How to Write a Non-Fiction Book

You know you have a book in you, but maybe you’re struggling with knowing how to start or how to get it done—maybe this is your first time writing anything other than a term paper, and you feel really in the dark about the whole process. Writing a non-fiction book can be tough; finishing it, even tougher. Let’s assume you already know your general topic and where to get your in-depth information. Let’s also assume you’ve already done some thinking about why you want to write your book in the first place. Here’s an outline of the step-by-step process for writing your non-fiction book and getting it ready for market.

PHASE 1: THE SETUP

1. Narrow your topic

No matter your genre, the temptation will be to pursue too broad a topic. The narrower your topic, the more it will lend itself to a structure and an audience. You need something that can fit in 200-450 book pages. This means that a non-fiction book about the “Galapagos Islands” will need to be distilled to “Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands”, or better still, “Birds of the Galapagos Islands”. If you’re an expert on corporate leadership, you’ll go from “Training Tomorrow’s Leaders” to “Raising up Leaders from Within” to “Finding and Raising Up Female Leadership from Within Your Tech Company.”

Next, explain your topic in a single sentence. Then, build it out, and explain your topic in one paragraph. Finally, write a summary of what your book will be—think beginning, middle, and end—in about a page. Make note of where you struggle to do this last part, because it’ll give you starting points for your research.

Book spread

2. Define “success” for this project

What do you plan to do with your non-fiction book when it’s done? This drastically shapes both the book and the writing process. If you’re writing it for profit, you’ll need more market considerations than artistic ones in your content. Alternatively, if you’re writing to establish authority for speaking engagements, you’ll need to decide which content is in the book and what stays in-person. If you’re writing your non-fiction book as a personal expression, decide who it’s for. Knowing why you’re doing the work is sometimes the only thing that will carry you through those tough times when you don’t feel like working on the project anymore—and those times will come.

3. Describe your audience

As with knowing your “why”, you’ll need to know who your project is for. Not only is it motivating to focus on the specific people you’ll be helping or reaching, but knowing your audience intimately changes your writing style. Create a profile of your ideal reader—almost down to the hair color. You have to have a picture of your ideal reader in mind. What do these specific people care about? How do they spend their time? Do they have unique struggles and problems? What annoys them? Are there words that are native to them and which words are foreign? No book appeals to everyone, and success comes from specificity. Knowing your target audience at the outset makes a big difference as you write and try to sell your book.

4. Choose a structure

All non-fiction books fall into a few basic structures. You need to decide what type of book yours will be. This will guide your research, your outlining, and maybe even narrowing your topic. Consider these possible non-fiction book structures:

  • How-to (with step-by-step chapters)
  • Thought Leadership—presenting a problem, your take on it, and a solution or action plan
  • A list book
  • A collection of essays
  • A book of inspirations along a theme
  • A book of interviews (that you synthesized around a theme)
  • A memoir
  • A history of a place, person, or event
  • A biography
  • A guidebook to a place

Once you’ve selected the structure, part of your research will be consulting other major works in your genre with the same structure.

Cookbook spread

5. Decide on basic chapters

Break your topic into 5-10 parts. This can be done on a set of index cards, so you don’t have to put it in order yet. Write a sentence or two about each part. Consider your conclusion here, too—what are your main takeaways and where do readers go next?

6. Create an outline

This is where tools help. You need a good way to move your parts around and rearrange. Your non-fiction book likely won’t be written in order. You can use colored cards to group your notes by topic, or software like Scrivener that stacks your topics in trees that you can drag and drop into new sequences. The more detailed your outline the better. You’ll take each of your basic chapters and break it down further into Intro, 3-5 sub headings, and a conclusion.

7. Research your topic, your title, and your niche

At least half of the time it takes to write a non-fiction book is spent on research. If this is your first time writing a book, you’ll need to not only thoroughly research your topic—pulling together different details and opinions and combining them with your own—but also your genre, your structure, and other books like yours in your market. Next, research the niche of people who will read it. What else are they reading? Where do they “hang out”, either digitally or physically? Are there conferences you should attend? Blogs you should read? Twitter feeds to follow? This keeps your work relevant, and making it part of a larger conversation helps make it part of a larger market.

Next, research your title. You want to see what that audience is searching for, so that your book is discoverable. You also want your title to be on-topic and unique, so that your book is the one your audience finds. A good place to start with this is Amazon, where you can find your genre in its bestseller lists, then drill down to find the best sellers in the smallest niche where you might fit.

Research your topic, title, and niche

PHASE 2: WRITE YOUR BOOK

8. Set a word count goal

Most commercial non-fiction books are between 60,000-80,000 words. If this is your first time writing, books are measured in word-count because page formats differ. You’re shooting for a non-fiction book that’s industry standard size.

9. Set daily and weekly goals

Only you know how fast you write. If you can write 1,500 words in an hour, great! If you’re just starting, you might aim for something like 600-800 words in an hour. Now you can do the math. If you’re at the higher end of 1,500 words, you know this book’s first draft of straight writing time will be around 40 hours, not including research. Remember, the more detailed the outline, the faster the writing will go. The more general your outline, the more you’ll stop and start and get stuck in the gaps, and those hours will yield many fewer words.

10. Commit to a completion date

Once you know your words-per-hour, work backwards. Look at the time you can commit to writing—is it an hour a day? 3 hours a week? Estimate the time it will take to complete the project at your pace and mark the calendar. Tell someone to hold you accountable. Projects die without a drop-dead done-by date.

11. Schedule your writing time in uninterrupted blocks

Now schedule your hours to build out your outline into words and sentences. Commit to this time no matter what. Let friends and family know you’ll be unavailable during your writing blocks. Your book won’t write itself, so be prepared to step away from your non-book-writing life for a while to get your project done.

Book spread

12. Use your own compelling voice

Forget most of what you learned about writing in school, unless you’re writing a non-fiction book for academics. Most people haven’t studied or practiced writing since they were in school, so you might be a little rusty finding your own voice. You might be tempted to use impersonal, “smart”-sounding sentences, words that don’t come naturally to you, or sentence patterns that aren’t native to how you speak. Writing in the formal way you might have learned in school can feel painful and awkward, and you’ll spook yourself and trigger too many insecurities if you try to be something other than yourself on the page. If your writing needs cleaning up or formalizing, you can do that in the editing.

13. Write for clarity and simplicity

The greater your expertise, the more you’ll be tempted to use jargon, references, and language that could alienate non-experts. Not only do you want to sound like yourself, but you want to sound approachable to a wide range of comprehension within your niche. Take the time to explain a little more than you think you should have to, define your terms, and use the most common language possible.

14. Get early feedback

As you’re writing your non-fiction book, share your outline with a trusted friend or fellow expert. Share completed chapters or excerpts as blog posts and get community feedback. You’re not giving away any secrets, you’re getting your audience’s help in ironing out wrinkles and filling in holes. Build a rapport with your readers such that they can be in conversation with you, helping you see what they see. Blogging and social media make this easier than ever.

Your finished book will likely evolve quite a bit beyond these early things you share, and that’s a good thing! What you don’t want is to get really far down the line and realize you’ve burdened yourself with something that doesn’t work and can’t be finished by following the path you’ve already traveled pretty far down. Enlist as much as you can, realizing that getting the time of other people will likely mean contributing to the community by helping those other writers out in the same way.

PHASE 3: CROSS THE FINISH LINE

15. Edit your book yourself

A finished first draft means all sections complete, no research holes, introductions and transitions in place. Now print a full copy of your manuscript. Give it a couple days, but then go through it, page by page, making your first round of edits. You’ll do this 2-5 times—making edits, printing a new copy, taking a break, coming back fresh to see new edits—until you’re satisfied that each and every page is as good as it can be.

16. Find first readers

Print copies of this manuscript—the one you’ve finished editing for yourself—and give it to 2-3 other trusted people. They might be looking for different things: one reader might know a lot about the subject, one reader might know a lot about book structure, still another might know you, your voice, and be able to help with your sentences. Ask your readers for particular kinds of feedback based on their skills. Include a checklist or questionnaire with feedback prompts to get them going, and set a deadline, if possible. When they are returned, decide which feedback you’ll incorporate and make your edits.

Find your readers

17. Get professional editing

Professional editing comes in 4 forms: structural editing, developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Structural editing takes a look at your book and makes changes that will make it make more sense or have a stronger impact on your reader. Developmental editing looks at your content and makes your argument or ideas as strong as they can be in their own right, accounting for holes in logic, rhetorical pitfalls, or glaring oversights. It will also help cut redundancies and call out parts that need expansion. Copy editing takes a look at the writing style, line by line. They look for sentence structure, pattern variation, tone, voice, diction, imagery, etc. Lastly, proofreading checks for consistency, grammar, spelling, typos, and punctuation.

Depending on your goals for the non-fiction book, your book may need one or all of these. Blurb partners with people like Reedsy to help authors get this professional assistance. For people who are self-publishing, other than printing, professional editing can be the most expensive part of the process, but it makes all the difference in the world.

18. Make all the new edits

Depending on the level of professional editing you’ve received, you’ll have edits to make. Make your changes, big and small, then print a clean copy and go through it again to make sure your changes didn’t cause any new errors or problems. Sometimes professional editing happens in rounds, so you may be making changes, re-submitting, and making changes again, depending on the agreement you have with your editor. Don’t be discouraged. It’s very normal for whole books to go through draft after draft, even after they’re done. Be encouraged that each round is making it stronger and more likely to resonate with your audience.

19. Get professional proofreading

Do this as the very last thing, so that you don’t have more changes to make that create opportunities for new proofreading issues.

20. Get your cover professionally designed

Unless you are a book designer, you’ll want this professionally done. A professional will be familiar with industry standards, typographic hierarchy, design trends and other practical things, like how your book looks viewed as a thumbnail as well as on a shelf. In spite of the age-old saying, books ARE judged by their covers, and you didn’t work this hard on your project to have it ignored because the first-impression made by the cover was uninspiring. This might take a couple of rounds with your designer, too, but that’s OK. You’ll strike a balance between what he or she knows about cover design and what you know about yourself and your content. Be prepared to push back a little to make it something you believe in.

A non-fiction book

21. Get your Second Readers

This is to solicit reviews that will appear in your promotional materials, and maybe on your cover or in your front matter. Circulate proof copies to generate early buzz and catch any final problems.

22. Write the Front and End Matter

Drafts of these might happen in earlier steps, (before editing and proofreading), but some can only be done after you’ve gathered feedback from your second readers. All nonfiction books have some form of these auxiliary sections:

  • Foreword (written by someone else, hopefully someone noteworthy)
  • Introduction (written by you, creating a context for why you wrote what you did and what readers need to consider about your point of view)
  • How to use this book (if it’s a guide or process of any kind)
  • Table of Contents
  • Afterword/ What’s next
  • Other titles by the Author
  • Resources page
  • Endnotes/Footnotes/Bibliography
  • Glossary
  • Index (Don’t shy away from this. Modern desktop publishing software makes it easier to index than ever.)

23. Write the blurb for the back

Write an enticing description or blurb of your book that will inspire anyone that comes across it to dive in (and buy your book). This goes on the back of the book. Remember, this is just as much about getting someone to read the book as it is what’s in it. Don’t fall into the trap of description alone—really sell the experience of reading your non-fiction book in the blurb.

24. Get an author bio and headshots

If you didn’t have these already from the cover design, you’ll definitely need them as part of your promotional materials and package. You’ll need them for your social media and author website to promote your book.

Stacks of books

25. Get your marketing materials together

Don’t forget to get mockups of your non-fiction book from your cover designer. You’ll want .jpg image mockups of your book facing forward, the spine, laying down, open, closed, etc. to use in your promotional materials, as well as an image of a big stack of your books. In addition, you’ll need your sales pitch, your description of what it’s about, and talking points for various segments of your audience. You’ll be much less intimidated by the marketing process if you’ve done this thinking and formatting in advance.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The only books that matter are the finished ones, not the ones that stalled out, that got stuck as undeveloped ideas, or got abandoned in a drawer. The process of writing a non-fiction book might be daunting, but it’s doable. Remember that millions of books are finished and published every year. Millions and millions of people throughout written history have finished their books and gotten them into the world. If they could do it, why not you? It’s time to get to work.

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