People read nonfiction books to be educated. History and technology, people and places, geography and archaeology, religion and meditation, biographies and memoirs, gardening and cooking—no matter the subject, nonfiction books help readers solve problems, examine new viewpoints, learn about abstract or tangible things, and discover ways to improve their lives.
Writing Nonfiction vs. Fiction—Is One Easier Than The Other?
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Much easier than writing fiction, right? On the contrary, nonfiction is usually more difficult.
If you’re writing fiction, you can let the plot meander as it grows, let characters develop at their own pace, and even change direction along the way. Sometimes not knowing where you’re going when you start out can actually improve the outcome of the book. But with nonfiction, the story you’re telling has to maintain some sort of structure in order to satisfy readers. Writing fiction can be an adventure where you don’t know where you’re going until you get there. But when you’re writing nonfiction, there are a few things you must know from the outset.
1. Know your goal
What are you hoping to achieve with your book? Is it your goal to instruct, inform, persuade, entertain, or explain? Are you writing because you want to make a point, make your family proud, or make some money? You don’t need to figure out all the intricate details before you start writing, but you do need to identify your reason for writing in the first place.
If you plan to self-publish, nailing down your goal isn’t as daunting as it will be if you intend to pitch your book to a publisher. You won’t have to explain your purpose to anyone besides yourself. But if you’re planning to seek traditional publishing, you’ll have to write a convincing proposal. Either way, writing a book takes time, perseverance, commitment, and dedication. If you just start writing nonfiction without a clear purpose in mind, all that effort may be wasted. The first step to success with any endeavor is to clearly identify your goal.
2. Know your audience
Knowing the audience you’re writing to is closely aligned with knowing your goal. Are you writing to people who will already understand the basics of what you’re talking about, or will your readers be starting from scratch? Will readers understand the language, terminology, or subject matter, or will you need to include details and definitions to make the book more useful to a wider audience? Even if your audience is already familiar with what you’re writing about, decide whether to use language that will make your content understandable and useful for any audience.
Many nonfiction writers create an outline or a table of contents. As you write you’ll add to the outline, adding or removing subheadings. If English class scared you away from outlines, a bulleted list will work.
Who, What, and Where?
Are you writing to young professionals, middle-aged Baby Boomers, or an intergenerational audience? Will the readers in your audience have plenty of time to read a complicated, in-depth book, or will they be looking for straightforward tips in small portions that are easy to digest quickly? If you’re targeting a particular audience, you may need to consider whether their lifestyles might affect their enjoyment of your book, and keep that in mind while you’re writing.
Is your book is about a controversial subject? If so, you can choose to use language that will appeal to a broad group of people in hopes of swaying opinions or viewpoints. Or you can choose to write with passion and emotion in an effort to convince readers to agree with you. Or you can present information from more than one viewpoint to encourage readers to do their own research and make their own decisions.
An understanding of your intended readership can dictate the language you use, the way you present information, the tone you take, and even the layout and cover design of your book. Knowing your audience will influence every aspect of your book.
3. Know your competition
Read, read, and read some more. Google and Amazon can be your allies in discovering other books that are saying the same thing you’re saying. If your goal is to write a bestseller and the market is flooded with direct competition, find a way to make your message unique, oppositional, or somehow different from what other writers are saying. Don’t just read those other books to see how they stack up against yours; you might pick up information that will give you ideas for expounding on your text. You might decide to approach your information from a perspective you hadn’t considered.
If you find a “gap in knowledge,” a term used often when writing a thesis or dissertation, research as you continue to write. Make notes and decide methods you’ll use to fill in that research gap. That item alone can put your book on a successful sales course.
4. Know how to tell your story
Every writer has a story to tell, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Fiction can benefit from letting the story develop organically as the characters develop, and it can take twists and turns along the way. You can even decide halfway through the book to change how the story ends. But a fluid approach to writing nonfiction doesn’t always work well.
Amazon is packed with nonfiction books that are essentially brain dumps and rambling trains of thought. Before you begin writing, put together an outline to organize your thoughts. It can be as detailed as you want to make it, but you should at least have a list of the salient points you want to discuss, arranged in a logical and cogent progression of thought. You can arrange and rearrange subsections as you write, but without a basic road map, your writing can go off track easily.
Feel the Burn
When you do begin writing, be passionate. Be authoritative and straightforward. Grab the reader’s attention from the very beginning, and focus all your efforts on keeping them interested. Connect your information to real people or real events, so readers can relate.
5. Know your takeaway
If readers are asked to describe your book, what do you want them to say? If you began with a clear purpose, made your case to the audience you had in mind, and said what you wanted to say, then your readers should have gotten some benefit from reading your book. What benefit do you want that to be?
If your goal is to solve problems, your book should provide readers with an action plan for things to do and things not to do. If your goal is to teach, your book should leave readers feeling confident that they have learned what they had hoped to learn. If your purpose is to share information, readers should feel rewarded by the new information. Simply put, the takeaway from your book should be the fulfillment of the goal you identified before you started writing.
6. Have a backup system in place
This last tip is for every writer; actually, for anyone who uses a computer. Things happen. You spill your coffee into your laptop, or maybe it’s stolen. You accidentally overwrite your whole manuscript.
Backup options include a flash drive and saving to a cloud. Offsite options include Dropbox and Google Drive or Docs. If you’re in the throes of a writing frenzy, you might want to back up every five minutes!
Make backups a habit.
One of the most important things to know is related to you, the writer. If you’ve poured yourself into writing something fantastic and it doesn’t make the bestseller lists, you should know that you haven’t wasted your time. Someone, somewhere, will read your book and be glad they did.