July 13, 2021
by Boni Wagner-Stafford
Most writers will tell you that writing nonfiction is easier than writing fiction. This is the good news. The less good news: that doesn’t mean it’s less work to write a nonfiction book. While fiction writers often use a basic outline and then go wherever the story and characters take them, nonfiction takes careful planning before you even start writing. To get you started, these steps explain the basic process of how to write a nonfiction book.
Planning Your Nonfiction Book
- Get clear on what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book
- Understand the subgenre of nonfiction you’re going to write
- Choose the structure for your book
- Draft an outline
- Choose your style guide
- Write, write, write
1. Get clear on what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book
Before you embark on your writing journey, you need to know why you’re going on this journey in the first place. What is it you want your reader to know? What do you hope to make them think or feel or do once they’ve read your book? Do you want to explain a topic that you’re passionate about? Or do you want to share a story that will inspire or guide your reader?
When you know what you want to achieve with your nonfiction book, you’ll be amazed at how many other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
2. Understand the subgenre of nonfiction you’re going to write
Once you know what you want to achieve with your book, you need to figure out what kind of nonfiction book you’re going to write. There are different subgenres of nonfiction. The one you choose will determine not only what you’re going to say but also the way you will say it.
Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction that tells a story. Unlike fiction, however, the story you’re telling is true. Some other subgenres of nonfiction are narrative too: memoir, autobiography, and biography, for instance, also tell a story. With this kind of writing, it’s all about telling.
Expository nonfiction is not so much about telling as it is about showing. Here you focus less on the narrative and more on explaining a topic. Textbooks, self-help books, and how-to books are all expository.
3. Choose the structure for your book
If your main aim is to tell a story, you need to decide how you want to tell that story. So, you need to create a plot structure. Examples of plot structures are:
The Traditional Three-Act Structure
Here you tell the story in chronological order. You start with the beginning, or the set-up act. You’re essentially setting the scene: introducing the protagonist and describing the event that sets the protagonist’s story in motion. The middle part, or the confrontation act, describes the protagonist’s journey and the obstacles and characters they encounter along the way. In this part, you may also introduce an antagonist.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be an actual person but can be a major challenge instead: something like societal beliefs, for instance, or a process/thing that needs figuring out. Throughout the confrontation act, you’re building up the suspense. Then, finally, you come to the end part, or the resolution act. This is where the protagonist and antagonist face off: the climax that you’ve been building towards. After the climax, you tie up the loose ends and emphasize what you want your reader to take away from it all.
With this structure, you start your story somewhere in the middle and then use flashbacks to tell your reader how it all began. You can also jump forward to future events and then go back to an earlier point in time. This structure is especially effective when there’s a risk that your reader may lose interest in the set-up and just wants to know what will happen next.
The Circular Structure
Here you start your story with the climactic event that would normally come at the end. You then go back to the beginning and the middle, describing what led to this climactic event. At the end of the book, you reiterate the climactic event and tie up the loose ends.
The Parallel Structure
With this structure, you’re telling two or more stories at the same time. Each separate story has its own beginning, middle, and end. You can weave the stories together or tell them separately but at the end, you need to tie them together.
For expository nonfiction, you may find it makes more sense to divide your book into sections or chapters according to topic. Say, for instance, that you’re writing a how-to business book describing seven steps or principles. The best way to do this is to tackle each step or principle separately. However, you can still build in an overarching narrative by letting one step or principle lead on to the next.
4. Draft an outline
Now it’s time to draft your outline. This is important since it will help you ensure that you cover everything you want to say. An easy way to draft an outline is to follow these steps:
Write down the main parts of your book’s structure. If you’re going with a narrative style, these will be the beginning, middle, and end parts, in whichever order you decide to tell them. For expository nonfiction, you’ll write down the different main topics you’re going to cover.
Now consider each part separately. Write down all the points you want to cover in that part.
Look at all these sub-points and see what you can combine, what you need to separate into different points, which points can be sub-points of others, and so on.
Decide in which order you want to discuss each sub-point. There may be overlap, so you’ll have to decide where you want to discuss the sub-point in more depth and where you just want to touch on it.
Decide how much space you want to give each sub-point. This will help keep you from rambling on and on about something that’s not that important in the bigger scheme of things.
Remember that your outline is not set in stone. During your research you may, for example, come across something that you haven’t thought of before and that you’d like to cover as well. Throughout the writing process, you can still chop and change things as you need to.
5. Choose your style guide
A style guide is a set of guidelines that will help you be consistent in your writing. It can cover anything from whether you’ll be using the first person or the second person to little details like whether or not to write out numbers. It’s not strictly necessary to choose a style guide before you start writing, but it will make the process much easier. Writing in a consistent style right from the start will save you time later on.
6. Write, write, write
Once you have an outline, you’ve actually done most of the difficult work. With a style guide to help you take care of the little details, it’s now only a matter of getting your ideas on paper—or in your computer. So, pour yourself something to drink, get rid of distractions, sit down, and get writing.
Boni Wagner-Stafford is author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Guide to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. She’s a writer, ghostwriter, and editor specializing in nonfiction. She is also co-founder of Ingenium Books, where she coaches nonfiction authors writing in the genres of business, self-help, personal development, memoir, and journalistic nonfiction. As an award-winning former Canadian journalist (under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray), Boni covered politics, government, social and economic policy, health care, and organized crime. She also held senior management roles in government where she led teams responsible for media relations, issues management, and strategic communications planning. As an entrepreneur, Boni has muddied her hands with one-page strategic plans, cash flow forecasts, development of purpose and core values, franchise structures, sales targets, and marketing strategy. She has lived in more than fifty towns and cities in Canada, Mexico, and France, currently residing in La Paz, Mexico.
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