How to Write a Non-Fiction Book
Per Meg Dowell, 81% of people want to write a book someday.
But writing a book requires persistence and tenacity. You must have the dogged determination to keep going, even when you don’t feel like editing 300 pages of content you just finished writing.
And even if you do finish a manuscript, there’s no guarantee that it will be anything revolutionary. Putting the finishing touches on your manuscript isn’t the end, either – then comes cover design, book description, author bio, getting reviews, marketing, and more.
There are many ways to write a book. Though some methods can easily lead you down the wrong path.
Here are some thoughts on how to write a book and different methods you can use to achieve that end.
The Hunt & Peck Method
This is how most beginners get started.
If they were self-motivated enough to begin the process of writing before being told how, they probably ended up with a hunt and peck manuscript.
In this case, “hunt and peck” does not refer to typing methods. It’s basically the general attitude of “let me write about this” and “let me write about that.” You end up writing about anything and everything, regardless of whether it’s related to the core topic, and generally make little to no progress.
If you’re familiar with the story of how I wrote my first best-selling book, The New Music Industry, then you will know that this is exactly how I got started. And you will also know that I scrapped that draft, despite being thousands of words into it.
On this, the experts are right. Starting without a plan is unwise. If you end up publishing your “hunt and peck” book, you will probably look back on it with some sadness, knowing you could have done much better.Starting without a plan is unwise. Click To Tweet
But mistakes will be made, and sometimes you just don’t learn any other way. At least you started writing, and that’s a big step in the right direction.
The “Let’s Put a Word Count on Each Chapter” (or the “I Learned from My Mistakes”) Method
I scrapped my first run at The New Music Industry. But my second manuscript made the cut.
By that time, I’d published hundreds of blog posts I could use as a starting point. And with one failed attempt behind me, I was much better prepared to write a book I could be proud of.
I knew that I wanted the book to reflect my experience – something that was absent from my first go at it. As much as possible, I wanted to talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me, so that the reader could benefit from my experiences and go further with their music career than I ever did.
I kept writing and editing sporadically for a couple of years. But that finish line still seemed a long way off. So, I finally committed myself to writing 5,000 words per chapter. Some chapters already had more than 5,000 words, but several others needed some work. This gave me clear milestones to work towards.
And I began to follow a bit of a format for each chapter, based on some of the reading I had been doing. David Hooper’s Six-Figure Musician (affiliate link) served as a bit of an inspiration. James Moore, who authored the foreword, also gave me same great tips.
That’s what got me to the finish line. If I had never committed to that word count, then who knows how much longer I would have spent messing around with the book. Maybe it would have never seen the light of day.
I spent a lot of time preparing for the launch of the book too. I went back and forth with cover ideas and spent a lot of time collecting praise. But I think it all paid off and The New Music Industry became a best-selling book I can be proud of (even if it’s begging to be updated). It continues to sell to this day.
The “I’m A Mind Reading Guru” Method
I’ve read enough books on how to write a book to know that the experts basically tell you to:
- Step into the shoes of your target audience
- Turn common audience questions into chapters
- Use the expert’s magical, proven interior layout
- Craft a compelling title
- Write a compelling book description and author bio
- Get 10 to 20 reviews for your book
- Send 100 copies of your book to influencers
- Sit back and watch as the royalties roll in
If this works for you, I’m not here to judge. But I see several problems with this, especially for newbies, who are probably going to follow the method, come up with an inferior manuscript, and feel disappointed when royalties don’t roll in by the truckload.
So, let me address the above point by point:
- Unless you’re a mind reader, you can’t know what your target audience wants
- If you’re just going to turn the questions into chapters, why not write blog posts instead?
- Author and expert marketer Dan Kennedy always says do what works – if the old works better than the new, why change it?
- The title of the book should be connected to the book’s core premise, which has yet to be defined
- This advice is confusing at best – some experts will say Tim Ferriss’ book description is awesome, while others say it’s awful (so, what does a good description and author bio look like, anyway?)
- Reviews help in a lot of ways, so no disagreements here
- Don’t send any books to anyone unless there’s a strategy behind it
- Sorry, we’re not in the wild west anymore – everything you create must be promoted
The Top-Down Method
There’s no denying that I’m opinionated when it comes to writing books.
But I have read hundreds of them, have written five, and have had three best-sellers. I have also read my share of guru miscarriages that were supposed to be genuine game-changers.
Their books will do fine, I’m sure, because of their fame and reputation. But so far as writing and relaying valuable information is concerned, they violate good sense at every step, and even leave you feeling frustrated as an independent author, knowing you could do much better work.
The top-down method is how I suggest others approach book writing. And it’s incredibly simple.
You don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people who said they had a manuscript but couldn’t imagine publishing it as is, because it wasn’t organized, the content was all over the map (hunt and peck), and the ideas needed to be brought home. That’s basically what happens when you follow any of the other methods described above.
The top-down method is this:
- From a bird’s eye view, what is your book about? What’s the core premise?
- What three to five supporting points do you want to share with the reader?
- What questions do your readers have, and how could you tie them in with your supporting points?
- Add summaries to each chapter, so the reader can walk away with actionable steps
- Don’t use more words than needed to communicate your arguments – it’s not all about the word count
If some of the previously mentioned gurus had followed these steps, they may have ended up with a book worth reading.
Instead, they came across incapable of finishing a single thought before jumping to another. They may have been successful in fluffing up their book, but they weren’t in getting more than a couple of useful ideas across.
I think you should think about what you want to say. Come up with your supporting points. Then, tie those into audience questions. That way, you will get to say what you want to say. And your perspective will have been expressed. Your thoughts on the matter may be more valuable than you even realize.
If you are cornered into answering common audience questions, then your book will be like everyone else’s. And what good is that? You never get to say what you want to say, and your voice gets lost in the mix. The reader never gets introduced to your unique solution.
Write the book that you want to write. And use the above to organize your ideas.
Key Takeaways On Writing Non-Fiction Books
I’m taking my own advice and summarizing the key takeaways here:
- Fail early. Your first attempts at writing a book will probably fail. Don’t get down on yourself. Scrap the first draft and try again.
- Write openly and transparently about your experiences. Otherwise, you may not have anything new or original to say!
- Take expert advice with a grain of salt. Especially if they are saying, “this is the new way – violate at your own peril.” It’s all garbage if the “old way” still works.
- Promote like your life depends on it. No book sells thousands of copies without a heavy push.
- Leave your reader with action steps. Many authors assume the reader knows what to do next after reading a long, drawn-out chapter with too many examples to process. Simplify it for the reader by creating summaries and action steps.
- Word count doesn’t matter. Perry Marshall’s Detox, Declutter, Dominate (affiliate link) is a mere 8,000 words. My last four books were somewhere in the 12,000 to 25,000 range. It’s not about word count. It’s about saying what needs to be said clearly and succinctly!
- Read plenty. You will get a better sense of what a good book is, how to structure one, and how to write one of your own.
As I said, I am rather opinionated when it comes to book writing. That isn’t to say any method is perfect, including my own.
But if I were you, I would take guru advice with a grain of salt. Instead of taking their course on writing a book, read their books. Find out if they’re any good. If not, move on. Find another book.
The more you read, the better you will become at writing and knowing how to structure a book. There are many excellent books out there, and if you want to be a writer with any longevity, you should always be reading and learning new things.
What is your method for writing a book? What has worked best for you?
Let me know in the comments.
Shh… Don’t tell anyone. Only the cool kids are talking about it.
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