There are many reasons you might want to write a nonfiction book. Publishing a book can help you grow your business, to tell your personal story, or simply to share your knowledge.
But it’s not easy to write an entire manuscript on your own. So, how exactly do you write a great nonfiction book?
The short answer is that it takes a lot of time and perseverance, but you can do it successfully if you know the right steps to follow.
In this article, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide for how to write a nonfiction book.
6 Steps to Writing a Nonfiction Book
Writing nonfiction can be broken down into six steps:
Start by defining your goal
Do your research
Structure the book
Plan your writing schedule
Write the first draft
Revise and edit
Let’s take a closer look at how to complete each of these steps.
How to Start a Nonfiction Book
Before you put your pen to paper, you have to know what you’re writing about. You need to figure out the goal of your book—the reason why you’re writing it.
Start by asking yourself three important questions:
What’s the topic of your book?
Who’s your target audience?
Why do you need to write this book?
For example, maybe the topic of the book is the secret lives of plants, your target audience is amateur botanists, and you need to write it because you want to inspire people to respect the environment.
Or maybe you’re writing a memoir about your journey to becoming a successful CEO, your target audience is anyone who’s interested in business, and you need to write it because you want to share your life lessons with future generations.
You can get even more specific with these questions by asking more detailed questions about your answers to each one.
For the first question, you might ask: what questions do you hope to answer with your book? What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
For the second question, you might ask: does your target audience prefer serious books or humorous books? How much do they already know about this topic before reading your book?
For the third question, you might ask: what expertise or life experience can you bring to the table that no other authors would have? How do you hope readers will be impacted by reading your book?
Regardless of what type of book you’re writing, the answers to these questions will give you a clear goal that keeps you on track throughout the writing process.
How to Research a Nonfiction Book
When you write a book, you’re not building a knowledge base from scratch. Instead, you’re adding your voice to an existing field of expertise.
It’s important to understand what’s already out there before you add to it, so you don’t reinvent the wheel. So, do as much research as you can on the topic you’re writing about.
Go to your local library, tell them about your manuscript, and ask the librarians if they have books they’d recommend. Academic libraries can also be a great resource if you have access to them.
Another great option is to look up experts on your topic and ask if they’d be willing to schedule an interview. Sure, a few will say no, but many will be honored that you asked for their help.
Finally, don’t forget to read other nonfiction books that are similar to the one you’re planning to write. How do they tackle the questions you’re trying to address? What can you learn from them, both in terms of content and in terms of style?
Remember that doing your research can be an ongoing process. You can keep adding to your research throughout the outlining and editing stages, especially if new research topics arise after you get started.
How to Structure a Nonfiction Book
If you want your book to make an impact, you need to make sure it has a clear, coherent structure that readers can easily understand.
There are many different ways to accomplish that goal. Different nonfiction writers choose different systems of dividing their books into parts, chapters, sections, and even subsections.
If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, such as a memoir or a biography, you’ll need to figure out how to structure the story you’re telling.
Consider the following questions:
How can you organize your story into a clear beginning, middle, and end?
Is there an inciting incident that kicks off the story?
Is there a climactic moment when the story reaches its breaking point?
How can you ensure consistent pacing? Are there any sections that aren’t necessary for the story?
Do you want to tell your story in chronological order, or is it best told in a different order?
Since writing narrative nonfiction is often similar to writing fiction, you can consider studying some of the plot structures used by fiction writers, such as the traditional three-act story structure or Freytag’s pyramid.
On the other hand, if you’re writing expository nonfiction, such as textbooks and self-help books, you won’t be telling a story. Instead, you’ll need to figure out how to organize your ideas.
Consider the following questions:
What big-picture questions are you hoping to answer in your book?
How can those big-picture questions be broken down into smaller subtopics?
How much space does each subtopic need?
What’s a logical order for these subtopics to be arranged in?
Is there any overlap between subtopics that might become redundant?
Make an outline with your questions and subtopics. A simple bullet-point list is a good place to start. That way, you can get a bird’s-eye view of your book before you actually write it, which will save time in the long run.
How to Plan Your Writing Schedule
Many people start writing a book, but few ever make it to the finish line. That’s because it takes a lot of time and dedication to complete an entire manuscript, and it’s easy to lose steam in the middle.
The best way to ensure you finish your book is by setting a realistic writing schedule.
You should choose a schedule that fits your personal writing preferences. Would you prefer to write for 30 minutes every day or for a few hours every weekend? Would you prefer to write at home or at a public space like a library or a coffeeshop?
If you know when you want to finish your first draft, you can even plan your daily word count based on that deadline.
For example, if you know you want to write a 60,000-word book in 100 days, that means you’ll need to write an average of 600 words every day. That’s not a trivial number, but it’s an achievable one if you carve out time for it.
Consider using a calendar to make sure you’re staying on schedule. Block out writing time on your calendar, the same way you would schedule a coffee date or a doctor’s appointment, so you know you’ll stick to it.
You can even mark the dates when you expect to hit certain milestones, like finishing the first chapter, reaching 10,000 words, or reaching the halfway point. That way, you can celebrate small milestones along the way to keep yourself motivated.
Finally, consider finding an accountability buddy to check in on you and make sure you’re sticking to your writing schedule. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely task—it’s a lot more fun if you involve your friends or colleagues in the process!
How to Draft Your Nonfiction Book
Once you have your outline and your writing schedule planned out, it’s time to start drafting.
You can choose your favorite word processing software to draft in. Some popular options for nonfiction authors include Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, and the Reedsy Book Editor.
Here are some tips you can follow while drafting:
Lean into your authentic voice. If you normally use a lot of sarcastic humor in daily conversation, for example, don’t be afraid to let that shine through in the book
Make sure to “show, don’t tell” by describing an immersive scene for your readers instead of simply telling them what happened
Create three-dimensional characters that your readers can relate to. Even if you’re writing expository nonfiction, you can use characters to illustrate your points
Use dialogue. Showing real conversations on the page is a great way to hook readers in and break up long passages of exposition
Cite reliable sources. It’s important to give yourself credibility by citing trustworthy sources, especially if you’re positioning yourself as an expert in a specific field
If your book strays from the outline, don’t stress out. You might be discovering a better direction for your book, so try steering into the skid
Finally, remember that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect—you just have to keep writing. In fact, it can be helpful to aim for a messy draft on purpose so you don’t lose momentum.
How to Use ProWritingAid to Edit Your Book
Even if you’re an experienced writer, it’s unlikely you’ll churn out a flawless first draft on the first go. It’s critical to edit your work so you can create a book that’s ready for publication.
Start by figuring out the best style guide to use. A style guide will give you clear guidelines for questions related to grammar, capitalization, abbreviations, punctuation, and more.
If you’re planning to get your book traditionally published, you should follow whichever style guide your publisher uses. If you’re self-publishing, you can choose one that makes sense for your topic. Some popular options include:
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP Style)
The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style)
The MLA Handbook (MLA style)
In addition to simply checking for errors, you should also make sure your prose is as strong as possible. Here are a few tips for editing your language:
Use active voice rather than passive voice
Keep your language simple and easily readable
Vary the lengths of your sentences to better engage the reader
Avoid using filler words like “really” and “just”
Remove redundant words and phrases to keep your writing concise
ProWritingAid can help identify areas in your manuscript where you’re not following these rules, and help you figure out how to improve them. You can use the grammar checker throughout the editing process to make sure your writing is as clear and effective as possible.
Another tip you can try is to read your work out loud. That way, you can see if your writing flows naturally, and identify any sentences that feel awkward or confusing.
Finally, you should also consider sharing your manuscript with a trusted friend or family member or fellow writer. Asking for feedback is a great way to find errors you wouldn’t catch on your own.
Conclusion on How to Write a Nonfiction Book
There you have it—a complete guide for how to write a successful nonfiction book.
Here’s a quick recap of the six steps:
Start by defining your goals for the book and why you want to write it
Do your research by going to the library, interviewing experts, and more
Choose a clear and coherent structure for your book and create an outline in advance
Set a realistic writing schedule to make sure you can hit your writing goals
Write a messy first draft to keep up momentum, knowing that it doesn't have to be perfect
Edit your book to make sure it’s polished and ready to enter the publishing process
Whether you’re writing a memoir, a self-help book, or some other type of nonfiction, you can follow this step-by-step process to make it to the finish line.
Good luck, and happy writing!