Multi-level summaries – Part 1: Current problems with the structure of non-fiction books

Are you a keen reader? If so, I would like to interview you to find out how you use non-fiction books to make progress in your work and/or personal life. More details here –


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.

This part looks at the problems with the current structure of most non-fiction books. Part 2 looks at how multi-level summaries can solve many of these problems.

A pdf of the whole document can be downloaded from

Problems with reading books

Many readers don’t seem to get as much as they would like out of their reading of non-fiction books. Here are some of the problems they encounter.

1. Getting started with a book

  • finding it hard to get started. We all know the experience of excitedly buying a book and then having it stand unopened on a bookshelf for months, years or even for ever. Being confronted with hundreds of pages of text combined with the knowledge that they will take many hours to get through can make it hard to get started.

2. Giving up on a book.

  • losing interest. Many books are not finished because readers lose interest. A common experience is enthusiastically starting a book and then running out of momentum in the midst of Chapter 1 or 2.

3. Problems when reading a book

  • drowning in detail. When books don’t have a clear structure or summaries of the main points, it’s easy for readers to get confused as they start drowning in too much detail and losing sight of what the key ideas are and how they relate to each other.
  • returning to a book after a break. It’s easy to forget the thread of a book’s argument after putting it down for a few days or weeks. Readers then either have to carry on reading superficially without remembering the outline of the book’s argument or spend time struggling to identify the key ideas from the pages they have already read.

4. Problems after finishing a book

  • forgetting a book’s ideas. Many readers complain about how little they remember of a book’s ideas even after they have spent hours reading it. That’s to be expected. Cognitive psychology teaches how easily facts and ideas are forgotten. It is difficult to revise the ideas in a book without taking time-consuming notes which most readers don’t have either the time or the motivation to do.
  • struggling to work out what action to take. Many books suggest new behaviours and strategies for the reader. If these strategies and behaviours aren’t summarised adequately, it’s easy for a reader to move on to another book without taking any action on the previous one.
  • returning to a book. When readers want to remind themselves of the ideas in a book they have read in the past, a detailed re-read is often needed in order to get to grips with the book again.

Sequential structure vs meaning structure: two ways of approaching a book

The structure of a book can be analysed in two ways. There is a sequential structure and there is also a meaning structure.

Because of the nature of language, books are constructed sequentially. Lines of words which go from left to right make up sentences, which together make up paragraphs. Paragraphs make up pages, which in turn make up chapters, which together comprise the book.

And that’s the most obvious way to conceive of books, as a series of pages broken into chapters which should be started at the beginning and read through to the end. However that’s also where many of the problems of drowning in the detail and missing the bigger picture begin.

The sequential structure of books

A more productive way of approaching a book is through its meaning structure.

The purpose of most non-fiction books is to deliver an argument or series of arguments. Authors write books to persuade readers of the validity of certain ideas and/or to suggest that they take particular actions.

This could be, for example, to:

  • explain the reasons for inequality in the world economy
  • explain why human beings have had such an impact on the world
  • describe who and what influenced Matisse’s art
  • persuade the reader to follow a particular business strategy
  • persuade the reader to vote for a political party
  • explain how gravity works
  • make the case for a certain interpretation of historical events.

The content of a book is written in order to back up the argument. To do this, authors need to explain various key ideas and concepts, to elaborate on them by bringing in supporting topics and then to provide a detailed explanation.

This can be shown hierarchically:

The meaning structure of non-fiction books

Of course, this is a generic diagram. Each book will have its own unique structure depending on:

  • the number of key concepts and ideas, and how they are linked to each other
  • how the supporting topics are developed.

Readers need to identify and understand the meaning structure if they are to get the most out of a book.

The reader’s problem

The problem for readers is how they get from this:

to this:


This is a critical problem. Readers need to identify and understand the meaning structure if they are to get the most out of a book.

Implicit vs explicit meaning structures

All books have a meaning structure, which exists along a continuum from fully implicit to fully explicit. A fully implicit structure would just be a series of paragraphs of text. No attempt would be made to explain how different sections of the book related to each other or to highlight the main argument, the key ideas and concepts, and the supporting topics.

A fully explicit structure, on the other hand, would show the key components of the book’s structure and how they relate to each other at different levels of detail.

At the moment, most non-fiction books tend towards having more of an implicit structure. Books are divided into chapters and sections within chapters. There may be diagrams and tables, as well as summaries of key points. However there is often little attempt to show how the different ideas, concepts and topics relate together through providing summaries of the structure and content.

The implicit/explicit meaning structure continuum

The problems caused by implicit meaning structures

The problems caused by implicit meaning structures can be explained using the theories of cognitive load theory and retrieval practice.

The cognitive energy taken up by trying to make the implicit meaning structure explicit reduces the energy available for the more important tasks of understanding, assessment and reflection.

Cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory, initially developed by Professor John Sweller, refers to the cognitive demands placed on learners. Due to the limitations of working memory, learners find it difficult if excessive cognitive demands are placed on them. So the greater the cognitive load, the more learners are going to struggle with learning.

One of the critical issues in learning, therefore, is to reduce the unnecessary cognitive load imposed on learners as far as possible.

As Sweller and his colleagues write: “One aim of instructional design is to reduce extraneous cognitive load so that a greater percentage of the pool of working memory resources can be devoted to issues germane to learning rather than issues extraneous to learning.” (Note 2)

It is my contention that a book with more of an implicit rather than an explicit structure increases extraneous cognitive load.

Readers should be spending their precious cognitive energy understanding concepts, assessing the truth and usefulness of a book’s arguments, and reflecting on how the book’s ideas integrate with or challenge their existing mental models.

Instead the cognitive energy taken up by trying to make the implicit meaning structure explicit reduces the energy available for the more important tasks of understanding, assessment and reflection.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice can be defined as the retrieval of information from memory.

Academics Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning write: “While the brain is not a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, the neural pathways that make up a body of learning do get stronger, when the memory is retrieved and the learning is practiced. Periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain (pp.3-4)…..

“Repeated retrieval not only makes memories more durable but produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily, in more varied settings, and applied to a wider variety of problems (p.43).” (Note 3)

Readers who want to try retrieval practice need to be clear about the key points they are trying to remember and then have them available in a concise format so they can identify the gaps in what they have retrieved and refresh their memories about these gaps.

Non-fiction books in their present format fail on both counts. Often it is hard work to identify what the key points are, which means also that the information is not in a suitable format for returning to repeatedly.

The alternative to this is writing notes to use for retrieval practice but this can be very time-consuming and few readers seem to do this.

It is more effective to give readers explicit meaning structures rather than to help them cope better with implicit ones.


Not everyone struggles with reading non-fiction books. Academics, for example, need to get through numerous books and extract useful information from each of them. Many have therefore developed very effective strategies for reading.

One well-known British academic, who is a prolific author, wrote the following to me in an email: “I never read a book…just fillet them by using table of contents, index and concentrating strictly on what’s relevant to what I’m writing. That way I would ‘read’ up to twenty books a day.”

There are strategies for more effectively reading books with an implicit meaning structure. I will be detailing them in a course I am developing. See for more details.

However, in most cases, I believe that it is more effective to give readers explicit meaning structures rather than to help them cope better with implicit ones.

Part 2

For the second part of this article, please go to


1. An important inspiration for the multi-level summaries concept has been Frederick Reif’s work on the concept of hierarchical knowledge organisation (or hierarchically organised knowledge), which is outlined in Chapter 9 of his book Applying Cognitive Science to Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains (MIT Press, 2010).

I have also found the holographic/linear concept outlined in Ian Harris and Oliver Caviglioli’s book Think It – Map It! (Network Educational Press, 2003 – pp.28-33) very helpful in developing these ideas – as has been Oliver Caviglioli’s work in general on educational ideas and how they can be explained more effectively through visuals.

I have found Richard Koch’s work on the 80/20 Principle very valuable (The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003). His suggestion that 80% of the value of a book can come from 20% (or less) of the text started me thinking about the huge potential of summaries. [Return to article]

2. From Cognitive Load Theory by John Sweller, Paul Ayres and Slava Kalyuga (Springer, 2011). Cited in Oliver Caviglioli’s sketchnote of Chapter 5 of the book. [Return to article]

3. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning – Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel (Belknap Press, 2014). [Return to article]

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