How to Write a Non-Fiction Book: 10 Crucial Steps
Have you ever thought about writing a non-fiction book?
Maybe you’re worried that you need to be an “expert”, or you feel daunted by the idea of writing so many words. But you can’t quite let go of that dream of seeing your name on the cover of a finished book.
You might have lots of different reasons for contemplating a non-fiction book. Maybe:
- You want the book itself to bring in money – a perfectly reasonable ambition!
- You plan to use the book to give you greater credibility and authority in your field – making it easier for you to get paid speaking gigs, for instance.
- You want the book to essentially be a marketing tool for your business – this might be a short free ebook that you give away on your site, or a fairly cheap mass-market book that introduces new readers to you.
Whatever your reasons for writing, this post will take you through what you need to do – step by step – to write your book.
Step #1: Figure Out How You’ll Publish Your Book
This might seem like an odd first step, but it’s really helpful to have in mind how you’re going to get your book out into the world, right from the start.
If you know you’re going to self-publish, for instance, you’ll have full control over the project (and full responsibility for every step). If you definitely want to seek a publisher, you’ll go about things a slightly different way – publishers of non-fiction typically want to see an outline and a sample chapter, not a finished manuscript, so they can have input into your project.
If you want to supply the finished book for free (probably as an incentive to get people to join your email list), then that will also inform your choices during the next few steps: you’ll probably want to write something quite short and simple.
Of course, it’s possible that you’ll end up changing your mind at some stage – but by having a goal in mind at the start, you make it far more likely that you’ll see your project through to completion.
Step #2: Decide on Your Core Topic
You may already have a particular topic or idea in mind for your book: if not, now’s the time to jot down lots of possibilities so you can choose the one that appeals to you most. If you already have an online audience (perhaps on a blog or through a Facebook page or group), you might want to ask them to help you choose between your top two or three ideas.
Many books are published each year on well-worn topics, like “how to be organised” or “how to lose weight”. If you want to write about something that’s already been extensively covered, look for a new angle on it. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a completely new approach – it could mean, for instance, having an unusual structure to your book. For those looking to write a self-help book, for instance, Lisa Tener has three tips you can use to make sure your book will standout and sell.
It’s important to choose a topic that you genuinely want to write about. You’re probably going to be working on this book for months – so don’t pick something just for the sake of it, or because you think it’s going to be a lucrative area.
Step #3: Brainstorm Everything Related to That Topic
At this stage of the process, your aim is to get as many ideas down on paper as possible. It doesn’t matter if some of them aren’t very good, or if they don’t really fit – you can get rid of them later! Just concentrate on scribbling down everything that could go into your book.
If you find yourself struggling at this stage, take a look on Amazon at some similar books, and glance at their Tables of Contents. Do they have chapters on any areas that you should probably cover too? Is there anything that you feel is missing – that you could cover in your book? You might also want to look at magazines related to your topic, including the letters from readers: these can give you good clues about the concerns and interests of people who enjoy your topic area.
Don’t worry if some of your ideas are ones that you don’t know much about: that’s where research comes in! At this stage, you don’t want to dismiss anything as “too hard”, so keep it all on your list for now. If you later decide that something is a bit beyond the scope of your book, that’s fine.
Step #4: Write a Rough Outline for Your Book (with Chapter Titles)
Now that you have lots of ideas down on paper, it’s time to turn them into a chapter by chapter outline. (You might well also be splitting your book into parts, if it covers quite a broad topic.) It normally makes sense to have the more basic chapters at the start of the book, then the more advanced ones later, if the reader is likely to read chapter-by-chapter rather than using the index to go straight to whichever part interests them most.
It’s a good idea to give each chapter a rough title at this stage – see this as a working title rather than something set in stone. You can always change it later. You might want to think about making your titles consistent (e.g. all roughly the same length, all starting with an “-ing” verb).
You can also use the mind mapping technique to create your outline. Here’s how Reedsy describes it:
This is an approach for visual thinkers. On a piece of paper, draw a big circle and write your main idea in it. Around the large circle, draw a series of smaller circles with supporting ideas that connect to the main one. Next, draw and connect smaller circles around your second series, and put related ideas in those as well.
If you’ve come up with some ideas that don’t seem to fit easily, think about having an appendix to your book – if you’ve written a book that focuses on theory, for instance, an appendix might be a good place to give practical suggestions and tips.
Step #5: Develop Your Outline with Bullet Points for Each Chapter
While this isn’t the only way to write an outline, I think it’s probably the easiest! Once you have a list of chapter titles, go through and flesh out each chapter with a few bullet points indicating what you plan to cover within that chapter. You could think of each bullet point as a section of the chapter.
It’s up to you how much detail you go into – but in my experience, the more time you spend on this stage, the less time you’ll spend getting bogged down during the writing itself. If you flesh out each chapter in some detail, that’ll also help you spot potential sticking points (like chapters where you’ll need to do a lot of research, meaning you’ll want to get interview requests out well ahead of time).
If you’re planning to work with a publisher, they’ll almost certainly want to see a full chapter-by-chapter outline, with at least a brief overview of what you plan to include in each chapter. Different publishers want this done in different ways, so do take a look at their website for their submission guidelines. (If you don’t already have a specific publisher in mind, now’s the time to start listing possibilities. You might want to look at who’s published similar books in your area, or books on different topics that have a similar style or outlook to yours.)
Step #6: Come Up With the Structure for Your Chapters
Some authors of non-fiction have quite varied chapters – some short, some long, some heavily researched-focused, others more conversational … but usually, it’s a good idea to find a way to make your chapters reasonably consistent. That might mean starting each one with an “overview”, for instance, and ending it with some practical tips or further reading suggestions. You don’t necessarily have to write this in for every individual chapter in your plan: you might simply include a note about the structure at the start to help you stay on track.
If you’re working with a publisher, this may well be set for you, especially if you’re writing a book that forms part of a series. With my book Publishing E-Books For Dummies, for instance, my chapters needed to fit the “For Dummies” structure (with an “In This Chapter” list of bullet points at the start of each one, for instance, and “Remember” and “Warning” tips within the chapter text).
If you’re self publishing, or if your publisher is happy for you to structure the chapters however you want, you may want to think through the pros and cons of a few different structures. If you’re not sure how to come up with a structure, grab a few non-fiction books that you own, and look in detail at their chapters. Are there any patterns to the way the information is ordered?
Step #7: Write the First Draft of Your Book
This might sound like a huge step – and it is! But with your full outline already in place, you’re in a great position to power through the first draft: essentially, you’re just filling in the blanks in your outline.
There’s no “right” way to draft a non-fiction book, and different authors take different approaches. Some like to put the outline into a new document and gradually expand it, adding more and more material with each pass through. Others work from Page One to The End. Still others pick and choose which chapters to write, selecting easy ones for the weeks when they’re quite busy, and trickier ones for the weeks when they have more time.
However you decide to write your draft, give yourself a deadline. If you’re working with a publisher, you probably already have a deadline for the finished manuscript – but I’d strongly advise setting your own “internal” deadline, with plenty of buffer room in case things go wrong! If you’re going to be self-publishing your book, it’s still important to have a deadline – otherwise it’ll be all too tempting to put it aside whenever you’re “busy” (which could end up being most of the time).
Step #8: Take a Break … Then Begin the First Revision
Once you’ve finished your first draft, take at least a few days off: you don’t want to dive straight into edits without giving yourself a bit of breathing room. This space between drafting and editing is important – it gives you a chance to mentally recharge, and it helps you to come back to your book with fresh eyes.
If you can, print your manuscript (if you want, you could get it bound into a book by a print-on-demand company like Lulu – you can keep your book private so no-one else can buy it). Or if you prefer, transfer it onto your Kindle or tablet. That way, you can read it through in a similar way to how a reader would experience it.
As you read through, focus on the “big picture” of your book (though it’s also worth noting any typos you happen to spot). Think about things like whether you’re missing any key information, whether you need to re-order any of the chapters so the book flows more smoothly, and whether there are chapters that need to be cut out of the book or merged together.
Step #9: Edit Your Book, Line by Line
I always advise doing separating line editing from content editing (you might want to think of them as “nitpicky editing” and “big picture editing”). After all, there’s not much point carefully honing every sentence in Chapter 7 if you later decide that Chapter 7 doesn’t belong in your book at all!
Line editing means going through each chapter, line by line, and checking that everything reads smoothly. (If you’re working with a publisher, chances are that they’ll have an editor doing this – you’ll probably still want to do a quick line edit of your work before sending it to them, though.)
When you’re editing at this stage, look out for things like whether your tone and voice is consistent, whether there are any paragraphs that are too long / too short, whether you’ve been consistent in how you’ve used acronyms and capitalisation, whether you’ve phrased things in the best way, and so on.
Step #10: Fact-Check Your Manuscript
This is something your publisher will normally cover – but if you’re going it alone, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve double-checked every fact yourself. Depending on what you’re writing, these facts might be statistics, famous quotes (not infrequently misattributed, online), technical instructions, tourist information … almost anything.
You’ll probably want to use a printed version of your manuscript for this, so you can read through carefully and highlight anything that you need to check. Even “facts” that you’re sure you know are worth double-checking, just in case.
With non-fiction books that involve science, psychology or similar, you’ll be expected to cite your sources (probably through footnotes or endnotes) and you may well need to give a bibliography of works you consulted. Obviously, if you’re self-publishing, you make the rules – but keep in mind that readers may review your book negatively if the content is dubious in any way.
Hurrah! After probably months of working on your manuscript, you’re done. At this point, you’re probably waiting eagerly for the publication date (either one set by your publisher, or the one you’ve chosen for self-publishing it).
I wanted to finish with a few key tips that can apply at several different stages of the writing process – I hope these help you to stay on track as you complete your book.
Five Key Tips for Finishing Your Book
Tip #1: Commit to a Regular Writing Schedule
Chances are, you have a lot of commitments beyond writing your book – you probably don’t have hours of free time every week to work on it. This means you need to consciously make time: perhaps working your book first thing each morning (e.g. from 6am – 6.30am) or writing during your lunch break while you’re at your day job. Figure out a writing schedule that suits you (you don’t have to write daily), and stick to it as best as you can. Self-Publishing School has a great piece with more best practices for writing a book and keeping motivated.
Tip #2: Keep Your Target Reader in Mind
When you’re writing non-fiction, it can be tricky to know how to phrase things: do you sound too stuffy? Or are you being too light-hearted for your audience? It helps a lot to have a target reader in mind: the “average” reader for your book – e.g. a dieting book aimed at “a busy 50-something woman with grown-up kids” will probably be quite different in tone than one aimed at “a 20-something single man who feels dieting ‘isn’t for him’ but really wants to lose weight”. (You might even want to pick a real person you know, and imagine you’re emailing them as you write.)
Tip #3: Get Feedback from Your Existing Audience
Many non-fiction book authors start out with a blog – and this gives you a ready-made audience for constructive feedback! You might even want to ask if anyone would like to beta read all or some of the finished manuscript. (Beta readers provide feedback, usually for free, on draft material.) You can also test things out on your audience – through writing a blog post or even a tweet on a particular idea that you’re considering including in your book.
Tip #4: Track Your Progress with Your Book
When you’ve been writing for weeks and you still have months to go, it can be very tempting to give up on the whole idea of writing a book! But by tracking your progress as you go along, you’ll be able to see that you are getting closer to the finish line. Many authors like to write down their daily word count, perhaps aiming to beat a set target or even their running average. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to see how just 100 words here and 200 words there really do add up.
Tip #5: Be Willing to Pay for Help
If you plan to self-publish, you’ll almost certainly want to pay for some help along the way. (The exception here is if you plan to give away your book for free, which means readers won’t have such high expectations of production standards.) At the very least, I’d recommend paying for cover design; you’ll likely also want to pay for editing and/or proofreading. Even if you’re aiming for traditional publication, you might want to consider paying for help from a freelance editor, or from someone who can review your outline and draft chapter(s) before you submit them.
Writing a book is a big commitment of time and energy – but it could potentially be life-changing. Hopefully, with the steps above, you can see how getting from “idea” to “finished book” is manageable if you work step by step. Good luck!
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