The 5 Cardinal Book Writing Rules for Nonfiction Authors

by Bennett R. Coles

Book Writing Rules

If you’re looking for a set of book writing rules to improve your nonfiction skills, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, you’ll learn the five cardinal rules, or best practices, for nonfiction authors to ensure that your book has a solid foundation for market success.

Rule 1: Don’t Write Until You Know Your Target Audience Inside and Out

There’s an age-old saying in the marketing world: “Market to everyone and sell to no one.” Interestingly, this expression couldn’t be more apt in the nonfiction genre.

If you write a nonfiction book for a general audience, unless you’re already a famous author with a large built-in following, you’ll find it nearly impossible to find success.

For example, if you write a book with strategies for weight loss and market it to those in the general public who want to lose weight (hundreds of millions of people), you’ll encounter the following problems:

  • What you’re writing about has been written about before by authors with much more credibility and name recognition than you
  • It’s extremely expensive to market to a large and highly fragmented market with multiple and differing needs
  • You’ll be out-competed by deep-pocketed behemoths in a $212 billion global market. For example, Weight Watchers alone spent nearly $200 million in advertising worldwide in 2018.

For new nonfiction books to find success, they must be written exclusively to help a specific “niche” audience. The more specific this audience and the more targeted your solution, the higher your chances for finding success in the market.

Thoroughly Research Your Target Audience

Once you find the right audience that could benefit from your expertise, your next job is to get to know them intimately.

Before you can define what your book will be about, you need to find out what’s the most painful problem for your target audience which is aligned with your area of expertise.

Your goal then is to create a unique solution for this problem.

But this isn’t enough to find success.

Once you’ve nailed down your target audience, their pressing problem and your unique solution, you need to be able to build a bond so they can trust you. And the only way you can gain their trust is by getting to know them at a deep level.

Once you learn what keeps them up at night, what they worry about and what they fear the most, you’ll be able to craft a message that truly resonates with them.

If you don’t take the time to do this preliminary research, you’ll have at best a 50/50 chance of connecting with your audience.

Where Do You Find This Information?

Start by interviewing your own clients. Tell them that you’re writing a book and what your subject is, and also tell them that their answers will be anonymous and only used for statistical purposes.

Another way to obtain this information is through online forums (if available in your niche). Forums often have an introductory thread for new members to relate their experiences, their key problems and their aspirations.

These threads can be a treasure trove of target-audience information. Many times you’ll find important demographic details, such as age, gender, profession, number of children, etc.

This aggregated profile information will be used in the following step.

Create Your Target Audience’s Avatar


Now it’s time to merge the above information into a single profile (or two if your target audience has members of both genders). This profile will represent your “ideal” client and you should complete it as follows:

  • Make up a name
  • Get a headshot from a free stock-photo site
  • Pick the average age and most prevalent marital status
  • Use the most common profession and income level if available
  • Average number of children, their status and their living arrangements (single, married, working, studying, living at home, living away)
  • Home ownership
  • Any pets? Hobbies?
  • Are there any common health or other issues?
  • Is there anything they worry about?
  • List their hopes, dreams, fears and challenges
  • If available, list their main aspirations

This “avatar” of your ideal client will be whom your book is addressed to.

Rule 2: Don’t Write Until You Have Gathered Solid Social Proof

There’s an expectation from the market that all nonfiction authors are subject-matter experts. In fact, you’ll be granted this status the minute your book is published. However, you’ll also be expected to demonstrate your expertise.

Before you present your unique solution to your target audience, you have to make sure that you’ve thoroughly tested it with clients first. Unless you can show clear evidence of your results, your readers will dismiss your findings as unsubstantiated.

In preparation for writing your book, you’ll need to accumulate a significant number of testimonials from clients that you can then weave into your text as case studies, anecdotes and stories.

Not only will your audience need to see your social proof so you’ll be considered a credible expert, but also you want them to identify with your clients. If they can see themselves in your clients’ stories, they’ll be willing to believe in your solution.

Rule 3: Always Write for an Audience of One

Audience of One

Nonfiction readers get attracted to the genre because they’re seeking help. They’re afflicted by a painful problem and are actively searching for a solution.

Now, personal problems demand a personal solution. Therefore, when a member of your target audience picks up your title, they’ll expect that you’re addressing your entire book to them.

For example, when you read an excellent nonfiction book in an area of need or interest, you’ll invariably feel that the author is engaging with you directly. You’ll feel a direct connection with the author, almost as if they knew you.

The reason you feel this deep connection is twofold. First, it’s an indication that they really know their target audience (you) intimately. Second, it’s an indication that they’ve written their book for an audience of one (for your eyes only).

When you write your book, make sure that you don’t address it to an anonymous group of people by using words such as “we, our, us” but instead addressing your audience of one in the second person: “you, your.”

Rule 4: Use the Power of Story to Connect with Your Readers

Given the personal nature of problem-solving, nonfiction books require a high level of connection with readers. One of the most powerful devices for connecting with an audience is storytelling.

Our brains seem to be pre-wired to be susceptible to storytelling. When a story is well-constructed, it’s nearly impossible to not suspend our disbelief and become engrossed in it.

This human tendency has been the fuel that’s driven the tremendous blockbuster success of the fiction genre. For example, the stories told by its two most successful authors, William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, have resulted in the sale of over 4 billion books!

In order to create a deep level of connection with your target audience, you’ll be taking a page from the world of fiction.

By using the power of storytelling to deliver your message, you’ll reach much deeper levels of connection than by using informational techniques.

The works well because storytelling allows you to connect with audiences at an emotional level, whereas the acquisition of information relies exclusively on the intellect which is much more filtered and constrained.

Rule 5: Be 100% Authentic


Finally, in order to enhance your connection with readers, you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable in your writing, because vulnerability is founded on authenticity, and authenticity is a magnet for human connection.

It’s nearly impossible to develop trust with an audience when you’re not being yourself. Inauthenticity is paper-thin – readers will see through it and be turned off by it. On the other hand, the most successful nonfiction authors have a level of authenticity that pervades their writing.

Authenticity will also bring out your authentic voice. When you use your own voice, instead of trying to sound like someone you’re not, you won’t be afraid to be yourself and your reading experience will feel like a breath of fresh air.

For example, if you weren’t authentic with your business clients you wouldn’t be in business in the first place. Your writing career should be no different.

Next Steps

By learning and applying these rules, you’ll be off to a good start in your nonfiction book project. Your next step is to complement the above rules with the writing skills nonfiction pros use to create great books.

My companion article “The 10 Must-Have Writing Skills for Entrepreneurial Authors” will teach you the skills you need to develop to become a top-notch nonfiction writer.

All the best!

If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.


Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.

Here are some related posts I highly recommend:

How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Business Owners

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book to Help Grow Your Business?

The 10 Must-Have Writing Skills for Entrepreneurial Authors

The 7 Key Rules for Writers of Outstanding Nonfiction Books

Learn 10 Powerful Writing Habits to Fast Track Your Nonfiction Book

How to Come Up With Great Book Ideas For Business Owners

Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.

3 responses to “The 5 Cardinal Book Writing Rules for Nonfiction Authors”

  1. Avatar
    Jim Livingstone

    Hi Ben,
    This information like your other articles is solid gold, thank you for being so generous…cheers

    1. Avatar
      Bennett R. Coles

      You’re welcome! Glad I can be of help.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks for information. I has inspired me.
    It made me realize millions of error in my writing account. You are the teacher.
    Good days.

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