How to write a non-fiction book: 3 steps to success

When you work on a non-fiction book, you need to use a different set of skills than the ones needed to write a novel. Sure, you’re still working with words and putting them down on the page, but to compare the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

Non-fiction writers can still use many of the literary devices that we’re more familiar with from fiction, of course, and there’s a thriving market for narrative non-fiction. But the truth is that non-fiction is split into as many genres as the fiction market, and while there are some common rules to bear in mind, no two non-fiction books are identical.

Research, Research, Research

Research comes in useful for fiction books, but there’s an added importance to it when you’re working on a piece of non-fiction. Once you’ve identified your subject matter, you need to read books on it, watch documentaries on it, interview experts and do everything you can to live and breathe it.

That’s because non-fiction authors are effectively establishing themselves as an authority on the subject they’re writing about, even if it’s writing celebrity biographies or obscure reference books. But, when you’re setting yourself up as an authority, you need to back that up with a little substance.

On top of that, accuracy is doubly important for non-fiction authors. Novelists can claim that any inaccuracies are down to poetic license, but non-fiction writers need to verify any claims that they make and back up their arguments with facts and statistics.

Plan, Plan, Plan

All the research in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t have a plan. As the old saying goes, “If you fail to plan then you plan to fail.” Many novelists rely on pantsing when it comes to writing fiction, which means that they make it up as they go along or use a very brief outline that they add to along the way.

With non-fiction, though, planning is essential. This could be as simple as outlining the different chapters and jotting down the key arguments for each section, or it could be as complex as carrying out extensive interviews ahead of writing a biography. Some non-fiction works are even based on independent research and large-scale surveys to identify trends across a wide cross-section of people.

Even when it comes to a memoir or an autobiography, where the author is their own specialist subject, a comprehensive plan is needed if they want to mention everything that they wanted to mention.

Revise, Revise, Revise

With any book, it’s never truly finished. Even once it’s written, edited, proofed and put into layout, the author has a further responsibility to market the book and to put it in front of readers. And that marketing process is never ending – there’s always something more that can be done.

But non-fiction books take it a step further. That’s because information changes over time, and many fields change as new developments are made and new research is released. With a novel, once it’s done, it’s done – authors occasionally release re-edited versions or add additional scenes, but it’s relatively uncommon.

Non-fiction books, by contrast, are often re-released as ‘second edition’, ‘third edition’ and ‘fourth edition’ prints, which allows authors to go back in and update information or even to add new sections. Many choose to supplement this by also maintaining a website to accompany the contents of the book.

Don’t Let the Hard Work Put You Off!

If I’ve made it sound like it’s a lot of work to write a non-fiction book, that’s because it is. But it’s surprisingly fun to write non-fiction, especially when you’re dealing with a subject that you’re passionate about.

It’s a little bit like blogging, which is a form of non-fiction that most writers are thoroughly familiar with. Some people use blogging as a way to share thoughts quickly and easily, opting for a stream-of-consciousness approach that relies on writing what they think as they think it. Other people put in huge amounts of research so that they can publish informed, analytical pieces that cover a particular subject in detail.

The first group of writers is better suited to fiction and other more flexible forms of writing that don’t require as much planning. But the second group is likely to have the temperament and the skills required to write a piece of long-form non-fiction.

Now it’s just a case of putting it into practice.

About the Sponsor

This post is sponsored by Publishing Addict, an organisation that specialises in helping authors to establish a brand, connect with their readers and to sell more books.

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