Write Non-Fiction Well with these Top Ten Tips
Is your goal is to a write non-fiction book? Whether it is that bedazzling business idea, a mesmerising memoir, or perhaps a truth-telling true crime investigation, then go no further. Our top ten tips on how to write non-fiction, from research to technique, will light the pathway to getting that book written and published!
1. Identify your motivation – why do you want to write non-fiction?
What is driving you to write your non-fiction book? Do have an inspirational life story you want to share? Or perhaps you have an innovative business idea? Before you even start writing, it’s important you know why you’re writing, and whom you’re writing for. Knowing your purpose and your audience will help you shape and plan your ideas. Try to capture your book’s purpose and audience in once sentence. For example: ‘I want to write a book for parents to help them cope better emotionally in the first months of parenthood.’ As you can see, this summary includes the who (parents), as well as the purpose (coping better emotionally). When you feel lost during the writing process, come back to this purpose to find new pathways forward.
2. Read widely the kind of non-fiction you are writing
By reading non-fiction in the genre you are writing you will both consciously and unconsciously grasp writing techniques and storytelling methods. You will also become familiar with the common terms and language of your genre, and know well like-minded authors and competitor titles. You will know exactly what your audience is expecting in a non-fiction book, and what they are interested in. Exploring the market for your book is essential to making sure your book can find its audience and sell – read more on this in our helpful piece on Marketing Your Book in 6 Easy Steps.
3. Research content heavily
If you want to write non-fiction, you need to research, and research well. If you are writing your memoir, it’s important you research the social context of the time, and verify details to ensure you are remembering them correctly. You may even decide to interview others in your life for their perspectives on an event or person, to help you confirm details. If you are writing historical non-fiction, or a self-help guide, it’s important you research the areas you are writing about and reference these in footnotes or endnotes, or a bibliography. This research will not only provide incredibly fertile ground for your content, but it will also give your writing credibility. And don’t just use Google! Interview important persons, historians, go to a library, seek out primary sources, conduct large surveys to create your own data. Be open with your readers about your sources – they should be able to see for themselves the conclusions you have drawn. Your bibliography also provides a further reading list for those readers who wish to dig deeper.
4. Keep track of your sources and quotes
Keep track of your sources as you write your nonfiction book. Using software such as endnote is incredibly helpful. Be aware that if you choose to directly quote another source, you may need to request permission for use as it’s another author’s copyright. It’s crucial you don’t leave this until the end but do it as you go – the last thing you want is to be unable to remember where a fact or quote came from and need to remove it from your text.
5. Plan your content – write non-fiction around a story or themes/ideas
What will be the driving force of your non-fiction book? Memoirs are often stories shaped around an important period in a person’s life, and can focus on a theme such as fatherhood, family, grief or relationship happiness. Business guides often have a theme that drives them rather than a plot, such as financial independence, sales growth, or strategy. Plan each chapter, and the flow of one chapter to another, around your purpose and your themes or story. Constantly come back to this plan, and change if necessary, as you write.
6. Use headings, bullet points, diagrams, and appropriate terms/language
When you write non-fiction, especially non-fiction that isn’t narrative-based (i.e. not memoir), it is wise to break up the text with headings, lists, and diagrams. This will help the reader to digest the information you’re giving them in bite-sized chunks, and also helps them to skim your content if they are looking for a particular section. Writing this way makes your life as the author easier, too, for similar reasons! Writing your headings first, then filling in the information below each, can be an easy way for first-time writers to write non-fiction that has a clear, logical and smooth flow of ideas. It helps to eliminate tangents by keeping you on track, and helps you to be direct and succinct with your words. Make sure you also use consistent defined terminology throughout, terminology that your readers will be familiar with, and if they aren’t, make sure you explain it!
7. Consider your target audience when writing non-fiction
Many first-time writers write non-fiction, such as their memoir, because they finally have time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!), or because they believe they have an exciting story or idea to share. As you write, consider the audience you identified back in Point 2 – apart from yourself, who else will be reading your writing? Will they find it interesting? Why should they care? Of course, you care about your idea or story, but make sure in your writing you include reasons that will compel the reader to continue reading. Are you appealing to a universal theme such as love, or family relationships, or trauma? Are you trying to tell the reader about a great way to communicate with your staff? Consider what your readers are interested in, and how they communicate, as you write.
8. Tell a story
Every piece of non-fiction writing will tell a story, regardless of whether it is memoir or a business book. How? Because every piece of non-fiction will tell a reader what was, what has happened or changed, and what it is now. Another way to put it is that storytelling takes the reader from one of the bridge (unknown), across the bridge (the journey), to the other side of the bridge (the known). It’s crucial this process is followed in this order for your reader to grasp your writing.
Information is much more memorable and interesting when the reader can connect these three different parts of storytelling in your writing. For a memoir, perhaps this is the most obvious. For example, an author may write about how things used to be before she discovered she was adopted, then how she discovered she was adopted, and then what her life is like now after that revelation. In a business book, the author shows the reader what life is like before their idea (for example, how poor financial management can lead to business failure), to the process of their idea (that is, what are the basics of effective/successful financial management), and what is the result (good financial management is not only business success but business growth).
9. Write non-fiction well by saying it simply
The most complex of ideas will mean nothing if they are communicated poorly – and often the most effective method of communication is simple language, giving examples, and being specific. Sounding smart by using long words and writing long sentences will only serve to confuse your reader, and depending on your target audience, potentially alienate them. If your book contains an extremely layered idea, start by writing only about the first layer. Once that is communicated, build on it to write the second layer, and so on, until you have all the layers fully formed.
10. Use dialogue
When an author goes to write non-fiction, they may shy away from dialogue for fear of being unable to capture the ‘exact words’ of a discussion, or being unsure how it could be relevant for their book. However, it’s absolutely acceptable to convey discussions between people in a memoir, and for these not to be word-for-word exact. Why? Because a reader will know you haven’t gone through life with a tape recorder in your bag! They understand the words aren’ important, but that the ideas, language, and tone are. And as with writing fiction, dialogue is important for showing the reader your story, rather than telling them. It immerses the reader in your world, giving a deeper experience of your story.
But what if you’re writing a business book? Is dialogue suitable then? Yes, I believe dialogue is appropriate even for business books! You can write dialogue in specific examples to show how your ideas might play out, or to show what happens when your idea isn’t used or is ignored. You can use dialogue in a case study, and you can even use dialogue to directly address the reader, perhaps challenging them to implement a point of action you’ve provided.
Are you having trouble digging deeper to write non-fiction successfully? If these tips seem overwhelming, we’re here to help! Join our community of writers on Facebook to ask your questions and receive encouragement!