Nonfiction Writing Advice

Writing a Non-Fiction Book: Keeping It Real

writing a book
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I want to write a book” or “I have a book idea.”

When people find out that I’m an author, that’s often what they say to me – and, I reply, “That’s great! The world needs more wonderful books.” (And, it’s true. There can never be enough wonderful books!)

A follow up question that I sometimes get asked is, “Do you think I have the talent to write a book?”

Now, that’s virtually impossible to judge before the book is written and is a subjective question even after the book is written. I do believe, though, that, when writing a nonfiction book, there are six personal traits that are very helpful for the author to have:

  • Aptitude
  • Commitment
  • Persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Understanding of scope
  • Willingness to revise

It’s tempting to write a warm and fuzzy encouraging article about those traits, but it would be more helpful for me to share what it’s really like when writing a nonfiction book – including several reality checks so that you can determine if you’re ready to take the book-writing plunge. (Here is a sample nonfiction book proposal that may help.) Here goes:

writing aptitude
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Aptitude

I believe that specific writing skills can be learned and that every dedicated and determined person can keep improving his or her writing. I also believe that, to successfully write a book, a person needs to possess an underlying aptitude for words – meaning a love of words and the desire to want to read them and write them, plus a desire to communicate and a wish to be heard. This love can’t be taught; it’s all about how you feel about language.

Aptitude Reality Check

Reality check: If you don’t embrace words, but want to be a writer, you’ll always be swimming uphill. That’s the situation I’d be in had I chosen to try to become a mathematician! (I’m picturing all of my math teachers laughing and nodding their heads in agreement.)

writing commitment
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Commitment

If you’ve decided to write a book then . . . you need to write the book! Sure, the family and the day job come first but you’ll need to give up other pleasures to make time for writing – because it doesn’t happen without a real sense of commitment to the project.

Commitment Reality Check

How many hours of television do you watch? How much can be cut back to achieve your dream? How often do you go window shopping, chat on the phone, surf Facebook or indulge in other enjoyable hobbies? How much can be cut back? (Some people choose to cut back on sleep – and more power to them – but that wouldn’t fly for me.)

reality check
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Persistence

After the first flush of excitement is gone, you’ll have days when you feel that this book will NEVER be finished. The middle has become a muddle; your train of thought has taken you from point A to point L without connecting the dots in between; and so on and so forth.

Persistence Reality Check

What will you do when that happens? Because, trust me, when writing a nonfiction book, this will happen to you. It’s just part of the process. People who go on to publish books may take a break to stretch, to go for a head-clearing walk, to stop for a snack or to enjoy a brief nap – but then they get right back down to the business of book writing.

flexibility in writing
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Flexibility

I haven’t convinced many people of my next philosophy – but, I’m going to share it with you, nonetheless. Let’s say that you have a particular book that you really want to write. That’s great! But, don’t pass up opportunities that arise to write for a newspaper or for magazines – or even to write another book.

In other words, take advantage of whatever professional writing experience you can get (except, of course, anything that you find immoral). This will make you a stronger, more experienced writer; it will take you out of your comfort zone where you can expand your skill sets; and it will give you bullet points on your writer’s resume that may be precisely the ones that impress the editor to whom you will someday submit the book of your dreams.

Flexibility Reality Check

Like in any other field, when writing a nonfiction book that you’ll want someone to publish, a track record counts! So, be proactive and create one.

scope of writing project
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Understanding of Scope

One of the hardest parts of writing a nonfiction book is right-sizing it – meaning defining the scope of the book broadly enough without making it so broad that the topic can’t effectively be covered in a reasonable number of pages.

Over time, right-sizing becomes easier to do. In the meantime, here is an exercise that should help. Choose a broad topic of interest and then narrow it down six times; because my first book focused on boomerangs, I’ll include how I might have followed this process on that subject:

  1. Write down a one-word description of your topic: boomerangs
  2. Narrow down the scope: boomerangs as a sport
  3. Narrow down the scope: boomerang athletes
  4. Narrow down the scope: top boomerang athletes
  5. Narrow down the scope: top boomerang athletes in the United States
  6. Narrow down the scope: top boomerang athlete in the United States
  7. Narrow down the scope: bio of Chet Snouffer
Yep, that’s Chet Snouffer.

Usually, when you get to level 7, you will have a topic that could become a book chapter. It’s the right size. A book will then be a collection of related topics of approximately that same size and scope that all fit within your predetermined slant/theme on the overall subject. It’s common to need about 10 to 20 of these chapter-sized topics, although this varies widely.

Scope Reality Check

It may take a while to right-size a book idea and manuscript. (This goes back to trait #3: be persistent!)

revising your writing
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Willingness to Revise

When first writing a nonfiction book, it will be in draft form. You’ll then need to take a look at it in multiple ways and revise as necessary:

  1. In the big picture, does the book flow well? Are your chapters in logical order? What needs fixed at a high level?
  2. Is anything important missing, within the defined scope of your book? Where should it be added? Does this affect anything else in the book?
  3. Review each chapter individually. Does everything flow well within that chapter? Is something key missing? Are there any inaccuracies that need fixed? Facts that need double-checked? Does something in chapter 3 really belong in chapter 4 – or visa versa?
  4. Review each page individually. Is your prose grammatically correct? What about the punctuation? the spelling? Is each idea expressed as you had intended – and as well as you can write it?
  5. Review each sentence individually. How well is it constructed? How clear is it? How well does it communicate your precise meaning?
  6. Do you need to get permission to use any quotes, photos or other items in the book?

Revision Reality Check

If you are publishing traditionally (where a publishing house pays you to publish the book), an editor(s) will edit your book – which means making changes to your prose. Many times, the changes will improve the quality of your book. During this process, be open-minded and flexible, and appreciate the editor for his or her positive contributions to your book. Be sure to speak up, though (in a professional manner), if a change doesn’t make sense to you. Here are some insights from my years as a magazine editor.

If you are self-publishing, consider hiring a professional editor/book doctor to edit your manuscript for you. Do NOT have a friend or family member do it, unless they are experienced in the process. Friends and family love you and will want to think good things about your book – which does you no favors, as you need someone who can be objective.

enjoy writing
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One More Thing!

Remember to have fun! Although some of the steps may seem intimidating, every book started out as a blank page that was transformed by the joyous energy of its writer.

See you on the book shelves . . .

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