To learn how to improve your nonfiction writing skills, you need look no further than the best practices of the successful authors who have preceded you.
I’ve written this article to condense this knowledge into nine easy steps that you can follow, to develop into a compelling nonfiction author in your own right.
Step 1: Study the Masters
If you want to become a good nonfiction writer, you’ll need to read a lot of books. Take the time to read the top nonfiction books in your niche to learn from the masters in the trade.
These are writers who over the years have developed a deep understanding of who their audiences are and how to connect with them effectively.
They know the best ways to use nonfiction devices to draw their readers in and take them on a journey of discovery and learning. By reading their books and dissecting their writing you’ll discover how they use:
- Metaphors, to explain a complex subject in a way that stimulates a reader’s imagination.
- Questions, to hook readers in and to create anticipation.
- Analogies, to teach readers new concepts by drawing similarities with concepts that they’re already familiar with.
- Stories, to take readers on a journey that engages their emotions instead of their intellect.
- Social proof, to establish credibility by weaving testimonials and client stories throughout the book.
- The second person, to make readers feel like they’re being addressing in a personal and direct way.
Step 2: Learn the Basic Rules of Grammar, Punctuation and Capitalization
Knowledge of the basic rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization are essential for good nonfiction writing. You want to be able to write freely, without being distracted by awkward sentence construction and improper use of language.
You want to develop enough knowledge to write confidently without second guessing yourself every few words. Your goal in this step is not to become an expert – later in the process you’ll be hiring a professional nonfiction editor who is.
Instead, you want to develop sufficient language proficiency to create the best manuscript you possibly can, so that your editor doesn’t have to spend valuable time fixing basic errors and unnecessarily increasing your cost.
There are many free resources available on the Internet to gain a basic understanding of language rules; here’s a resource that you can use as a starting point:
Step 3: Use all 4 Nonfiction Writing Styles
There are four nonfiction writing styles that are instrumental in delivering your message effectively to your audience. They are:
- The expository writing style. This style is used to establish your credibility as an expert. You’ll make use of this style in order to provide your audience with the necessary background information required to support your solution. Some techniques used in this writing style are the use of facts, data, evidence, research, charts and tables.
- The descriptive writing style. This style is used to engage your audience’s five senses and also their emotions. You’ll use this writing style to paint a vivid picture of your unique solution and how it will manifest in their lives.
- The narrative writing style. This style is used to create a deep emotional connection with readers through the use of storytelling. You’ll narrate stories relating the experiences of characters that your audience can identify with to show them how they were able to transition out of their problem and into your solution. These characters could be you, your clients or a fictional one that’s a combination of both.
- The persuasive writing style. This style is used to persuade your audience to take the required action or actions to implement your solution. This style works by appealing to your readers on an emotional level and takes advantage of your connection to convince them to align their goals with yours.
Step 4: Take Advantage of the 3 Paragraph Writing Strategies That Pros Follow
The following three strategies from professional nonfiction authors will help you take your paragraph writing skills to the next level:
- Tip #1: Use a Single Idea Per Paragraph. Try to stay away from developing more than one idea per paragraph. Multiple ideas will end up confusing readers, since they won’t know where you’re taking them. Nonfiction readers need to follow a clear path from problem to solution. Any obstacles on this path will cause them to stumble and begin to lose interest in your book.
- Tip #2: Don’t Write Statements – Paint a Picture. Instead of describing your solution in an academic or scientific way, try instead to weave your teachings through a narrative, using descriptive language to paint a picture of the results that you want your readers to experience in their lives. This is much more effective than just describing an outcome in clinical terms. Readers will connect with your writing if it makes them “feel” the results that they aspire to achieve.
- Tip #3: Write for Your Readers, Not for Yourself or for Your Peers. Finally never write your book for yourself or for your colleagues. You need to clearly establish ahead of time who your target audience is, and then you must address your book to them. If your target audience demands a much lower level of abstraction than what you’re used to when communicating with peers, then you must bring yourself down to their level in order to truly connect with them.
Step 5: Create a Strong Book Outline with Clear Writing Prompts
Create a mind map for your book so that you can generate a strong outline. A mind map will allow you to download the contents of your book from your brain to paper and format it as a content tree.
This tree will contain the structure of your book’s sections, its sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, etc. Once you’ve laid out this structure into a proper outline you can then use the subject of each section as an idea generator for its initial sentence, or prompt.
For example, if your section explains “how thoughts become beliefs” (i.e. your section name), then your writing prompt could start with something like: “On any given day there are hundreds of thoughts crossing your mind…”
This sentence will be the writing “starter” that will light the flames of your inspiration for this particular section. Your job then is to create a unique prompt for each section and sub-section contained in your book outline.
By using this powerful technique, you’ll be able to jump-start your writing at any time and never have to face the dreaded “writer’s block.”
Step 6: Write for an Audience of One
The best-written nonfiction books are laser focused on their target audience. Furthermore, they’re focused on a single member of this audience – each reader.
Whenever you fall in love with a nonfiction book, the kind of book that you highlight heavily and go back to often, you’ll notice that it’s written purposely to an audience of one: you.
You’ll almost feel like the author knows you (because they know their target audience intimately) and you’ll also feel like they’re talking directly to you, almost as if they were a friend who wants to help you live a better life (because they know how to connect with their readers).
This is your goal as a nonfiction author. You have to write most of your book in the second person, and your mission over the course of your book is to get readers to know you, like you and trust you.
If you address your book to a group of people instead (e.g. by using “our,” “we,” “us”, etc.) your bond will be diluted into the anonymity of the group and your readers will feel disconnected from your writing.
Step 7: Write Every Day
Like with any other creative endeavor, practice makes better. The more often and regularly you write, the better that you’ll get at it.
In fact, having the discipline to write for a few hours every day will do miracles for the development of your writing muscle.
So, make sure to carve out a two-hour writing block every day (six days a week minimum) beginning and ending at the same time every day. Then take measures to protect this creative time by eliminating internal and external distractions.
Internal distractions are the sounds of notifications from your electronic devices, or the temptation to answer emails or browse the Internet during your writing time.
External distractions are people trying to reach to you electronically or in person (outside of an emergency situation, of course), thus interrupting your creative flow.
The creative writing process requires peace and quiet, and also single mindedness, in order to flourish. While multi-tasking can do wonders for certain mechanical tasks, it causes havoc for your inspiration.
You’ll need to enlist the help of those around you when you’re writing to make sure that they don’t disturb you for any reason other than force majeure. Then, find a place to write that brings you joy.
This place could be found at home or in the office, or perhaps at your favorite coffee shop of even on a park bench. Choose a venue that appeals to your senses and to your sensitivities. The right place will open you up to your best writing.
Step 8: Make Every Sentence Count
Part of connecting with your target audience is to keep them engaged throughout your book.
There’s nothing that disengages readers more than writing that doesn’t add value to them, text that’s there to “fill” space to achieve a certain word-count target.
Every sentence that you write must have a purpose and must be meaningful to the reader in the context of your subject. If you have a sentence that expresses a thought in fifteen words but you can achieve that same result with ten words, then do so.
For example, don’t write “There’s no doubt in my mind, or for that matter in the minds of most other people, that…” when you could be writing instead “It’s obvious to most people that…”) to convey exactly the same thought.
Going down to the word level, if you mean to say “…proximity…” don’t write “…close proximity…” or if you mean to say “…surprise…” don’t write “…unexpected surprise…”
All successful nonfiction books use an economy of words that’s intended to keep the reader’s attention at all times. Doing so will not only make your writing more crisp, it’ll also help you get more clear on your ideas by distilling them down to their essence.
Step 9: Rewrite Until You Get It Right
When you initially sit down to write the first pass of your manuscript, you shouldn’t censor your writing in any way and instead write from a stream of consciousness.
Your goal in this initial pass is to “download” thoughts and ideas from your brain to the computer screen or notepad. You want this process to be as unfiltered as possible – your main focus is to get content out of you and into the page, not to “massage” it in any way.
At this stage you don’t need to overly concern yourself with economy of words, rules of grammar, choice or words, etc.
You actually want to produce a lot of content, because that’ll give you much more flexibility later when you get to the self-editing and rewriting stages.
This is not unlike to the way movies are shot. Multiple takes are often done not necessarily because something is wrong but to have more choice when they get into the editing room.
It’s not uncommon for a director’s favorite scene to end up on the cutting floor when a movie is being assembled, and to end up splicing secondary scenes that they originally thought wouldn’t work.
Similarly, the real magic in nonfiction book writing happens in the rewriting stage – this is your editing room. Ideally, you want to complete and then rewrite one chapter at a time before you start working on a new one.
Your chapters make up your overall idea thread and often a significant change in direction in one chapter will influence the chapter that follows it.
So, when a chapter is ready to be reworked, put on your “editor” hat, get a cup of your favorite beverage, settle down and begin the creative process of shaping and re-shaping your writing until you get it just “right.”
How do you know when you achieve this milestone? You’ll just know it: something will click and you’ll feel that you’ve achieved what you set out to accomplish in that chapter.
Now your language doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect at this stage – you’ll hire a professional editor when your manuscript is completed – but it has to be purposeful and clear to your target audience.
Now it’s time for the proverbial rubber to hit the road!
For this purpose, I’ve created a companion article to show you the roadmap from original idea to published book so that you can navigate the waters of nonfiction publishing without having to spin your wheels in frustration:
I wish you the best of luck on your nonfiction book-writing journey!
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.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning 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.