The Conceptual Pyramid: How to Organize a Book Manuscript’s Ideas

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How should you organize concepts in a large writing project?

As an academic editor, I routinely hear these questions from clients: “How many concepts or theories do I need in my academic manuscript?” and “are there too many in this chapter?” These are sound questions, as academics routinely want to describe complex worlds. Too many analytic concepts leave the reader confused, while too few might leave them lost in the details. Compelling academic books also have to present and interpret original data while keeping the reader focused on the author’s big argument about, say, a social or political problem. Concepts should be used to “show, not tell,” as we editors say. It’s a lot to balance!

To help academic authors organize their analytic concepts, I’ve developed the concept of the “conceptual pyramid.” I like structural metaphors because they attune authors to how large writing projects can be organized. Readable, engaging books don’t just happen—they are carefully architected.

The conceptual pyramid—a tool to organize your argument

At the top of the analytic pyramid sits your most high-level concept. Maybe it’s “civic engagement,” “Indigenous development,” or a term of your own coinage, like “data feminism.” Regardless, it should be compelling, timely, and powerful enough to answer the question “so what?” Think of it like your manuscript’s compass—a conceptual device that guides your writing. The biggest concept is supported by mid-level analytic concepts that connect the high-level concept with evidence.

Think of mid-level analytic concepts like different dimensions of your high-level concept. They may even be stand-alone chapters, if your manuscript is organized conceptually rather than chronologically (as a history typically is). They are particularly important for both rhetorical and analytical reasons. Rhetorically, they give readers a concept to grab hold of as they read. And if you’re a social scientist, you’re familiar with “operationalization”—coming up with a form of data that measures a particular concept. Analytically, mid-level concepts are how you—implicitly or explicitly—analyze a particular phenomena.

At the bottom of the conceptual pyramid sits the evidence. Data may be quantitative (e.g., experiments), qualitative (e.g., interviews or ethnographic), or secondary (e.g., news stories or census data). Regardless, you should naturally more evidence than concepts. Researchers should judiciously select the most compelling evidence to support their book’s argument. So it’s common to have more evidence—quotes, results, or ethnographic vignettes—than make it into a final piece of writing! (Sometimes I regale clients with a story of how I did six months of ethnographic data collection to produce a few sentences in a book.) So don’t feel bad about leaving data on the cutting room floor. Cut unrelated, boring, or otherwise uncompelling evidence that would clutter an otherwise compelling book and overwhelm the reader.

Mal-adapted Conceptual Frameworks as Buildings

The Space Needle, named after Seattle’s renowned building

It’s helpful for authors to think about flawed conceptual frameworks for large writing projects. In a “space needle” structure, there are few to no mid-level concepts. All the evidence is marshaled to support a single high-level concept. One problem is this type of book falls into that most unfortunate of academic traps—being “too descriptive”—while also not being very readable. For example, I’ve seen manuscripts by critical scholars that treat every event as an example of neoliberalism gone amuck, which over 200 pages bores and exhausts the reader. A lack of mid-level concepts can also be a missed opportunity, as fellow academics may also find mid-level analytic concepts as useful as high-level ones. For example, in my current book manuscript, from Hanna Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation, I draw on her concept of “symbolic representation”—that people can “stand for” other concepts. Her chapter on this mid-level analytic concept was simply most useful for my own research, even more so than her overall argument. So don’t deprive future scholars of the analytic tools they could use, and can be used to structure powerful arguments!

The “brownstone,” named after the familiar New York city building

A brownstone features too many high- and mid-level concepts. At worst, these types of manuscripts are what I call “bricks”—books with an argument opaque to everyone but the writer. Basically the author continually tries to draw connections between evidence and abundant high-level concepts, but analytically herniates themselves in the process. From the reader’s perspective, there simply are too many concepts to keep track of.

Ambitious writers convince themselves they must build brownstones when they think making a sophisticated argument demands plentiful high- and mid-level concepts. But having too many mid-level concepts can lead to a confusing, overwrought book, oddly both full of unnecessary deviations and too many bold claims. A single book is unlikely to give equal treatment to, say, neoliberalism, racism, environmentalism, and Indigenous rights—all high-level concepts that likely demand an entire book to explore. Brownstones also risk over-interpreting data. At worst, every vignette or piece of evidence generates its own concept, unveiled with unnecessary flourishes. As I’ve written elsewhere, complexity unto itself is not that interesting to read about. Rather, readers prefer to have complex problems translated into a set of compelling arguments that are enjoyable to read!

Dr. Andrew / Aure Schrock is the Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find them on Twitter at @aschrock.