How to Make My Nonfiction Writing Better in 9 Easy Steps
If you’re writing nonfiction and want to make your writing better, the following 9 steps will teach you the best practices used by the pros in the genre to write great book after great book.
Here we go!
Step 1: Analyze the Top Books in Your Niche
The best authors in the nonfiction genre are popular because they truly understand their target audience. They know what makes them tick and they know how to connect with them at a deep level.
The top books in your niche will teach you the strategies that you need to develop to become a good nonfiction writer. All you have to do is to take the time to read them with your author’s hat on.
Find out What Techniques They Use to Engage Readers
Something the pros know how to do well is to engage their readers early in the book and then never let them go. They achieve this goal through a couple of clever techniques:
They Make Use of Hooks
Successful nonfiction authors 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 task with the use of a “hooky” opening statement created to captivate readers.
Opening statements could offer new information that catches readers by surprise. They could also be controversial or be phrased as a burning open question that readers must know the answer to.
Hooks can also be attention-grabbing facts and statistics that are counter intuitive to the reader (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 readers have).
Read several bestselling books in your niche and analyze the different hooks they use and then take notes. They are powerful devices to glue readers to the page.
They Make Use of Compelling Chapter Titles
Well-crafted chapter titles also make very powerful hooks for nonfiction books. The best way to create compelling chapter titles is to borrow from the world of advertising headlines.
The goal is to draw people’s attention and to persuade them to take action (i.e. read the chapter). Here are some effective headline techniques:
- Use a “How To” statement (e.g. “How to Win the Game Without Knowing the Rules”)
- Use a memorable phrase (e.g. “One More Thing”)
- Use a question (e.g. “How Green is the Grass on Your Side of the Fence?”)
- Make a controversial statement (e.g. “Why Diets Never Work”)
- Use comparisons (e.g. “Setting Goals Instead of Expectations”)
An effective way to do great headline research for nonfiction books is to use the “Look Inside” feature on the Amazon bookstore to browse the table of contents of books in your niche.
Find out How They Use Story Telling
A key aim of nonfiction is to bring those lessons you’ve learned throughout your life onto the page to show your readers that once armed with them they can too overcome a difficult problem in their lives.
Now, instead of teaching readers by using facts and statistics, successful nonfiction authors use stories to create an emotional connection. They make readers become invested in their stories by creating characters that they can relate to – characters that also “feel their pain.”
You can draw ideas for stories from past clients or you can create fictional characters that combine the experiences of several clients. Story telling works so well because readers remember stories much more readily than naked facts and figures.
Stories map closer to the retention and retrieval mechanisms of our brain. We retain information much better through association and observation than by rote.
Find out How They Structure Their Books
Nonfiction bestsellers have well thought-out structures. At the beginning of the book authors always acknowledge the reader’s awareness of the challenge they want to overcome. Then, they proceed to unveil throughout the book the solution that will take care of that challenge.
You’ll find that good books take readers through a calculated journey of discovery. They never reveal too much too soon and they never leave all the “goodies” for the end.
Study the structure of the top books in your niche for ideas to help you develop your own structure.
Find out How They Create Flow
Bestselling nonfiction doesn’t take you through a dry and linear lesson plan either. These books make sure that you “flow” through an engaging journey that just happens to be littered with lessons.
But flow is an abstract concept that’s hard to capture in a formula. In order to develop a good flow in your book, it’s easier to focus on those things that can stop it so you can avoid them.
Here’s a short list of flow-stoppers you want to stay away from:
- Run-on or confusing sentences. If readers need to figure out what a sentence means, the flow will break.
- Writing that feels labored. If your writing is too formal or too complex, it creates a detachment for readers that slows down the flow. Bestselling nonfiction is always easy to read and conversational.
- Over-explaining. While repetition can be good for helping readers retain information (if it’s done well), over-explaining stops the flow because it can be perceived as condescending. Readers want to connect with the author on a level-playing field, and being exceedingly intricate in your explanations can make you appear as detached.
Step 2: Write Like You’re Being Paid
As in all other creative endeavors, there’s no substitute for “rubber to the road.” There are no shortcuts here, so in order to succeed you’ll have to develop strong writing habits.
Now, 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.
For example, think about how once your book is published, you’ll be immediately deemed to be an expert, and with this title come many financial benefits:
- You’ll be able to secure paid speaking fees for talks and keynotes
- You’ll begin to attract media outlets who want to interview you for your expert opinion
- You’ll develop a competitive advantage when you bid for contracts, because most entrepreneurs and business owners don’t publish books. Presenting yourself as an expert with a published book will often sway granting decisions in your favor.
Step 3: Write Daily
The key to becoming a prolific writer lies in your ability to develop the discipline necessary to be constantly evolving your writing craft. The more often you write, the more you’ll be exercising your writing muscle and the better your writing will become over time.
If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you know first-hand how there’s no fast route 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, so make sure that you create a two-hour writing block every day, or at the very least six days a week, and don’t skip it on days when you don’t feel like writing.
Professional writers (or musicians, or any artistic expert for that matter) practice daily, whether they feel like it or not. They’re being paid for the quality of their work, and they know that their quality will suffer unless they commit to a disciplined regime of practice.
But you also have to guard against writer workaholism. What you don’t want to do is to write for five hours straight until you’re creatively spent.
It’s okay to feel inspired, but it’s not okay to reach creative exhaustion. You’ll then be tempted to skip a day to re-charge your “author batteries” since you’ve already covered you daily quota for the next day.
Don’t fall into this trap. If you have a lot of creative juices left after your writing block for that day, just write down these ideas in your notebook and use them to restart your writing session the next day.
Step 4: Write for an Audience of One
For nonfiction books to be effective, they must be addressed to an audience of one. Whenever a reader picks up a book to solve a problem they have, they’ll only be thinking about themselves.
They aren’t interested in something that works for you or for a group or people. So instead of “we,” “I,” “us,” “our,” etc. you have to use “you” and “yours” whenever you’re addressing your readers.
For example, you never want to write: “the next thing we must do is to…” Instead, you want to write: “the next thing you must do is to…”
This isn’t a matter of kowtowing to self-centered people; it’s about creating a deep connection with your audience, and given the impossibility of calling them by their first names the next best thing is to refer to them in the second person.
Whenever you read a well-written nonfiction book in a subject that you’re deeply interested in, you’ll find that you’ll invariably feel that the author is talking directly to you.
This is the feeling that you need to engender with your book. You have to make readers feel that they know you, almost as if you were a friend writing a book to help them in an area of their lives.
Step 5: Write from a Solid Book Outline
Bestselling nonfiction authors never sit down to write a book staring at a blank page, they first create a fully fleshed-out outline of their future book before they dare put pen to paper.
The easiest way for you to create an outline fast is by using 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 (this is explained it in detail in the article: How to Use a Mind Map to Create a Great Book for Your Business).
Once you have a completed mind map, your next step is to turn it into a book outline. Start a new Word file, Google Doc or equivalent, and then type the categories from your mind map’s main branches on the first level of the list (e.g. 1, 2, 3, etc.).
Then, tab to the next level for each category and begin listing its sub-categories or mind map sub-branches (1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, etc.). Continue this process until you exhaust all branches in your mind map.
When you’re done, clean up your sub-categories if necessary. For example if a main category has 20 sub-categories, you may want to combine some of them to create a more manageable number.
Once you have a de-cluttered outline, think about what the best roadmap for your audience would be. Perhaps you’ll need to reorder some of the main categories until you achieve a flow of ideas that makes the best sense.
Each outline topic, sub-topic, etc. will identify a specific chapter or sub-chapter in your book and it’ll also act as the trigger or writing prompt for that section.
Since the content related to each book section is already stored in your brain, you’ll find that all you need to begin writing is a short phrase to prompt you brain into a state of recall.
So, use each outline topic and sub-topic as a seed to write the beginning of each section – just a short sentence will do. These initial sentences are going to be your chapter prompts that will be instrumental for downloading your book content from your brain onto the written page.
When you’re done creating a prompt for each section and sub-section, not only will you be ready to begin the writing process, but you’ll also discover that you’ll never experience “writer’s block.”
Step 6: Write With Your Authentic Voice
Since the most effective nonfiction books are written in a personable and conversational tone, you’ll need to master your ability to communicate with your own voice.
Your goal when communicating as an author/expert is to solve a problem for your audience in a way they feel is attainable. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and tell your audience how you struggled with the very same issue in your own past.
At its core, nonfiction writing fulfills the much deeper need to learn from each other, to enrich each other’s lives and to be of service to others. This is what writing really is at its foundation: a vehicle to create a deep connection between human beings – one is the writer, the other is the reader, and this can only be achieved by being yourself.
Your strategy is to always think deeply about your relationship with your clients as you write your thoughts down for your readers. Always write with empathy and your sincerity and authenticity will automatically come forward.
Once you’ve decided to write a book to support and grow your business or career, you have to go “all in.” Don’t try to protect your ideas from theft by just offering a teaser of your knowledge.
Successful writers always bare their souls onto the page. That’s how they’re able to connect so well with their audience. So, be honest, be authentic, be vulnerable, and never hide behind your writing.
The more you give they more you’ll get in return. Your book’s word of mouth marketing will be stronger, you’ll attract more readers, you’ll get better reviews, and in the end, more doors will open for you.
Authenticity in your writing is a great selling tool. But if you combine it with generosity and selflessness, you’ve now created a winner.
Step 7: Eliminate All Distractions
When you sit down to write, make sure you that 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 available.”
This also applies to your friends. Ask them not to call, text or message you during your writing blocks. Make sure they understand that you’ll be setting the do-not-disturb feature on your phone so you won’t be able get back to them during this time.
Creativity requires a certain inertia in order to achieve cruising speed. If you allow external circumstances to force you into a stop-and-go situation, you’ll never be able to get up to speed and your writing will suffer.
When you do manage to achieve this level of peace and quiet, you’ll notice how your writing, as well as your time, flies by. After your two hours pass, you’ll be surprised to find that you’ve written upwards of 1,000 words of original text.
Avoid Non-Productive Work at All Cost
This is what I also call “shadow” work. For example, taking hours to figure out how a new, complex piece of writing software works is shadow work.
Spending hours upon hours to create a beautifully-rendered chart or diagram for your book using PowerPoint where a rough paper drawing could be done in 15-20 minutes, is shadow work – this is work that should be left in the hands of a professional graphic designer later on in the publishing cycle.
The same goes for spending long stretches of your valuable time on illustrations (unless you’re a professional illustrator and you’re writing a book about your craft), or on photographs (unless you’re a professional photographer).
Always focus your time primarily on writing. Your job is to write just the text, to create a book version of what’s inside your head. Everything else that’s required to support or embellish your book should be outsourced to someone who does that for a living.
My point here isn’t to make you spend extra money, but to prevent you from sabotaging your creative process by focusing on anything that isn’t actually writing, however tempting it may be.
Avoid Bad Personal Habits
- Don’t check your email or your text messages when you’re writing. If someone must reach you right away, they can call you or simply walk in the door. Make sure people always know where to find you.
- As an extension to the above, don’t reply to emails during this time. If you promised someone a reply earlier in the day, then wait until after your writing block ends to do so.
- Don’t browse the Internet when you’re writing. If you need to do some research for your book, do it outside of your writing blocks. The last thing you want is to fall into a Google-search rabbit hole that ends up eating half your writing time.
Avoid Checking Your Electronic Devices
- Set your phone to do-not-disturb and mute the sound on your laptop
- Turn both the audible ringer as well as the vibrate function off on your phone settings
Step 8: Tune into WIIFM
A very important aspect for nonfiction book writers is to understand the motivation of your readers.
While fiction readers are motivated by a need to be entertained, by the need to find a respite from the daily realities of life, nonfiction book readers are motivated by the need to solve a pressing problem that’s afflicting them.
Therefore, the question that nonfiction readers will ask themselves at every step as they go through your book’s content is: What’s In It for Me? (It’s often said that the only radio station nonfiction readers are tuned into is WIIFM).
If your book doesn’t address this question every step of the way – that is, if your book veers off from your audience at any point – there’s a strong chance you’ll lose them.
Don’t share a client’s story unless your audience can relate to them and their experiences. Don’t talk about yourself, your experience and your credentials unless you do it in relation to your audience and how they’ll benefit from this information.
Now, you may think that this is selfish behavior, but think about how you behave yourself whenever someone presents you with new information for your consideration. As busy as you are, the first thing that subconsciously comes to mind when you assess whether this is worth your time or not is: what’s in it for me?
Step 9: Create a Feedback Loop
Last but not least, you need to create a feedback loop for your writing process. Remember that you’re writing for your audience not yourself, so you’ll need to create an advance reading group made up of members of your target audience (current and past clients who are good at providing constructive criticism are ideal candidates).
Also, it’s critical that you engage them from the very beginning by inviting them to be a member of your advance reader group. As part of this group, they’ll receive from you advance copies of completed chapters as soon as they become available.
The wider the net of advance readers, the better the feedback you’ll receive, because different parts of your book will resonate better with different people.
What you don’t want to do is to wait for your manuscript to be completed before soliciting feedback, because often times the advance feedback you receive will spur new ideas that will help you rearrange chapters as you build your book, or perhaps even write a new chapter that wasn’t part of the original table of contents.
To make sure the feedback you receive is valuable, try not to include family members of colleagues in your advance reading group unless they happen to fit the profile of your target audience.
Now, you’re certainly welcome to invite them to read your writing separately; just take their feedback with a grain of salt – they’ll want to support you, not criticize you.
Congrats! Now you know the essence of nonfiction writing success. Follow the above 9 Steps and you’ll definitely be taking your writing to the next level.
Best of luck!
If you enjoyed this article 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.
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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.
Great article. Making yourself vulnerable in non-fiction is great advice. It is that authenticity that I look for in memoirs as well. I want to read the real thing not brain fart ideas.
Thanks very much, Steve. I’ve always enjoyed non-fiction personal stories better when I really feel like I know the author inside and out. Even if they wound up a huge success, I like to know that they’re a real person who worked hard to get there.