How to Write a Non-fiction Book In 7 Steps

How to write a non fiction book

Writing a non-fiction book can be an intimidating process. Since non-fiction is essentially literature based on actual events and real people, the challenge that most writers face is to introduce factual information in an accurate yet enticing manner. This is not an unconquerable feat, and there are numerous techniques and actionable steps to make sure your book not only educates but also entertains. Once you lay the groundwork and devise a proper strategy or a structure to follow, things will fall into place automatically. 

First, let’s take a minute to clear some common misnomers about writing a non-fiction novel. One, non-fiction is not just autobiographies and self-help books! It touches upon a wide range of topics such as business, health and fitness, society and culture, culinary skills, wellness, interior design, religion, art and music, history, travel, and more. What unifies them is their shared objective of imparting knowledge or values pertaining to specific topics or issues. Two, research is a vital element in almost all books of this genre, but it’s not the only element. It’s equally important for authors to storyboard facts and sketch out plot points in a manner that makes their work as engrossing as a work of fiction! 

Here are some steps you could take to make the process less daunting, and to ensure that you keep the motivation going:

Set a goal that you want to achieve with your non-fiction book

Before you set out to write your book, be clear about what you want to communicate to your readers. What is the takeaway from your book? Do you want them to relate to your mistakes and help them learn a valuable lesson? Or feel comfortable about their flaws? Begin with writing the book in a shorter format to ensure you have a base to start with. For example, write a blog on the topic and extrapolate it in your book. Whether your subject is history, travel, or art, having a clear understanding of your book will pave the way for a smooth journey from start to finish.

Decide the subgenre of your book 

While a non-fiction book is rooted in facts and truths, its subgenre will essentially decide how these facts can be presented to make for a compelling read. In order to orient your writing correctly, it’s important to understand the different subgenres and identify which one would work best for you. Here are some of the most common ones:

  1. Memoirs are written from an author’s perspective and are usually centred around a particularly memorable story. Notable examples include: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.
  2. Autobiographies, while being written by the author themselves, paint the complete picture of a person’s life, rather than focusing on a single important event or story. Notable examples include The Story of my Life by Hellen Keller and Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.
  3. Biographies form the complete history of a person’s life and differ from memoirs and autobiographies on account of being penned by a different author. One famous example of this subgenre is Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
  4. Expository non-fiction exposes the truth about important issues, often unravelling incidents or facts that were previously unheard of. Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge is an acclaimed book in this subgenre.
  5. Prescriptive non-fiction includes how-to guides and self-help books on a particular topic and is the most relatable sub-genre of non-fiction, and also the best-selling one. Self-help books aim to influence people into becoming their best selves and provide advice on achieving success in specific aspects of life, like personality development, career management, etc. How-to guides are more instructional in nature, and extensively cover topics like finance, fitness, cooking, etc. Some of the best books in this subgenre are: The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  6. Narrative non-fiction spins a web around facts, factual incidents or true stories, and turns them into an equivalent of a work of fiction. This includes journalism, true crime novels, etc. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book in this category, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee talks about “the story of Cancer” and reads like a fiction book that lends a personality to the disease. 
  7. Satire and Commentary on society/politics are forms of creative non-fiction that are the author’s reflection on culture, real-world events, geopolitics, etc. They often employ humour and satire as literary tools to convey strong opinions on the subject matter. I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert is a great example of a satirical non-fiction book. 

Identify your target audience

A natural next step that comes after choosing a sub-genre, is identifying who your potential readers might be. Finding the right target audience enables an author to create and promote the right content, and tailor the message, writing style, and other components accordingly. You can tweak your writing style and content by understanding whether your readers are avid or casual readers, young adults or middle-aged. Narrowing down on your audience is also key to creating an emotional resonance through your book, and can guide you in incorporating honest lessons and stories that your readers would relate to and learn from. First and foremost, create a persona for your readers, maybe even multiple personas. Suppose you’re writing a self-help guide on career management. Let’s look at some characteristics that would go into building personas for potential readers of this book.

Persona 1: 21-year-old college graduate entering into corporate life; Casual reader, enjoys travel, streams shows on OTT platforms; Active on social media platforms.

Persona 2: 30-year-old seeking a career switch; Avid reader – likes different genres of fiction and non-fiction books including thrillers, mythology, business management, marketing, etc.; Active on select social media platforms, news portals, Q&A portals.

Persona 3: 35-year-old mother of a toddler, looking to get back into corporate life; Frequent reader, enjoys blogging, travel, etc.; Active on select social media platforms, Q&A forums, job portals. 

Understanding what each of them might be looking for will help you include insights and relatable nuggets of information for each of them. Once you have these personas in mind, you need to figure out what kind of platforms they’re present on, who or what they engage with, and how you can interact with them. You could share questionnaires or surveys with your potential audience, to understand what works and what doesn’t, and customize content to suit their interests. You might even fish out some competitive intelligence in the process! 

Decide a structure for your book

Think about the last book you read. Did it flow well? Did it set the stage, gradually pick up pace and lead to an unforgettable conclusion? Or did it start midway, swing back and forth in time, but manage to keep the suspense going until the end where everything comes together and finally makes sense? Either way, having a structure, the right one for your sub-genre at that, is of utmost importance to keep your readers hooked. While there are several plot structure variants available for writers to consider, let’s look at a few common yet effective ones:

  1. The Three Act Structure: This is the most conventional approach to structuring your story, and includes a beginning (the set-up), a middle (the confrontation), and an end (the resolution) arranged chronologically. This works well for most memoirs, autobiographies, or prescriptive non-fiction books (self-help books or how-to guides).
  2. Manipulate Time: With this structure, your story starts somewhere in the middle and makes its way to the past to tell your reader how it all began. You can also interlace some future sequences or story snippets. This approach is particularly helpful while writing narrative non-fiction or expository non-fiction, whereby the reader is more interested in the incidents/crimes and may lose interest if the set-up takes up too long before leading up to the more intriguing plot points of the novel.
  3. Circular Structure: As the name suggests, the story starts at the climactic end of the novel and circles back to the beginning. For example, if you’re writing a true crime story, starting it with the conviction of the perpetrator and then working your way back to the origin of his crimes might make it more compelling.
  4. The Parallel Structure: With this structure, you’re telling two or more stories simultaneously. Each separate story has its own beginning, middle, and end. 

Choose your style guide

A style guide is like a baseline or reference point that enables you to maintain consistency throughout your work. It lays out some fundamental guidelines in terms of language, grammar, tonality, voice, etc. Style guides also address potentially confusing aspects of writing like colloquialisms, slang, abbreviations, and pretty much any question that crops up owing to the fluid nature of the English language. Although they sound rigid and rather conventional, style guides actually make a writer’s life easy by playing the role of a handbook and providing a lot of clarity. So, before you deep-dive into the writing process, make sure you pick the right style for your book, and adhere to it. 

A number of style guides exist across genres, and new ones are introduced frequently. The four most commonly used guides are: AP style (used in journalism), Chicago style for publishing (used by writers of fiction and non-fiction alike), APA style (academic writing), and MLA style for citation (commonly used by students of literature, for citations). 

For more information, give a read.

Do your research and give credit where credit is due

Since non-fiction books rely heavily on a compilation of facts, research is a mandatory process. However, more often than not, authors spend far too long on performing comprehensive research and fail to complete the first draft of their book. To avoid this, plan your research and set a timeline. Decide a start and end date for your research and commit to writing your book regardless of how much information you have gathered. Accumulate facts and data that will specifically add value to your book and make it interesting. Compile your research on tools such as Pencil,  Evernote or Scrivener to make vast chunks of data less intimidating. Here are some more writing tools you must try! Condense facts and figures to include only the essential ones, but ensure you don’t compromise on the quality and veracity of the data you choose to include. A few ways to go about finding research material or sources are:

  1. The Internet
  2. Libraries
  3. Other books in the same or similar subject area
  4. Journals/Research publications
  5. Annual reports or public knowledge on a company/companies within an industry
  6. Direct interviews

Needless to say, every factual piece of information that you borrow for your book must be acknowledged appropriately. This is where citations come in. A citation is a formal way of providing credit for material or information referenced from another source such as a book, website, research paper, or even a first-person account of something. Citing sources used while researching for your non-fiction book will give credit to the authors of the original information, provide credibility to your work and avoid plagiarism. Depending on the style guide chosen for your book, the manner in which the citation is included will vary. For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style uses a combination of footnotes and a bibliography, whereas the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation style uses in-text citations of the author’s name and page number given in parentheses.

Set realistic goals for yourself

Set realistic goals for yourself with a specific timeline. For example, you could strive to write a chapter a week or 500 a day. Focus on the quantity; you can fix the quality during the editing process. Having a set word count will motivate you to be consistent and fight writer’s block and procrastination. You could even use some tools like Ulysses or Freedom to help you cut down on distractions, keep time and stay focused!

Now that all the writing is out of the way, you can confidently put aside a completed manuscript and pat yourself on the back for a job well done! 

Before ecstatically moving on to publishing your work, allocate some time to make sure you’ve got the other important aspects right. For instance, editing your work to eliminate inconsistencies or designing an aesthetically pleasing cover for your book that packs in bold designs and catchy taglines to get the reader’s attention. There are also distribution, marketing, and other factors that need to be duly considered. You could do all of this yourself using Pencil. Once you have checked off all of these from your writing to-do list, sit back and bask in the glory of your accomplishment of becoming a published author!

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