How to Write a Nonfiction Book in 9 Steps
Just about everyone has thought of writing a book at some point — even if you don’t consider yourself a “writer,” you probably have an inkling of a book somewhere in your head. But whether you’ve just had your lightbulb moment or you’ve been mulling over a great idea for years, there’s no time like the present to learn how to write a nonfiction book!
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula, since every writer has their own unique process. No doubt you’ll discover what works for you over the course of your authorial journey. That being said, there are still certain things you absolutely need to know if you ever want to cross the finish line! We’re excited to share our very best tips, tricks, and other info in this all-inclusive guide to how to write a nonfiction book.
1. Establish your writing space and tools
Sure, all writers would love a dedicated writing room that overlooks inspiring, sweeping vistas. But the fact is, most of us don’t have that. And the other fact is that writing a book is not dependant on a perfect writing space: it’s all about making whatever space you’ve got work for you. Remember, J.K. Rowling first started jotting down the Harry Potter series on a napkin while sitting on a train!
Whether your writing space is the couch, dining room table, a coffee shop, or home office, find environments where you’re able to work uninterrupted — at least for a while.
One important part of ensuring a disruption-free writing session is determining ahead of time what writing tools you’ll be relying on. Will you be writing on pen and paper, or a word processor? Do you need a timer? Sticky notes to organize your thoughts? Think as comprehensively as possible — and remember, writing a book from start to finish will rely heartily on how pleasant you can make your writing sessions. Your writing tools will play a key role in this.
2. Nail down your book idea
Nailing down your book idea involves more than just being able to state what it's about — although that is part of it. To really nail down your idea, you should be able to answer the three important "W" questions:
- What is it about?
- Why does it matter?
- Who will want to read it?
Once you’re able to answer all of these questions, you can fill in the blanks of the following sentence:
[The who] will read my book about [the what] because [the why].
For example: "CEOs will read my book about workplace culture because it offers insights into the practices of the top ten companies voted 'best places' to work in the USA."
Let’s break down the various elements of this equation and show you how to identify them in your own premises.
The “what" is the seed of your book. It’s the beginning of something, and before it can sprout into more, you have to nail down the essence of what you want to say.
Instead, figure out how you would describe your topic to someone in a single sentence. If someone were to ask you right now, “Oh, what are you writing about?” the “what” would be your answer. Whether it’s a book on finances for new business owners or a vegan cookbook, the “what” will become the crux of your book.
When it comes to writing non-fiction, the “who” is all about utility: who will find the information in your book most useful? (The exception here is memoir, in which case your readers may just be seeking entertainment.) But if you’re writing a guide, an informative tell-all, or even a historical book, your target audience will be people who want to learn from you.
No matter your wheelhouse, it’s extremely helpful to come up with a proto-persona for the person who’ll be buying your book. This should represent your ideal customer and is key to reaching your target audience. Coming up with a hypothetical reader makes it much easier to specifically write to them, which in turn makes them more inclined to buy your book.
And finally, the “why.” With the innumerable experiences and wild ideas that people accumulate over their lives, we all have plenty of books we could write. Indeed, as we reveal in the Reedsy podcast, Bestseller, up to 81% of all people believe they have a book inside them. (Not literally — that would be a lot of stomach aches — but in the “potential writer” sort of way.)
So why should you write this particular book? And, just as importantly, why are you the one who should write it? What makes you qualified, and what makes you passionate about this particular subject?
Your final result of answering these three "W" questions will be the essential thesis from which you work throughout the book-writing process. Once you have this prepared, you can move onto the next step: outlining.
3. Outline your book
Creating an outline is one of the most important parts of writing a nonfiction book — in addition to your “three Ws,” your outline forms a huge part of the foundation on which you will build your book. Even if you’ve never worked from an outline before, or don’t think you need one (i.e. if you're a pantser, not a plotter), there’s no harm in seeing where one takes you.
Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking every outline has to look exactly the same. There are a few different methods you can use to outline your book, which we’ve “outlined” here. Feel free to experiment with them and go with whichever works best for you.
The mind map
This is an approach for visual thinkers. On a piece of paper, draw a big circle and put your main idea in it. Then around that circle, draw a series of smaller circles with supporting ideas that connect to the main one. Next, draw and connect even smaller circles around your second series, and put related ideas in those as well.
The chapter outline (or “beat sheet”)
Often times, fiction writers aren’t quite sure how their novel will end. Luckily for you, nonfiction authors already have a clear idea of the point their book is trying to make. Write an “introduction” and a “conclusion” header. In the introduction, write down the question your book poses. In the conclusion, write down the answer. In between, take note of the chapters you need to include (and the point each one will make) to get readers from Point A to Point B.
Or maybe the skeleton outline or post-it approach is more your speed? There’s an outline for everyone out there — and we highly suggest you spend time finding the one that works for you.
4. Research your topic
Research comes in many shapes and sizes, depending on the type of book you are writing, and is especially important for writing non-fiction. Here are a few different types of research that are suitable for different genres, though you can always mix and match according to what your subject matter requires.
- If you’re writing a memoir, you might start by interviewing yourself. Though you may think you already know yourself pretty well, you’d be surprised at the blind spots that can be revealed through a simple interview. You can always have someone else interview you too!
- If you’re writing a how-to, your research may involve testing out your own instructions, or collecting all sorts of existing material on the subject — such as blog posts and previously published essays.
- If you’re writing self-help, you might want to reach out to experts on the topic, such as psychologists and motivational speakers. Or, if you're already an expert on this particular topic, you can interview yourself as you would for a memoir! (And don't forget to check out our list of the 30 best self-help books for inspiration!)
- If you’re writing a history or biography, you’ll likely spend lots of time in libraries and archives — unless you’re writing about someone who’s still alive, or something that’s just recently happened, in which case you can gather the information yourself.
5. Know when to stop planning and start writing
Creating a proper outline and thoroughly researching your topics are important parts of protecting yourself against writer’s block and ensuring you actually finish writing your book. That being said, there comes a point where planning turns into procrastination, and you need to force yourself to just start writing. After all, you can always continue to research your topic as you write.
If you find ideas for your book constantly popping into your head, it probably means you’re adequately prepared to set your prep work aside and get down to the nitty-gritty: the actual writing process. Let’s get into goals, routines, and what you should focus on during your first draft!
6. Establish a writing routine
Establishing a writing routine is another vital component to actually completing your manuscript. Here are the best actions you can take (or avoid!) to develop and stick with a routine.
Create word count targets
Most authors primarily think about their writing progress in terms of word count. They set goals for how many words to write per day, per week, and per month, so they’ll know if they’re keeping up a reasonable rate of progress.
In terms of what a reasonable rate of progress is, every writer has to define that for themselves. However, if you’re really determined to make this book thing work, you should aim for at least 1,500 words a week. That’s 6,000 words a month and 72,000 a year — well past NaNoWriMo standards for what constitutes a novel (50k words)! Bear in mind that you can break this up however you want: 500 words per day/three days a week, one day of 1,000 words + two shorter days of 250 each, etc.
Besides word count, it’s important to set goals for your writing time as well. Only you can decide what’s right for your schedule, but here are some general guidelines.
Consider both a) when you have the most free time, and b) when you have at least a little bit of free time. The trick is: don’t devote every single day off to writing. Contrary to popular advice, you don’t really have to write every single day in order to finish a nonfiction book. The important thing is for you to designate a schedule and keep it up. Whatever schedule you set for yourself, make sure your friends and family are aware of it — and that they know not to schedule other activities with you during your non-negotiable-writing-time!
How long does it take to write a nonfiction book?
In general, it takes most authors between six months to a year to write a book. That being said, every writer’s pace is different. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 2.5 weeks, while Gone With The Wind took Margaret Mitchell 10 years to complete. Use this post about writing pace to estimate what yours will look like.
Never skip two sessions in a row
Countless writing experts champion the “two sessions” rule as the key to writing success. Here’s why: skipping one writing session — whether because you’ve had a super-busy day or you just can’t summon the energy — doesn’t mean you’ve fallen off the wagon. One missed day is a fluke, an anomaly that can easily be compensated for over your next few sessions.
But once you skip two sessions in a row, you’re setting a new routine of NOT writing. And not only that, you’re getting farther behind on your word count goals. You start to feel like you can't catch up, and the pressure often leads you to quit altogether. So don't let yourself miss two consecutive sessions. Believe us, you’ll be glad you persevered.
Get an accountability buddy
Ideally, this will be another writer who understands what you’re going through, and may even be working on a project themselves — this way you can swap encouragement, tips, and stern lectures when needed.
If you don’t know any other writers in real life, you can always join an online writing community! The advice and support in the forums of these writing websites can be an absolute lifesaver when you’re feeling discouraged.
Track your progress tangibly
What do we mean by “tangibly”? Well, instead of just entering data in a spreadsheet of “words written per day,” you might actually print out the pages you’ve finished as you complete them. As you write, your manuscript pile will grow — plus it’ll be all ready for proofing at the end!
You can also do something silly but fun, like making a calendar and putting a sticker on it for every day of accomplished writing. Or you can put a marble in a mason jar for every 500 words written, and when it fills up, take yourself out for a nice dinner. Rewarding yourself at certain milestones is a particularly effective means of staying motivated. And in that vein…
7. Write your first draft
Once you’ve got your what, why, and who, your notebooks are filled with research that has been transferred into a rock-solid outline, and you've developed a realistic writing schedule. There’s nowhere left to run: it’s time to actually sit down and write your first draft. Luckily, we've got plenty of tips to help you out!
Refine your “author voice”
When it comes to defining the abstract topic of author voice, author and writing coach Gabriela Pereira says, “You have to understand that it's kind of ingrained in your personality. There's some element of your voice that will be part and parcel of who you are.”
Who you are is of the utmost importance when it comes to writing nonfiction. When you publish nonfiction, you’re asking readers to trust your credibility to speak about the given topic. To establish trust with readers, you need to develop a relationship with them, and the author-reader relationship is largely established through the reader connected to your “author voice” — the personality you inject into your writing.
So how can nonfiction authors develop their writing voice? There are a couple of exercises you might try: Pereira suggests journaling and a “retelling” exercise which involves rewriting nursery rhymes in the voice of a famous author, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf. This will help you get a sense of what voice is, since it’s a pretty slippery concept — plus, the natural tension that arises between your own voice and that author’s voice should tell you about how you want your prose to sound.
Don’t edit as you go
Put away your red pen and build a glass case around your “delete” key. You don’t need every single word, phrase, and sentence to be well-constructed at first; you just need to get them down on the page. Focus on getting all the content out, without censoring yourself or wondering if what you’re writing is good/interesting/insightful/factual enough. Trust us, you’ll have plenty of time to nitpick later.
Develop practices for defeating writer's block
Studies have determined four broad reasons for writer’s block: 1) self-criticism, 2) self-consciousness that their work won’t be as well-received as others, 3) lack of inspiration, or 4) lack of motivation.
When you don’t feel like writing, chances are the solution to this creative quandary lies further back.
- Self-criticism: Go back to the what. Does this idea still hold up? Are you still invested in the premise? Remember why you started writing the book in the first place.
- Self-consciousness: Go back to the how. Revisit the outline you made for taking the reader from start to finish, and the lessons and takeaways each chapter will leave them with.
- Lack of inspiration: Go back to the who. Get better acquainted with your ideal reader, and picture them connecting with your book. Use that as your inspiration.
- Lack of motivation: Go back to the why. Remember that sweet spot between why you want to write this book and why readers will find it valuable.
In addition, a big part of avoiding writer's block is managing your expectations. Your first book is not going to be your magnum opus, nor should it be — you have plenty of time to get there in your writing career! So do yourself a favor, and don’t compare your writing to literary giants: that’s not fair to you or your work.
Secondly, remember that not every day will be full of creativity and inspiration, and you won’t always be able to translate the value from the world around you onto the page. Indeed, being able to stick to a routine when you’re not in a creative mindset is the hallmark of a true writer.
Put the reader first
Finally, this just might be the most important piece of advice we can give you: remember to always put the reader first. This is especially difficult as a first-time author. For one thing, you’ll want to demonstrate your stylistic prowess. For another, you’re not yet used to structuring your writing. This combination means that your main ideas are liable to end up muddled.
To combat these tendencies, try to constantly, consciously think about the reader over yourself. Keep the language accessible and the pacing fairly quick. You might feel compelled to write long, drawn-out metaphors to get your point across, but the narrative should always take precedence — because that’s what the reader cares about.
All right, the hard part’s over now, in theory. But the process of refining and deciding what to do with your book isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Now we'll take you through what you need to edit your book and eventually publish it (if that’s the path you choose). Come on, final push — let’s go!
8. Revise your manuscript
The vast majority of manuscripts need to go through several rounds of revisions before they reach their final form. So don’t hold back: it’s time for some ruthless editing. And whether you do it yourself, ask a friend, or hire a professional, it’s important to know exactly what needs fixing. Here are our best tips regarding the editing process.
Get rid of glue words and intensifiers
If you want to bore your readers, all you need to do is fill your book with sticky sentences. A sticky sentence is one that contains over 45% glue words — that is, the 200+ most common words in the English language.
While there are some exceptions to this rule, a sentence with more glue words than not tends to meander unnecessarily. Let’s take a look at this example from Lisa Lepki, editor of the ProWritingAid blog:
A sentence with 64% glue words: “At that moment, Karen walked out onto the middle of the stage with her violin and looked out across the room at the big crowd.”
The same sentence, redrafted with 45% glue words: “At that moment, Karen appeared onstage with her violin, her eyes wide as she surveyed the growing crowd.”
As you can see, cutting down the glue words makes the same image becomes clearer and more succinct!
Tackle inconsistencies with a fresh perspective
When you’re drafting your first book ever, it’s easy to slip in some inconsistencies. One of the main objectives of editing is to get rid of these.
It’s pretty hard to do that when you’ve only just finished writing, however. You’ll be so familiar with the subject that gaps in logic will automatically bridge themselves in your mind. Plus, it’s natural to feel a bit “precious” about your writing at this stage, and you may not be ready to admit to any mistakes.
This is why it’s important to wait before you edit. That applies to any mode of editing, but it’s especially crucial when scanning for inconsistencies during a line edit. You should try to set your manuscript aside for a week at minimum, ideally more, before taking a close, honest look at it for possible plot holes and overall cohesion.
If you don’t want to wait, or if you don’t trust your own judgment, you can get someone else to look over your manuscript with fresh eyes! Friends and family are a great resource, but consider looking for beta readers, or hiring one of those pro editors we mentioned.
Don’t try to fix every issue at the same time
These days it feels like we’re all expected to multitask flawlessly, but take it from us: do not multitask your editing. If you’re doing it yourself, it’s best to break down editing tasks into a list and complete each item separately.
For example, your first task might be to look for glue words and extraneous adverbs, and your second task to break up run-on sentences. Your third task will be to look for inconsistencies, and so on and so forth. Doing all these at once will surely lead to oversight — and exhaustion — so just take them on one at a time. You can go here to download a comprehensive editing checklist.
9. Write the second draft
Edits all done? That means you’re ready for rewrites: the part where you actually transform your first draft into the second. It’s a magical process, even if does require a good deal of work. Here are some things to think about as you take on the penultimate step of writing a nonfiction book.
- Does my book have an overarching narrative?
- Do my points logically flow from one to another?
- Can I strengthen my arguments even further?
- Does my book provide a unique perspective?
- Are there any weak parts I should focus on — or consider cutting?
In addition, you should be sure to...
Nail the opening hook
Like reducing glue words, nailing the hook is another simple but pivotal fix you can make to your manuscript. That’s because both editors and readers are prone to quick judgments. If they’re drawn in by your cover enough to make it to the first page, the opening lines are the next test. Failure to pass could mean they give up on it entirely.
Consider the following opening lines:
“Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire.” — The War That Ended Peace
“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.” — Truth and Logic
“In the fall of 1993, a man who would upend much of what we know about habits walked into a laboratory in San Diego for a scheduled appointment.” — The Power of Habit
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” — Unweaving The Rainbow
Through the use of strong statements or interesting anecdotes, these hooks create intrigue right away. But that doesn’t mean you should go for clickbaity, flashy, second-hand-car-salesman exclamations here. Rather, consider the aspects of your book that will naturally pique human interest, and lead with those.
Consider your conclusion
Consider the overall impact of your ending. Have you worked through all the problems you’ve posed throughout the book? Will readers be satisfied with your resolution? (You may have to ask other people for their opinion on this.)
Unlike rewriting your hook or intro, reworking your conclusion may involve going back through your book to insert other bits and pieces as well. For example, you might realize that you haven’t incorporated a certain theme enough for it to resonate in the conclusion, prompting you to retroactively work it into previous chapters. Again, don’t be afraid of the workload: embrace it as the thing that will make your book the best that it can be.
Title your nonfiction book
Your book title has an important role. Along with the book cover, it provides readers with a first impression. A good title should intrigue and entice the reader and reinforce the book’s theme or purpose.
For nonfiction, direct is usually best. Try to focus on the solution your book offers readers, or the unique perspective you bring to the subject. Subtitles are also popular as they allow you to expand upon your central message, as well as pack your title with keywords that Amazon will recognize.
Our heartiest congratulations to you — you’ve written a nonfiction book! 👏 Your journey’s not quite over, though: now you get to decide what to do with it.
For most people, publishing a book is the ultimate goal. Though it does take time to learn how to publish a book professionally, the satisfaction of holding your book in your hands is truly its own reward.
Whatever path you take, we wish you the best of luck. And if you do decide to publish, we can’t wait to see what you’ve created. 📖
Before you go, we can’t forget our last tip: once you’re finished, reach out to us with your top tips so we can add them to this post, and help other aspiring authors reach their goals. Or if you have some already, leave them in the comments below!