Writing a non-fiction book for your business, or to share a message or an interest, can be a daunting process.
You know that want to share your knowledge, but if you have never written a book before, you might not know how to begin. Where do you start?
It’s not as quick and easy as some would have you think, but you can do it.
The term ‘non-fiction’, meaning ‘not imaginary’ (i.e. true), covers a broad range of books from self-help, memoir and historical to technical, scientific and political books. It also includes books such as coffee-table books and cookbooks. Non-fiction books can be practical, such as a how-to book on gardening, or cover new research or opinions on a whole range of topics.
You can’t write all these books in the same style – a manual needs clear, simple instructions whereas a self-help book tends to be more informal and personal – but there are some things that you can do right to make your book the best it can be.
Here are some tips for the planning stage and for how to create the content, and the final steps to publishing your book.
The planning stage
Some people like to just start writing and see where it takes them. This may work for fiction (though most fiction writers would also have a plan), but when writing non-fiction it’s important to make a plan. You need to know exactly what you wish to say and how.
Before you even starting thinking about the detail of the content, you need a very clear idea of the purpose of your book and what it will look like when it’s finished.
Here are some things to think about before you even open a new Word document to write the first word.
1. Identify your reason for writing a book – your ‘why’
The real reason for writing your book should not be just to make money or for fame and glory. This may (or may not) be the result of finishing your book – and would be really nice! – but you’re going to have to put in a lot of work before you finally publish your book, so you need to know the real reason you are doing it, your ‘why’. The reason needs to drive you to finish it even when it gets overwhelming.
Your ‘why’ can be a business goal or a personal goal, or a goal that serves your readers.
Write it down somewhere so that when you don’t feel like working on your book it can motivate you to carry on.
2. Identify your target reader
You can’t write a book that will appeal to everyone. Not everyone will be interested in your topic, and not everyone who is interested in your topic needs to know your specific message or idea.
Your book will be easier to write if you can identify the type of reader that will pick up your book. The more specific you can be in identifying your target reader, the better you can target your reader.
As you write, keep this reader in mind to tailor your message specifically to that person and to keep your writing style consistent. And, later, this is also who your marketing will be targeted at.
Features to identify are:
3. Choosing your topic
Once you have identified your target reader, you will know what the reader needs, which will also help specify your topic. Don’t write what you want to say; write what the reader needs to know. You need to put yourself in their shoes and think about what would benefit them. Writing what the reader needs, rather than what you want to say, will help your message resonate with your reader.
A topic that has a big impact on a smaller group of people will do better (and that means sell more books) than a very wide, general topic. Stick to this topic and don’t be tempted to cover everything else too.
4. Do your research
If you are an expert in your field or have your own message to share, it may be tempting to just write from your own thoughts and experiences. But a non-fiction book is more credible with supporting information from credible sources. Of course, you should include your own thoughts and experiences – it's your expertise that the reader is looking for – but the reader will also expect other credible sources to back them up.
The research you do will depend on your topic. Your research may involve online searches, reading peer-reviewed journals and getting books from the library, or it may be interviewing people who have lived through the experiences you are writing about.
Once you have your plan, you can create the content. The next section outlines steps on how to fill the pages of your blank Word document.
The content needs to engage the reader and give them trust in you. A hard-to-follow, badly worded book with lots of typos will not give the reader confidence that you know your stuff. Simply publishing quickly to make a quick buck is going to backfire and potentially lose you money.
You need to make sure the content is the three Cs – clear, compelling and correct.
Here are some tips to make sure your content engages with the reader.
1. The structure of the book
The structure of the book needs to make sense to the reader, and they need to be able to find information quickly and logically.
Before you start writing your content, create an outline of your book. This helps to keep a firm focus on your topic. The outline headings will then become your chapter headings.
There is no one right formula for an outline. You will need to decide what works best for the topic. If, for example, you have a list of separate main topics, use them as the chapter headings, making sure the progress of ideas is logical. Or, if you are discussing a system or checklist, then use each step as a chapter heading.
Now relook at your ‘why’ and your target reader profile to make sure you have not strayed from your plan.
Once you have the main chapters organised, you can add the other parts of the book. The two other obvious main sections are the introduction and the conclusion. Under the Introduction heading, list all the questions you will answer in your book. Under Conclusion, list all the answers you hope to provide.
There are other, smaller sections and headings that can also be included in your outline.
My article on the order of the parts of a book gives you the full list of pages in a non-fiction book and tells you which sections are compulsory and which are optional.
2. The structure of the chapters
Once you have your outline, start writing the content of the chapters, one at a time.
To help the reader follow your ideas easily, each chapter should have a similar structure.
There are many different ways of structuring a chapter, but a basic one is outlined here:
3. Write relatable content
The reader is looking for a fresh perspective on a problem they have, so they need to feel connected to the content. It needs to be relatable. You can do this by
4. Don’t rush the writing process
It will likely take more than a year from start to finish to get your book published. Sometimes it takes several years. You don’t want to rush it.
Writing a book isn’t just starting at the beginning and getting to the end and then uploading it to Amazon. Potential buyers can spot this a mile away.
An important part of the writing process is going over and over it until you can’t make it any better. Check that the tone and style is consistent, and check that the message is what you intended. Does it flow and will it make sense to your target reader? Is there something missing? Does it answer all the questions your reader will have? One of the hardest things when writing is deleting your hard-earned words, but you should if it doesn’t fit or sound quite right.
5. Sources and references
When using quotes or ideas from other sources, it’s important to be aware of copyright and permissions. There are rules governing how much you can use from other sources and when to ask for permission from the copyright holder.
As well as being aware of copyright and permissions, all sources will need to be cited and referenced. As long as you have the source information, an editor can help you with the correct format of citations and references. But if you prefer to do it yourself, Massey University has a good resource on the requirements for citations and references in various styles.
Once you have your manuscript complete and as good as you can get it, then it’s time to call in the experts for the publishing stage of your book’s journey.
Even if you consider yourself to be a good writer, it’s important to get a fresh pair of eyes on your writing, and a professional editor will know what to look for to make your writing consistent and work well for your audience.
Once you have finished your draft, and have self-edited as much as you can, it's time to hire a professional to ensure you have a professional-looking product. An editor does so much more than just correcting typos. An editor will work with you to ensure your writing is clear and compelling and says exactly what you what it to say. They help with focus, flow, structure, voice, tone, accuracy, readability, and much more. Finally, a proofreader will make sure there are no glaring typos or spelling and grammatical errors that will detract from the work.
There is more detail on the full editing process when writing a book here.
You will obviously also need a cover designed. Don’t skimp on this and try to do it yourself (unless you are a graphic designer) – the saying that tells everyone not to judge a book by its cover doesn’t work. Everyone does it.
You need it to grab someone’s attention and to stand out on the shelf. It needs to look professional and not like you had a go on Canva yourself.
A tip: run the cover past your editor to make sure the spelling and grammar is correct. Too many covers are created with obvious typos.
Illustrations and diagrams will also be useful, so these will also need to be commissioned or found. Again, copyright and permissions are important to keep in mind – you can’t just take images from google.
3. Printing or e-books
There are pros and cons for hard cover books and e-books, or both. If you plan to give books away, sell them at talks, or would like to sell through bookshops, then you will need to print hardcopy books. There are Print on Demand services available so that you don’t end up printing more than you eventually sell. And if you intend to promote your book for sale online, you will need to create e-books.
Once you have the manuscript edited and ready for publishing, you will need to get it typeset by a book designer if you are printing hard copies.
If you would like to promote you book online through Amazon, IngramSpark or other platforms, then you will need an e-book file created.
Or you can do both.
You can read more about self-publishing options in New Zealand here.
If you are writing or have written a book and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
How to write a book to promote your business even if you are not a writer.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website:
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