity to view information at different levels of detail. (Note 4)
Let’s use Green Park in London as an example. One can choose a detailed view to see its position in relation to other landmarks in central London such as Westminster Abbey or St James’s Palace.
Zooming out to a wider view, Green Park can then be seen in relation to areas of London like Kensington, the City of London and Canary Wharf.
Zooming out even more, Green Park can be seen in the context of southern England and its location can be viewed relative to places like Bristol, Brighton and Ipswich.
While Google Maps has eighteen levels of detail from its most detailed view all the way out to a map of the world as a whole, most books will have just three or four levels of detail.
Multi-level summaries give readers the ability to zoom in and zoom out in a similar way to Google Maps. Readers can zoom in to focus on the detailed explanation in the text. They can then zoom out to the chapter summary to see how that detail fits into the context of the chapter. They can then, if they want, zoom out even further to the summary of the book to review the book’s key ideas.