How to Write a Non-fiction Book

non-fiction book

​Is writing a non-fiction book a dream you have been silently nurturing? Are you hesitant about where to start? Is that idea that you have been turning in your head for a while a factual account? And, you want to present this slow-brewing idea in your head to the world but you don’t know what to do next? What you need is a detailed overview that will show you how to proceed. You have come to the right page.

First of all, let’s see what non-fiction is. The Oxford Dictionary defines non-fiction as ‘Prose writing that is informative or factual rather than fictional.’ That is in a very broad sense, what non-fiction is. It is in fact the broadest type of literature.

There are various types of non-fiction. Let’s find out if your potential non-fiction idea fits into one of these categories. You may very well ask—why this is important. It’s important because the way you approach each category is different. It will inform every one of your decisions about writing and publishing your non-fiction book.

Types of Non-fiction

If you go to a bookstore or search in any of the popular online stores, you’ll be astounded by the varieties of non-fiction. These are just a few of the categories.

  • biography
  • business
  • cooking
  • health, fitness and wellness
  • pets
  • arts
  • crafts
  • home décor
  • languages
  • travel
  • home improvement
  • religion, theology
  • journalism
  • memoirs
  • essays
  • historical
  • self-help
  • real-life crime
  • science
  • technical
  • economic
  • humour
  • literary criticism
  • creative non-fiction
  • guidebooks
  • textbooks
  • letters

It gets better, because any two of these non-fiction categories can be combined! You could for instance write a humourous book about pets or a book about language learning by travelling or a travelogue about a historical figure. The sky is literally the limit here.

Your potential idea might fit into these categories or might be a category unto itself. By this time, you will have some idea about what it is. No matter the kind of non-fiction you have decided to write, it’s now time to get into the deep end. Are you ready?

  1. Find Your Topic

If you know what you are going to write about, you may skip this section and move onto the next one. However, if you are not sure but you think you have a vague impression about your potential book, your first big step is to brainstorm for specific ideas. You can brainstorm alone or with other like-minded people. There are many brainstorming tools like mind mapping, affinity diagrams, Six Thinking Hats etc. Needless to say, keep detailed notes of these brainstorming sessions.

After much mulling over, a distilled version of the idea would be clear to you. At this stage, you might even have a working title for your non-fiction book. Hold on to it.

  1. Research the Market and Audience

Right about this time, you should start your market research. This is the preliminary research you need to do to understand what the market offers in terms of the topic you have chosen. Visit book stores and/or search on the internet for the working title/topic that you have brainstormed.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that each book needs to have a USP or Unique Selling Proposition. This means your book should be unique. You’d want to avoid writing a book that has been already written before.

It will be very helpful to understand the value that your book will give its readers. Or in other words—why would anyone want to read your book? The answer will be the USP. If you follow the traditional publishing route, your USP plays a significant role in being considered by the publisher to be published. Of course, there are other factors but this is an important one. If you self-publish, the USP is what you will use to make it stand out against the crowd. Take notes again. Later, when you send off your manuscript/book to editors or publishers, you can list this USP in the book proposal and/or cover letter.

The second, and perhaps a more important one, this step helps you in finding your own niche. When researching you will come to understand in depth the book that you want to write. For example, maybe you want to write a book about Indian trains. Your research will reveal the kinds of books on Indian trains that are available. Through this process, you will find your angle/perspective that will set it apart from the others.

This is a good time to revise your working title too to reflect a clearer vision of your book.

If numbers speak to you better, you can look up on the internet sales figures of popular books in your chosen category. Some publishers release this information especially for successful books. This will give you can idea about the audience for your book as well.

Also, lookout for trends in publishing. If your book idea falls within a popular trend, it has more chances of being picked up by publishers and/or readers. For example, right after the Harry Potter books became a worldwide phenomenon, children’s literature across the world flourished. Many authors were published because this was a trend in publishing. However, avoid blindly following trends.

  1. Create an Outline

So now you have a revised working title and a clearer vision of the book. Next, you’ll need a structure. This will eventually become the table of contents of your book. This structure will help you decide the chapters and the contents of each chapter. This is your plan. You need one to help you see ahead.

If you have brainstormed earlier to find the idea for your book, follow the same process but aim to expand on the chosen idea. When you sit down to write your book, this is the roadmap to which you will refer and it will make sure you never feel lost. Feel free to edit the road map as you go along.

There are several methods you can use to make an outline. Choose one that works for you.

  • Mind mapping
  • Chapter-wise
  • Post-it outline
  • The snowflake method
  • Reverse outlining
  1. Research Your Book

Now that your outline is done, your next step is doing the research for your book. Even if you are writing to share your experiences, you might still need a quote here and a fact there. That’s why you need to research.

Research does not mean only going to the library though that is also a part of it. It might mean talking to experts, conducting interviews, travelling to a new place to look at a particular idea in action or it might mean watching hours of archival footage. So you need to plan for both time and money for it.

Refer to your outline, look at each point/chapter and decide on the research required. You can set aside some time for research at the beginning of the book itself. However, be open to researching during the writing of the book as well.

  1. Cite Your References

As with all research, keep meticulous notes whether they are books, journals, interviews, letters, web sites, videos, films or any other media. If you refer to them in your book, you will need to list these sources of information in the body of the book as a footnote or endnote and finally at the end of the book in your bibliography.

There are several ways of citing information that you have sourced from elsewhere—APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual of Style. This will depend on the subject of the book you have chosen to write.

  • The APA Style is for Education, Psychology and Sciences
  • The MLA Style is for the Humanities.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is used for Business, History and the Fine Arts.

Each of these styles keep evolving so keep a lookout for the latest version before you start applying it to your citations.

  1. Organise Your Time and Materials

Your notes are ready, so are your references. There are a few things to do before you start writing—make a list of things you need and estimate the time needed to complete the book.

In your list of things, list out activities required like gathering pictures/illustrations (if any) and any meetings to attend. To estimate the time needed for the whole book, you can draw up a rough timeline and then adjust it as you write.

Your estimated timeline can be divided further. That become your daily writing schedule or timetable. Do some rough calculations based on your routine and habits. Ask yourself these questions to arrive at the number of hours you can realistically dedicate per day.

  • Are you a morning person or night owl?
  • In which time of the day are you most productive?
  • Do you have a full time job?
  • Do you have a dedicated space to write?
  • What is your attention span?
  1. Have a Back-up Plan

You will definitely need a back-up plan for any emergencies that can interrupt your writing. By now you would have gathered enough data that is precious. Losing any of it can mean losing months of background work. Save your work in a back-up hard drive or better still on the cloud. This is just to avoid any problems related to crashed hard disks or computer glitches. Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote are some of the places you can store your research.

  1. Write the First Draft

Now you can start the actual writing! Writing a non-fiction book is as much as planning as about the writing. Your research and the structure will be frame on which you will build the whole book. Read all the research you have collected so far and slot it into its respective chapters. Then build a narrative around it incorporating all that you know (your experiences) and all that others know (your references). This might take months and in some unusual cases years.

Follow the format of the non-fiction category that you have chosen. For example, if you have decided to write creative non-fiction, follow its conventions.

One important tip: Don’t edit and write at the same time. It’s like taking three steps forward and two steps back. You can easily get caught in an analysis paralysis mode. Write your book first; editing can come later.

  1. Walk Away From It

You read that right! Walk away from your hard work for a few days. This is because you are too close to it. You have worked so hard on it that you need a break. You can go ahead and work on other books or just enjoy a writing-free time. It’s an important step. When you don’t look at the draft that you have been involved in, you will gain a perspective, which you will need for the next step.

You can take breaks after completing a chapter, a significant part of the book or the whole book or maybe after all of them. This is entirely up to you. Remember to include this break into your schedule for the book.

  1. Read and Revise

After the time off you can come back to your writing with a fresh mind. Read your work once. You will see all the things you have missed while you were writing your non-fiction book. Incorporate these changes. This is a good time to spot anything content-related that you may have missed. Be prepared to add or delete lines and paragraphs. You can even play around with the arrangement of chapters if the original flow doesn’t work.

Some writers have been known to drastically change their book during a rewrite. Follow your vision even if that means cutting down the number of words. You might need more than one rewrite to make sure that the book shapes up the way you wanted it to. Also revisit your working title and change it to reflect your revised book.

  1. Self-edit, Proofread and Fact-check

Your non-fiction book now is almost complete. Take a break again and work on editing the book as much as possible. Then print it out and read it on paper once. You might get some more ideas as a result of seeing your work on paper. Now is the time to do a thorough review of any facts that you have in your book.

If you feel you need help with this step, reach out to a professional or editing agency for this step.

  1. Ask for Feedback

This step is optional but valuable. Some writers like to send their book to friends and mentors who can guide them with their feedback. These will be the first reactions to your book. Do be careful, do not send you’re your book to just about anyone. You don’t want anyone to steal your work.

Analyse the feedback before incorporating it. If you agree with the feedback and it adds value to your book, then you can incorporate it.

  1. Publish Your Non-fiction Book

Congratulations! If you have reached this step, you have a non-fiction book in your hands. Now all you need to do is choose a method of publishing—the traditional publishing route or self-publishing. In either case, you should be proud of yourself because writing a non-fiction book is a feat not everyone can accomplish.

Good luck with your book! Hope to see your book in the best seller charts soon!

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