Why write nonfiction? There are so many genres that can be written, and nonfiction is not for everyone. But, if you enjoy research, have a topic you are passionate about, and are ready to spend time both reading and writing, nonfiction could be a great genre for you. If you’re still considering or not sure, let’s take a look at how to write a nonfiction book.
The World of Nonfiction
What do golfing, economics, sharks, diet, and the War of 1812 have in common? All are possible nonfiction book ideas. Nonfiction is a broad genre, covering everything from history to self-help, memoirs and biographies to natural science, with every other conceivable topic in between. Given the many topics you could choose, a guide to writing nonfiction has to realize that writers could be choosing from a variety of topics including:
- Home Improvement
- Military History
- Pop Culture
But don’t be overwhelmed by all the choices! If you are going to learn how to write a nonfiction book, you probably already have an idea. Or maybe you need some more time to think through ideas.
Where to Begin: Nonfiction Book Ideas
Let’s say you like the idea of nonfiction, you’d like to learn how to write a nonfiction book, but you still aren’t sure what direction to head. Here are some questions to consider as you develop your book idea.
What subject are you passionate about?
You’ll be spending a lot of time writing, so make sure this is something in which you are ready, and happy, to invest your time and energy.
What is an experience you have that you could share?
Maybe you’d like to write a memoir, maybe you have a hobby or interest that could be translated into a book. This ties into the next question to consider.
What could you be considered an expert in? What are your qualifications?
You could have a great idea, but do you have the expertise and/or experience to research and present it? Not sure what I mean? I love gardening, but I do not know enough to write about it with authority. Hypothetically, I could learn more, but I can’t bring the wisdom of experience to this subject.
Pro Tip: If there is something, like gardening, that you’d like to learn more about, you could always create a personal learning journey. For example, I could take a roadtrip to interview different master gardeners and then write about applying their wisdom to my own gardening efforts.
As you can see, there are a LOT of avenues and approaches when it comes to nonfiction. The bottom line is finding a subject that you are ready to dig into and write about. That bring’s us to:
6 Steps in How to Write a Nonfiction Book
Once you have an idea for what kind of nonfiction you want to write, let’s take a look at the next steps in how to write a nonfiction book.
1. Determine Your Audience
Who will be reading your book? Is this intended for an academic audience? Hobbyists? History buffs? By knowing your audience, you will be prepared to pitch your book and write with purpose. On the other hand, if you don’t take the time to determine your audience, you might find yourself struggling later as you organize and structure your book. Keeping an audience in mind will help you as you move to this next step.
2. Create an Outline
Once you know your intended audience, it’s time you learn how to organize a nonfiction book. This can be as simple as a word document or as complex as a wall of sticky notes. You know yourself and how your brain works. What you want to do is figure out what your book will cover, and how your narrative will flow.
For example, let’s say you want to write about Boston during the Revolutionary War. You want to figure out what events (The Boston Tea Party) characters (Paul Revere) and ideas (taxation without representation) you want to include. Also, how will you organize these facts?
As you decide how to structure a nonfiction book, you need to ask yourself how you will organize your narrative.
- Will your nonfiction follow a chronological flow with a standard beginning, climax, and resolution. (An example of this would be a nonfiction about a historical event.)
- Will your book be more episodic, each chapter standing alone? (This could work in a more informational nonfiction that brings practical information.)
- Will you change viewpoints in your story, telling the same event from different perspectives? (This works well in the case of an event with many eyewitness accounts.)
Once you have a basic outline and idea for how you will structure your nonfiction, it’s time to start doing some research.
3. Research, Research, Research
Unless you’re writing about something you’re very familiar with, you will need to do a lot of research. And even if you are very familiar with a topic, it’s important to fact-check as you write. This is, after all, nonfiction! Find your primary sources, research what others have written on the same topic —you want to know the market you’ll be competing with and create a book that will compliment the nonfiction that has already been written. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with it, maybe you’ll draw your own conclusions from data and sources, but it’s important you know what other books are your competition.
Wondering where to begin with research? Your local library is a great place to start. The internet can also be a great source for information thanks to online archives and historical and scientific journals. Sometimes, however, you need more specific information. This might mean mastering interlibrary loans, a research trip to some archives, interviewing an expert, or maybe even traveling somewhere to do more on-the-ground research.
Pro tip: All this research will lead to far more information than you will need for your book. Don’t overwhelm your readers with too many details. It can be easy to over-explain or bunny trail with irrelevant information. So take note of that fun story or fact, but avoid the temptation to put everything you learn into your book. Too much information, no matter how fascinating, will bog down any narrative.
4. Write a Sample Chapter
Once you’ve organized, brainstormed, and researched, it’s time to put pen to paper. This is what you’ve been waiting for! As you work, focus on your writing. Don’t let the story, facts, or narrative detract from good quality writing. We’ll dig deeper concerning that in a moment.
If you are hoping to go the traditional publishing route, you will see that it is not uncommon for publishers to ask for a sample chapter of your nonfiction. Once you have a chapter you are happy with that seems to represent both your book, idea, and the best of your writing style, you can head down the road of traditional publishing, find a literary agent, and see if you can get a book deal. On the other hand, you might decide that you would rather self-publish.
Publisher Highlight: If you don’t want an agent, but are interested in traditional publishing, you will find that some mainstream publishers accept queries. One example of a publisher that considers unsolicited submissions for nonfiction is Workman Publishing. Take a look at this page that highlights the guidelines for submitting to Workman as well as some of their imprints. This gives you an idea of the process, structure, and the time involved if you are headed toward traditional publishing.
5. Write and Write and Write Some More
No matter which publishing route you take, the rest of your nonfiction book needs to be written. As you head toward some hardcore writing, here are some things to keep in mind.
Once you have settled on your book’s outline, make sure you have a style guide as a basis for how you are citing information. Being consistent in your style, tone, and narrative will create a nonficton that is compelling and readable. Also . . .
Remember Your Audience
Sometimes you can be so buried in research, or become so familiar with a topic that you forget your readers will need an explanation. Read and re-read your narrative. Ask yourself if there’s anything you need to explain more. Or, on the flip-side, if there’s anything you’ve over-explained. You don’t want to sidetrack your narrative with unwieldy explanations. All of this is why you should. . . .
6. Get Outside Eyes
Find some beta readers or join a writing group. Speaking from personal experience, there’s nothing like having outside readers to encourage and critique your writing. I’d recommend making use of family and friends, if you have some people close to you, willing to read your work, as well as an outside writing group. Friends are great cheerleaders and know best how to communicate with you while a writing group will give you honest feedback. Yes, the critique can be more blunt, but the praise is all the more encouraging because these aren’t people who know you. Another reason to get outside eyes is because you want to . . . .
Keep Your Narrative Interesting
Nonfiction can be fascinating. Your nonfiction should be fascinating! Whether you are writing a memoir or writing about diet, you can make your narrative engaging and readable. Be a good writer and follow the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell” if at all possible. Yes, it might take a little bit of getting used to, especially since you are working within nonfiction, but it is possible.
Pro tip: Read what you have written out loud to make sure it flows.
Press on and Persevere
Writing is hard work. You will not always feel inspired. Writer’s block happens. Despite the times you feel ready to give up, hang in there. Writing is a habit, and it can take some time to get into a writing routine. Don’t give up though because all the hard work will be worth it when you hold that completed manuscript in your hands.
Summing it Up
If you’re like me, you read a lot. You’ve probably read some nonfiction and thought to yourself: “I could write this . . . I could even write better than this!” Well, there’s no reason not to get started! You now have the basics of how to write a nonfiction book. It’s time to take out your pen, or open your laptop, and start brainstorming nonfiction book ideas.