Before you embark on your nonfiction book project, you need to learn the best writing strategies in the genre to ensure that you don’t spin your wheels in unnecessary rewrites and instead create a solid manuscript that closely aligns with the needs and desires of your target audience.
If you’re a first-time author, the 5 strategies below will ensure that you stay on track on your journey while minimizing the chances of making rookie mistakes.
Let’s get started:
Strategy 1: Learn From the Masters
Nonfiction is a mature genre, which means that there are well-established success formulas that have been perfected over the years. While nonfiction content has evolved over time along with changes in society, the way that content is communicated to readers has not changed significantly.
Here’s the best part, you don’t have to go to school to learn these powerful formulas. All you need to do is learn directly from the masters by buying their books and reverse-engineering their techniques.
Your first task then is to do research on Amazon to find the bestselling titles in your niche. Once you have a short list of 3-5 books, buy them and read them cover to cover.
For your first pass, put yourself in the shoes of a reader looking for the solution to the problem that the book addresses. Make notes about how those books make you feel and about your emotional response to different chapters.
Also note the choice of language and the approach that different authors use to connect with their readers (e.g. are they using empathy? personal stories? supportive language?). When you finish reading the books, note if you feel you “know” the author, if you feel “connected” to them, if you feel like they’re your “friend.”
Chances are you will. Even though you never met those people, you’ll feel as if you knew them. This is the magic of good nonfiction and the effect that you want to emulate with your book.
Now reread the books through the filter of an author. Take a bird’s-eye view of the content and make notes about the different approaches used to elicit emotions (e.g. do they use personal stories? client stories? descriptive language? dialog?).
These are the techniques you’ll be emulating in your own book to create a compelling narrative that connects with readers, instead of dry informational text that’s devoid of emotional connection.
Strategy 2: Divide and Conquer
Once you’ve learned the tricks of the trade, it’s time to create your first draft. Now, sitting down staring at a blank page is not the best approach to writing a nonfiction book, even if your mind is overflowing with great ideas. In fact, it’s a sure fire way to becoming overwhelmed over time and to lose the joy of writing.
The best way to write a nonfiction book is to use the “divide and conquer” approach. Basically, you need to kick things off with a fully fleshed-out outline of your book (read this article on mind-mapping and this article on book outlining to get you on the right path). Your book outline is the precursor to your table of contents and it’ll show a breakdown of the different topics and subtopics covered in your book.
Then, simply choose the topic that you feel most inspired to write about that day and begin writing — don’t worry if the section in question is in the middle or even at the end of the book: order doesn’t matter at this stage.
Writing a book in strict sequence is usually not the best approach anyway. You could do it if you wanted to, but the end result isn’t necessarily going to your best writing.
On the other hand, writing about what most inspires you in that moment will result in much more compelling writing, even if it feels disconnected from the whole. There’s nothing wrong with skipping five chapters and then going back three, provided that the writing feels inspired.
What you want to avoid at all costs is making your writing feel forced into a strict sequence: in other words, to write for the sake of writing. Keep in mind that at the end of the writing process you’ll be enlisting the help of a nonfiction editor to polish your writing, help you with transitions, and even re-organize the order of your chapters.
Strategy 3: Write From a Stream of Consciousness
When you do sit down to write, guided by your book outline, don’t spend too much time thinking about what you’re going to be writing about. In fact, try to think things through a little as possible. Choose the section that inspires the most and begin to write from a stream of consciousness.
Remember that your nonfiction book is already inside of you. Even though it hasn’t been written yet, all of the content is stored in your brain. Your task at first is simply to channel that content out of your brain and onto the written page.
When you write based on inspiration instead of by force, you’ll find that your ideas flow effortlessly, without having to think much about what you’re going to write. At this initial stage, don’t judge your choice of words and don’t fall into the trap of self-editing as you write.
Don’t linger in thought trying to first formulate in your mind what you’re going to be writing about — that’s not conducive to the creative flow of ideas.
Will you make a lot of mistakes using the stream of consciousness approach? Most likely yes (unless you’re a masterful writer with decades of experience) and that’s totally okay. Your goal at the beginning is to write down your ideas. You’ll have plenty of opportunities later on to shape your writing, but not before you have a solid body of text to work with.
Strategy 4: Create an Advance Reader Group
Nonfiction books should never be written in isolation. Unlike fiction, you’re not writing a made up story for the purpose of entertaining your audience. You’re writing to problem-solve, and for your solution to work it must align with the needs and desires of your target audience.
Not only do you need to know what makes them tick and what keeps them up at night (which is part of your preliminary audience research) but you also need to check regularly with them as you write to ensure that your message resonates with your audience throughout your book project.
What you don’t want to do is to write your entire manuscript first and then give it to members of your audience to read at the end of the process, because if it went off track early on you’ll find yourself rewriting a big chunk of your book, which is not only inefficient but also frustrating and demoralizing.
Instead, establish an advance reader group before you begin your book project, made up of members of your target audience that you know and trust, and enlist their support to help you along your writing journey.
Then, as soon as you finish each chapter, pass it along to them for feedback and comments (the chapters don’t need to be in sequence for this approach to work). What you’re looking for is first impressions — is your writing connecting with your audience at an emotional level? — and also for fit — is the content resonating with your audience, their needs and desires?
If you find a disconnect you can then react and adjust your course early on. In fact, you may find that this approach may even alter the flow that you had initially anticipated for your book into one that’s better aligned with the needs of your audience.
Strategy 5: Hire a Professional Editor
After your manuscript is completed to the best of your ability – that is, you’ve written all the required sections, you’ve incorporated your audience’s feedback and you’ve made a sufficient number of rewrites to improve the flow and quality of the text – it’s time to hire a professional editor.
When readers have a need and search Amazon for books, the majority will search for a solution to their problems and not for a specific book title. Therefore, it’s quite likely that your book will come up in the search results along with traditionally published books on the subject.
And guess what? Every single one of those books will be professionally edited! So, in order to compete you’ll need to establish a level playing field by having your book professionally edited as well.
In fact, the use of an editor is a staple for all professional authors. Even recognized authors with a long history of success would never dare publish an unedited book.
The book you’ll be publishing will act as an extension of your professionalism, credibility and reputation, so this is an area where you can ill afford to cut corners by either self-editing or outsourcing the editing job to a friend or a relative.
Nonfiction professional editors are not only great wordsmiths but also have a deep body of knowledge about the art of persuasion, winning sales and marketing copy techniques as well as reader psychology. They’ll become a crucial ally to generate success on your publishing journey.
A nonfiction book project can be a very rewarding experience because you’ll be capturing your life’s work into a format that’s easy to consume, highly ubiquitous and broadly accessible to the masses.
By following the above five strategies, you’ll be laying out a foundation of success for your book project that’ll ensure that your message closely aligns with your audience, that’s based on best practices and that’s on a level playing field with popular books in your niche.
All the best on your publishing journey!
If you enjoyed this article and are considering creating 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.
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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.