Have you noticed whenever you read a blog post or an article that has poor writing skills, you immediately feel a loss of respect for the writer?
Fair or not, the written word is a powerful proxy for who the writer is. As people read our writing, a mental picture of who we are is drawn in their minds – a picture that’s shaped by their personal filters.
Our credibility is then established based on this filtered image. If this image projects excellence, thoughtfulness and attention to detail, then we’ll be labelled as credible. If it projects a lack of consistency and inattention, then we’ll be labelled as amateurish and even untrustworthy.
As a writer who’s in business for yourself and who wants to publish a book in order to increase your personal and business profile, your goal is to put out the best product you possibly can. In order to do that, you need to be armed with the best writing skills available to you.
In this post, I’ve compiled the 10 best writing skills you need in order to develop into a top-notch nonfiction writer. These are the skills used day in and day out by the most prolific authors in the genre – the “special sauce” that allows them to be so successful. Learn them, master them, and watch the quality of your writing reach new levels.
Skill #1: Reverse-Engineer the Top Books In Your Niche
When you go into business for yourself, you need to know your customers really well, but you need know your competitors even better. You don’t want to spend your time doing things through trial and error when others have already figured out what works.
This is no different with nonfiction books. Now, I’m not suggesting that you copy others without bringing distinguishing features of your own. What I’m suggesting is that you first figure out how the best in the business do it and then reverse-engineer it. Once you have a good idea what already works well in your market, you add what’s unique about you.
This is the path to follow with this first writing skill – deconstructing the top books in your industry in order to uncover their “secrets.” Once you learn what works, you can then add your own take.
When you read your competitors’ books, pay special attention to:
Successful writers are experts at grabbing the reader’s attention at the beginning of each chapter and keeping it all the way through to the end. They accomplish this goal with the use of a “hook” or an opening statement engineered to captivate readers.
You’ll notice that some writers use hooks in the form of a question that addresses a burning challenge. Some use the power of story-telling to illustrate the reader’s pain points, and some use key facts and statistics that are somehow unexpected (e.g. “According to the National Department of XXX the second leading cause of death is not YYY as most people think but ZZZ” – which happens to be a pain point that readers want to eliminate).
Read several bestselling books in your niche and analyze the different hooks they use at the beginning of each chapter; then make notes. A hook is a powerful device to glue readers to the page.
Successful nonfiction writers use chapter titles in the same way advertisers use headlines in ads – to entice people to pay attention and persuade them to take action.
There are many techniques used for the creation of headlines in advertising, but the most effective ones are:
- Using a “How To” statement (e.g. “How to Win the Game Without Knowing the Rules”)
- Using a memorable phrase (e.g. “One More Thing”)
- Using a question (e.g. “How Green is the Grass on Your Side of the Fence?”)
- Making a controversial statement (e.g. “Why Diets Never Work”)
- Using comparisons (e.g. “Setting Goals Instead of Expectations”)
A very effective (and free) way to do great headline research is to use the “Look Inside” feature in the Amazon online bookstore, which shows you the book’s table of contents. The vast majority of nonfiction bestsellers have this feature enabled.
All nonfiction bestsellers have a well thought-out structure. At the beginning of the book they’ll always acknowledge the reader’s awareness of the challenge they want to overcome, and then they proceed to slowly unveil the unique solution that takes care of that challenge.
In reading these books, you’ll find that their structure is designed to take readers through a calculated journey of discovery. They never reveal too much too soon and they never leave all the “goodies” for the last chapter.
Read them, study their structure and make notes to help you trigger ideas to develop your own book structure.
The aim of nonfiction is to bring lessons the writer learned throughout their life onto the page to show readers that they too can overcome a difficult experience, provided they apply those lessons.
In order to do that effectively, bestselling nonfiction authors often make use of story telling to convey their lessons, because this technique allows readers to relate to authors as fellow human beings instead of perceiving them as unreachable gurus speaking from a mountain-top.
Here are three writing techniques commonly used by nonfiction authors:
- They engage readers through the power to story telling from the very beginning of the book. This is either achieved through a personal story, the story of a client (disguised to protect their identity) of a fictional story which is a composite of many different clients.
- They use language that takes readers through an emotional journey. Borrowing from the power of fiction writing, they make readers “feel” the lessons instead of just “teaching” them content.
- They use the element of surprise very effectively. Bestselling nonfiction books are known for introducing something “unexpected” into a topic that people haven’t thought about before (e.g. the 10,000 hours required to achieve mastery at anything, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, or the 4-hour workweek in Tim Ferris’ book of the same title).
Bestselling nonfiction doesn’t take readers through a dry and linear lesson plan. It “flows” readers through an engaging journey that just happens to be littered with lessons.
But flow is an abstract concept that’s hard to capture into a formula. So, in order to develop a good flow in your book, it’s easier to focus on those things that can stop the book’s flow so you can avoid them. Here’s a short list of flow-stoppers you want to stay away from:
- Run-around or confusing sentences. If readers need to figure out what a sentence means, the flow breaks.
- Writing that feels labored. If your writing is too formal or too intricate, it creates a detachment for readers that impedes flow. Bestselling nonfiction is always easy to read and conversational in nature.
- Over-explaining. While repetition can be a good device for helping readers retain information (if it’s well executed), over-explaining stops flow dead in its tracks because it can easily be perceived as condescending. Readers want to connect with the author on a level-playing field, and being exceedingly “detailed” in your explanations can make you appear as a guru ministering to their disciples.
Skill #2: Write Like You Are Being Paid
The key to becoming a prolific writer lies in your ability to develop the discipline necessary to be constantly evolving your writing craft. This is the one area where there are no shortcuts, unlike in the movie The Matrix where you can download data directly to your brain that turns you into an instant expert.
If you’ve ever taken music lessons you know first-hand how there’s no shortcut to getting good – no alternative to practice, practice, practice. That’s the only way to develop the muscle memory required to hit the right notes and get the right feel with consistency.
It’s no different with writing. The only way to get good at it is to write frequently. You can certainly learn writing skills through research (like by reading this blog), but you can’t develop those techniques without practice.
Professional authors have an advantage over you – they’re getting paid to write, and that works in two ways: as an enticement (the carrot) but also as a motivator (the stick) because advance money usually comes attached to contractual deadlines that are legally binding.
Since you’re not getting paid to write, you need to rewire your brain to take your writing as seriously as if you were. Now, you may not have an advance from a publisher right now, but think of the future revenue your book will generate for your business once it comes out – revenue that would not be attainable without the cachet of having published a book.
An effective strategy for you could be to line up a speaking engagement in the future, for instance, participating in a panel discussion or a paid speaking event where you will be unveiling your book. This is the type of hard deadline that will get your creative juices flowing because it forces you to make a professional commitment where your reputation will be on the line (plus, in many cases, you will get paid, so you’ll actually have to sign a contract).
Skill #3: Get Your Writing Cues From Your Book Outline
Here’s the strategy that allows bestselling nonfiction authors to create book after book after book with seeming ease – they never sit down to write a book staring at a blank page, they first create a full detailed outline of their future book before they dare put pen to paper.
The most effective way to create an outline fast is with the use of the Mind Mapping technique. This technique allows you to do an organized “brain dump” of your knowledge onto a chart or diagram that maps directly to the way your brain organizes and stores information (I explain it in detail in my post: How to Use a Mind Map to Create a Great Book for Your Business).
This concept is predicated on the fact that the book you’re about to write is already inside of you – it’s contained in your many years of expertise in your subject matter and the many years helping your clients achieve their goals. Writing your book comes down to getting it “out” and onto the page.
Once you have a fully fleshed-out outline that lists your book’s main idea, the main topics (chapters) and all the sub-topics (sub-chapters), all you have to do is to pick one item at a time and let the thoughts stemming from your own experience flow to the page. You’ll have no problem with writer’s block; quite the contrary, you’ll be flooded with thoughts and recollections. Armed with a strong outline, your book will practically write itself.
Skill #4: Write Every Day
This is an extension of Skill #2. Like all professional nonfiction authors, you need to create a daily writing habit. Now, since writing isn’t your primary business, you won’t be able to write for extended periods of time (say 5-6 hours per day), nor do you want to do that.
What you’re aiming for is to set aside an uninterrupted writing block of, say, two hours per day, six days a week. You can make it seven days if you wish, buy don’t make it less than six. Your goal is to write for two hours straight guided by your book outline and then stop and resume the next day. If you’re still overflowing with ideas, just capture them in your notebook or computer and use that information when you begin writing again the next day.
What you don’t want to do is to write for 3-4 hours until you’re creatively spent and then skip the next day – inconsistency is the death knell of discipline.
Make sure you let the people closest to you know not to interrupt you unless there’s an emergency that only you can take care of – this applies to family if you’re writing at home in the evening, or to your staff if you’re writing in the office before business hours – the expectation for all should be that you’re “not there.”
Skill #5: Develop Your Own Writing Style
When you read several top-selling nonfiction books with your writer’s “hat” on, you’ll discover that each author has a unique voice that comes out loud and clear. Although there are many techniques that can be applied to produce a good book, a writer’s voice is something that can’t be turned into a formula.
Each author brings their own personality and set of life experiences to the table, and that’ll be no different with you. Make sure that you write the way you think and feel and don’t try to be someone you’re not.
Whenever you write, imagine that you’re talking to a client who’s sitting right in front of you – after all, the reason your clients do business with you is because of your authenticity. If they felt you were being inauthentic, they wouldn’t be clients for long.
Now, writing authentically can be a bit harder to achieve initially, because when you write you’re sitting down alone with your thoughts. Unless you’re already an experienced writer, writing is likely not a natural mode for you to offer solutions in the course of your business.
With practice, however, you’ll learn to put yourself in your client’s shoes as you write, which will bring out your authenticity to the written page.
Skill #6: Write Concisely But Remain Eloquent
As you read bestselling nonfiction books wearing your writer’s hat, you’ll find that they all have something in common: an economy of words. Those books seem to always be written very clearly as if each word had a purpose for being there.
Whenever we write, it’s often tempting to add words that are not required. We usually do this in the name of painting a more detailed picture – for example, we may write “close proximity” instead of just “proximity” or “unexpected surprise” instead of “surprise.”
Even though these additions appear harmless, in the aggregate they make for an inferior product because they act as “speed bumps” in the flow of the book. Therefore, your goal is to write concisely, using the minimum amount of words required to clearly convey your thoughts, avoiding not just redundant words but also flowery language, excessive use of adjectives, unnecessary punctuation and too much specialized vocabulary or jargon.
But there’s more: while using an economy of words, you want to make sure that the words that you do use are eloquent. When you read nonfiction bestsellers, you’ll find that they tend to use words that are very descriptive, words that paint a clear picture in the reader’s minds; not words that are just there to simply communicate a thought or a concept.
What you want to do is to take your readers through an emotional journey by using words that evoke emotional states. Here are some examples of words that can evoke emotion: “Embarrassed, Uncertain, Vulnerable, Freedom, Courageous, Radiant.”
Another way to become more eloquent in your writing is to borrow some time-tested techniques from the world of advertising. For example:
- To be more effective, reduce multiple points you’re making to groups of three. For some unexplained reason, our brains are very receptive to internalizing information better when it comes in packages of three.
- Use humor to make a mundane concept more memorable.
- When you’re driving home a point, focus on a single message at a time – don’t bifurcate your audience’s attention.
Skill #7: Write For an Audience of One
Another key characteristic of successful nonfiction books is that whenever you read them, you feel like the author is talking directly to you. You actually feel that you’re getting to “personally” know them, that they’re like a “good friend” helping you out.
This is a fictitious situation since you’ve likely never met them before, but it’s quite intentional. Unless you achieve this level of connection with your audience, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll take the actions that you recommend to heart.
For a nonfiction book to be successful both selling copies and, even more importantly, making a real change in people’s lives, it needs to “connect” with its audience, and the best way to achieve this goal is by writing the entire book as if it was addressed to a single reader – you’re writing a book for an audience of one.
An effective technique you can use to write for an audience of one is to create an “avatar” of your ideal reader, a composite of the many types of people that make up your audience. An avatar is a written profile of your perfect client. For example, if your book is addressed to consumers, you’ll need to come up with a name, gender, age, marital status, children, pets, hobbies, fears, challenges, desires, hopes, dreams, etc.
If your book is addressed to businesses, then your avatar must reflect the decision maker that your book is targeting: their name, age, gender, title or position in the company, their business challenges they have to deal with on a daily basis, their worries (what keeps them up at night), their pressures, and also their hopes and desires for the business.
Finally, get a random head shot of a person that fits your profile from various free stock photo websites and paste to your profile. This is the one person you’re writing to and addressing your entire book to. This person is your audience of one, and this is how you’ll be able to connect with your readers and create a personal relationship with each one of them, to the point that they’ll think that you truly understand them and that you are their friend.
Skill #8: Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
As I mentioned before, your writing will only get better with practice and one of the best techniques for sharpening your writing saw is by writing lots of text – now, this might fly in the face of my prior advice, but just hear me out.
At the beginning, you always want to write from a “stream of consciousness.” What I mean by that is you don’t want to self-censor your writing when you’re in this creative mode. You just want to sit down and write by following your book outline without engaging your critical thinking.
Now, in this early stage, you’ll break a lot of the rules from this post: sometimes you’ll write redundantly, sometimes you’ll over-explain things, sometimes you’ll write run-around sentences, and so on.
This is totally acceptable early on, because your goal is to extract all the information jam-packed in your brain and put it down on the printed page. Now, when you’re done with a significant enough section of your book – say a short chapter or a meaty sub-chapter, you’ll want to start from the top again and re-write it entirely.
You’ll notice that your second pass will be light-years better than your first pass. When you’re done with this rewrite, set it aside and after a good night’s sleep do a new rewrite the next day or a couple of days later. Over time, your technique will become more polished as your writing muscle gets stronger.
After a number of rewrites, you’ll sense when it’s time to stop and move on to the next thing. The goal isn’t to write the perfect book; it’s not about achieving perfection but about training your writing muscle. At the end of the day, your writing will be handed over to a professional editor (more on this below) but you always want to hand over the very best that you can produce, and this can only be achieved through multiple rewrites.
With practice, the number of rewrites you need to do to create a quality product will decrease substantially. This is equivalent to going to the gym for a workout. At the beginning it might take you an hour to do your routine, but if you stick to it, six months later you’ll be able to do the exact same routine in half the time.
Skill #9: Get Regular Feedback From Your Audience
This skill is key if you want your book to be successful in the marketplace. We’ve already talked at length about writing your book for an audience of one, but unless that audience is involved throughout your writing process you run the risk of writing a book that you think is exactly what your readers need, but that in the end misses the mark because they don’t agree with your assessment of their needs.
What might have worked in the past for many of your clients who know, like and trust you might not work for the strangers that are going to be reading your book. But if you involve members of your audience as part of an advance reading group that can provide you with feedback as you craft your book, you’ll be able to adjust your messaging as you go and, in the end, create a much more powerful product.
This is a strategy widely used in the creative field not just for nonfiction books but also for movies and fiction books, where some authors release advance copies of chapters to a closed group of followers and then ask them for comments so they can tweak their narrative.
Since your goal is to create an emotional connection with your audience, there’s no better way to check if you’re “on track” than by engaging them early on.
Skill #10: Last But Not Least: Hire A Top Nonfiction Editor
The final writing skill is the most critical to the success of your book: the skill of letting go. As a matter of fact, this skill is paramount to the success of every single bestseller in the marketplace, since behind every great book there’s a great editor.
No professional writer worth their salt would dare publish an unedited manuscript. It just doesn’t happen and for good reason. Writers are the creative source behind the ideas in their book, but although those ideas are conveyed with words, that doesn’t make them infallible wordsmiths.
That’s where editors come in. In addition to the more mundane tasks of checking grammar, spelling, vocabulary and punctuation, editors are true wordsmiths who specialize in giving shape to words. They know how words work together, how they can be arranged for best effect, how they can be made to flow more efficiently, how to add a level of spit and polish that is very hard for authors, even famous ones, to achieve on their own.
A good analogy is music producers – the famous rock band writes the famous songs by creating the lyrics, the melodies, the harmonies and the chords to be played by the different instruments. But it’s the music producer who takes in all that information and then creates the actual “sound” of the band.
They are the “soundsmiths.” They know what kinds of sounds work better with what chords and harmonies in order to make the musicians sound great all the time. If you were to remove the music producer entirely from the equation, most famous songs would actually sound quite flat.
In closing, if you take these ten writing skills to heart, if you truly embrace them and master them, you’ll be able to create a nonfiction book you’ll be proud of.
I have a companion post that might be helpful to you, especially if you’re in the early stages of your book project. It’s entitled How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Business Owners and it provides a clear roadmap that removes a lot of the uncertainty when producing a nonfiction book from scratch so you can focus on what matters most: the writing.
I wish you the best in your writing project!
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 generate additional leads for their businesses.
Here are some related posts I highly recommend:
Bennett R. Coles is the author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO 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, printing, distribution and marketing.