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Whether you’re sharing your life story with the world for the first time, putting together a biography of your favorite historical figure, or tackling hard-hitting business topics, becoming a nonfiction writer is a challenging, yet fulfilling, opportunity. In this guide, we’ll show you how to write a nonfiction book, from choosing a genre to outlining and building a structure, so that you can bring your creation to a captivated audience.
Before you ever put pen to paper, the bulk of your time should be spent planning and outlining to write a nonfiction book. If you have some experience with fiction writing, you’re probably familiar with this process. But when it comes to nonfiction, it’s even more intense.
Nonfiction is all about fact, whether that’s a memoir of a long life, a creative essay about a personal experience, or even a travel guide. Where fiction planning is more about character and plot, there’s much more research and upfront development that goes into the planning of a nonfiction book.
Don’t roll up your sleeves quite yet. Before you can dive into stats, figures, or interviews, you need to know exactly what your book is going to be about and who you’re writing it for.
Choosing Nonfiction Subgenres
You likely already have some idea of what type of nonfiction book topics you’re personally interested in and want to write about, especially if you have expertise in a certain field or industry. But you need to get even more specific by choosing your nonfiction subgenre.
Let’s say you’re an expert in social media marketing. There are plenty of ways that you could provide information about this to an audience. You could write a book that provides practical advice for improving a small business’ online presence. Or you could write an academic review of how social media has impacted mental health in teens and young adults. Same topic, two very different approaches and outcomes.
The subgenre that you choose to write in will ultimately determine what research you need to do and how your book will be structured.
Identify Your Target Audience
Knowing who you’re writing your nonfiction book for goes hand-in-hand with the subgenre. Using our social media example, someone looking for an academic-style narrative likely has a very different intention for reading the book compared to an individual who may need tips and tricks to develop a posting plan for their small business.
In some cases, deciding on your audience should be the first part of your planning process; in others (like if there’s a gap in the market and you’re approached by a publisher to fill that), the subgenre will naturally come about from the idea and then you can narrow down your target audience.
Having a good understanding of what your readers are interested in, the type of language that they use, and why your book will matter to them will help to keep you focused and motivated as you work through outlining a nonfiction book and, later, writing it.
Consider Your Publishing Options
This may seem like an odd thought to have before you’ve even begun the writing process, but how your book is going to make it into the world can significantly change what it looks like.
If you’re already working with a traditional publisher, there may be certain stipulations or requirements that they want to cover within the book, so you’ll need to plan ahead to include those. Or if you’re planning to pitch to publishing houses, you’ll also need to work on a book proposal and find yourself an agent.
On the other hand, if you’re looking into self publishing options, you have much more freedom to explore themes and topics in whatever way you’d like. But self publishing also means that you’ll need to source cover designers, proofreaders, and editors yourself, so be sure to factor that into your timing and budget.
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Much like a fiction book, there are several different kinds of literary or narrative structures that you could follow.
The three-act format is the most traditional, where you’re telling a story in chronological order. You start by setting the scene and building toward an exciting point towards the middle, before concluding the story and neatly wrapping everything up at the end.
Time manipulation can also be a helpful structure for nonfiction works, where you start the story somewhere in the middle and jump back and forth in time to reveal different pieces of information to the reader. You’ll often see this in memoirs that don’t follow a chronological format, where the life of the individual is instead laid out according to lessons learned or important reflections, rather than from birth to the present day.
Finally, the parallel structure is best used for business or academic books, where you can tell multiple stories at one time, but they all weave together under one topic umbrella. You can use the parallel structure to outline steps or principles about your topic, going through each of these individually, before bringing them together at the end as part of an overarching story.
Once you’ve decided on the audience, subgenre, and structure of your book, it’s time to start outlining. Think of this as the roadmap that will guide you through how to write a nonfiction book from beginning to end, or a reference guide to turn to throughout the writing process if you’re feeling lost or a little stuck.
Decide on a Style Guide
Style guides are there to keep your writing consistent throughout the entire book. Particularly with nonfiction, you want your narrative point of view to stay the same (jumping from first person to third person doesn’t work as well here as it does in fiction writing) and use similar language throughout.
If you’re working on an academic or journalistic nonfiction piece, your publisher may need you to stick to a certain formatting or language style to ensure that it’s a good fit for the audience. For example, a college-level history textbook will use more formal language and tone than a history book intended for the wider public.
Map Out Your Research
By the outline phase, you should have conducted most, if not all, of your research for the book. That could mean gathering stats and figures or interviewing people that you’d like to quote throughout the book.
Depending on the type of nonfiction book you’re writing, filtering through all of your research could come before or after you build the actual outline of the book itself. For heavily researched books, the research will likely drive the final structure. But where you’re simply peppering in different stats or quotes to back up your points, you may have your chapters outlined first and then make a note of which research pieces can slot into which part of the book.
Keep on top of all of your research notes and stay organized! You always want to include footnotes or references to other works you might cite in your book or credit ideas and quotes to the right person, so find a system that works for you when it comes to staying on top of your research information.
Plot Your Chapters
Like any good guide should do, your outline should be available to you at all points of the writing process and help you to get back on track if you think you might be missing a crucial point or have an idea in the wrong place.
Laying out your chapters ahead of time gives you a good overhead view of what the book should look like by the end and gives you the opportunity to move pieces around for better flow or consistency before you do any of the hard graft.
Write down everything you want to cover and start to formulate a plan for the order that you want to write these in and how they should appear in the final product. These could be the same order or you could write by topic chapter-by-chapter and put it all together later. If you’re going with the second approach, be sure to keep an eye on your transitions between chapters so that everything flows well overall.
Now you’re ready for the fun part – it’s time to write a nonfiction book!
By this point, you’ve actually done most of the hard work upfront during the planning and outlining, especially if you have detailed notes to work from. If you’ve done that work ahead of time, the writing should come quite naturally because you’re simply turning your notes into well-thought-out sentences and paragraphs.
Create a writing schedule for yourself to fit around your other commitments and, once you’re all finished, take some time off before reviewing and revising your work. Looking at everything with fresh eyes and a clear mind will make editing easier and help you to finish something that you can be incredibly proud of.
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