How to Write a Nonfiction Book in 6 Steps
If you’ve arrived on this page, chances are you want to learn how to write a nonfiction book. Welcome! At Reedsy, we’ve helped tens of thousands of first-time authors bring their book to life and we’re ready to guide you on your journey to becoming an author. To help turn your idea into a brilliant book, here’s our best advice on writing a nonfiction book that will sell.
1. Make sure your idea is fit for market
Publishing nonfiction is competitive. This is particularly true for authors hoping to get a book deal with one of the largest book publishers, where a detailed book proposal is necessary. Things are somewhat simpler for writers who plan to self-publish their books (as they won’t need to find a literary agent or submit a book proposal) but the need for excellent planning remains.
When you start out, your idea is likely to be nebulous or vague, e.g. “It’s a self-help book for new parents”. Before you put pen to paper, you need to crystallize and tighten your original idea, as well as think about your audience and your platform.
Nail down your book idea
A key part of figuring out how to write a nonfiction book is being able to answer the three important "W" questions:
- What is it about?
- Why does it matter?
- Who will want to read it?
Once you can answer these questions, you can fill in the blanks below:
[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 elements of this equation.
The “what" is the seed of your book. It’s the beginning of something, and before it can sprout into more, you have to identify the essence of what you want to say.
How would you describe your topic to someone in a single sentence? If someone were to ask you what you were writing about, the answer you would give is your “what”. Whether it’s a true crime book about a gruesome murder, or a vegan cookbook, the “what” will become the crux of your book.
With the exception of memoirs, in nonfiction, the “who” is all about utility: who will find the information in your book most useful? 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 an ideal proto-persona, a hypothetical reader that can help you realize how to market your nonfiction book or even identify your target audience. Having this hypothetical reader in mind makes it easier to specifically write to them, which in turn makes your book more focused on the things that matter to your audience.
To learn how to create a proto-persona for your ideal reader, be sure to check out our post on reaching your target audience.
And finally, the “why.” As we reveal in the Reedsy’s Bestseller podcast, up to 81% of all people believe they have a book inside them. (Not in a literal “call the ambulance” sense — 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 subject?
While we’re on the subject of what makes you qualified: if you don’t already have one, now’s the time to start building a strong author platform. Reedsy editor Sally Collings breaks down exactly what an author platform is, what it isn’t, and how you can build one in the webinar below.
Your final answers to the three "W" questions will be the essential thesis from which you work throughout the book-writing process.
Research your topic
Research comes in many shapes and sizes and is especially important for writing nonfiction. Here are a few different types of research that are suitable for different genres.
If you’re writing a memoir
How do you write a memoir? Start by interviewing yourself. Though you may think you 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 hoping for more memoir-specific tips, head to our post on how to write a memoir.
If you’re writing a how-to
Your research may involve collecting all sorts of existing material on the subject — such as blog posts and previously published essays, and then testing out your own instructions.
If you’re writing self-help
You might want to reach out to experts, such as psychologists and inspirational speakers. Or, if you're an expert yourself, you can interview yourself as you would for a memoir! (And don't forget to check out our list of the 50 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.
2. 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 part of the foundation on which you will build your book. Why? Because it provides a first sense of structure.
Like fiction, where story structure can make or break a narrative, nonfiction relies on the reader being able to follow the writer’s leaps of logic. Since nonfiction is all about utility, structure is of utmost importance in guiding the reader toward the information they need. If your book is about a process, or a how-to, a linear structure makes sense. But you can also disrupt traditional structure to make things more entertaining, in order to maintain the reader’s attention.
You can write in whatever order you want, but it’s extremely helpful if you begin writing with a sense of where, approximately, a section will appear. At the very least, you’ll develop a clearer understanding of how various points link to each other.
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), have a go at an outline and see where it takes you. Start with the outlining methods below and see if any of them work 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 know the point they’re 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? For every writer, there's a way to outline a book that best suits them — and we highly suggest you spend time finding the one that works for you.
3. Write a book proposal (even if you’re self-publishing)
Book proposals are a hugely important part of the process for anyone who wants to publish their book with a publisher’s help. They’re not essential for writers planning to self-publish, but you can use them as voluntary, loosely-drafted exercises to get yourself to flesh out your structure and ideas more fully.
Book proposals are fairly formulaic documents. They range between 15-50 pages (approximately), and they make the case for your book to a publisher. In this proposal, you need to cover the three W-questions discussed above, but most importantly, you also need to show you’re very clear about how you will go about making your point in your book. That means showing you’ve done the research it takes to write a book, and that you’ve thought about how you’ll organize your thoughts into chapters and into a narrative. (As you’ll know, fiction isn’t the only type of writing that requires an overarching narrative arc!)
An absolutely crucial element of the book proposal is showing your awareness of the literary market, and its implications on your book. Here, you’ll need to touch on comp titles (or your literary influences at the very least), so that it’s clear where your book will fit in the literary market. You also have to present publishers with a sample of your writing and a few ideas for how you’re going to market the book.
If this is leaving you anxious, worry not. We’ve covered these stressful documents in more depth in our guide on how to write a book proposal as well as a free course that you can sign up for here:
4. Blast through your first draft
Now the planning’s out of the way, there’s nowhere left to run: it’s time to actually sit down and write your first draft. Luckily, we've got plenty of writing 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 that “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 a nonfiction book, 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 you develop your 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 whether what you’re writing is good/interesting/insightful/factual enough. Trust us, you’ll have plenty of time to nitpick later.
Be ready to defeat writer's block
Studies have determined four broad reasons for writer’s block:
- Self-consciousness that their work won’t be as well-received as others;
- Lack of inspiration; or,
- 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 of each chapter.
- 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.
Managing your expectations is also key. Your first book isn’t going to be your magnum opus, nor should it be — you have plenty of time to get there! So do yourself a favor, and don’t compare your writing to literary giants: it’s not fair to you or your work.
Secondly, remember that not every day will be full of creativity and inspiration. You won’t always be able to translate the value from the world around you onto the page. Indeed, the ability to stick to a routine when you’re suffering from writer’s block is the hallmark of a truly committed 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. You may feel the urge to demonstrate your stylistic prowess, or you may not yet be used to structuring your writing. This 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 make sure the pacing of your writing stays fairly tight. You might feel compelled to get your point across with long, drawn-out metaphors but the narrative should always take precedence. Remember that your reader consciously wants the information you’re giving them, but the thing that keeps them going is the narrative.
5. Boldly revise your manuscript
If you thought learning how to write a nonfiction book was all about the writing, you were forgetting about another crucial dimension of this work: editing. Most manuscripts go through several rounds of revisions before they reach their final form. So don’t hold back: it’s time for you to ruthlessly edit your book.
Whether you do it yourself, ask a friend, or hire a professional book editor, it’s important to know exactly what needs fixing. Here are our best editing tips.
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 — in other words, a sentence where more than 45% of the words are glue words. Sadly, glue words are 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 image clearer and the sentence more succinct!
Tackle inconsistencies with a fresh perspective
One of the main objectives of editing is to get rid of inconsistencies, but it’s pretty hard to do that when you’ve just finished writing. You’ll be so familiar with the subject that logic gaps will automatically bridge themselves in your mind. It’s natural to feel a bit “precious” about your writing at this stage — we’ve all been there. This is why it’s important to wait before you edit. That applies to any type 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 assessing it for possible logic holes and overall cohesion.
If you don’t want to wait, or 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 invaluable nonfiction 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.
6. Say hello to your 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 it requires 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, 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 nonfiction 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. That doesn’t mean you should go for clickbaity, flashy, second-hand-car-salesman exclamations. Rather, consider the aspects of your book that will naturally pique human interest, and lead with those.
If you’d like more advice on openings, check out our thorough guide to starting a story.
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.)
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 your book cover, it helps form a reader’s first impression. A good title should intrigue and entice the reader while also reinforcing 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. You can also take a look at our list of the best nonfiction books if you want to see how other writers tackle titles!
Now that you know how to write a nonfiction book, the world is your oyster. 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. 📖