I do lots of interviews on other podcasts, but there are some interviewers I really connect with, and Caroline Donohue at The Secret Library Podcast is one of them, so we get really honest in this discussion about writing non-fiction from the heart.
Listen to the episode with the player below or click here to subscribe to The Secret Library Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.
Here are the highlights and the full transcript below. You can read Caroline's notes on the podcast episode here.
- How to choose a non-fiction subject to write about
- Two different approaches to tackling writing a non-fiction book
- Exploring all parts of our personalities through writing
- Leaning into creative direction
- On turning a blog post into a full-length manuscript
- Digital age advantages of writing a series of shorter books rather than one tome
- Using book material in multiple ways
- Surveying your audience to see what questions they have that you could answer with a book
Transcript of the interview. Joanna Penn on The Secret Library Podcast
Caroline: This is episode 117 of the Secret Library podcast. My guest this week is Joanna Penn. She is an award-nominated New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under J.F. Penn, and she also writes non-fiction for authors under Joanna Penn.
Joanna is an award-winning entrepreneur, podcaster and YouTuber. Her site, thecreativepenn.com has been voted in the top 100 sites for writers by Writer's Digest.
Those of you who are regular listeners to the show will remember that Joanna Penn has been on the show before. She was one of the most popular episodes we've had partly because she is so great at giving practical, thoughtful advice to writers.
I wanted to have her back because of her recent book, How to Write Non-Fiction. And writing non-fiction and sharing non-fiction books and selling non-fiction books as well has been a topic of interest that I think we haven't gone into as deeply as we could on the show.
For anyone who's looking to write a non-fiction book and who wants to share information that you've learned, share your expertise, maybe expand your reach in a business that you have or in trying to get out there as a speaker, and if you have a desire much like on our previous episode with Chris Guillebeau and Tom Hodgkinson, to build a business around your writing life, you'll want to have a non-fiction book eventually.
I wanted to have Joanna back on to talk about how to write that book, and how to write it really well. So that's a rewarding experience for you, your reader and whatever goals you have for the book. So, here we go with an amazing conversation as always with Joanna Penn.
Hi Joanna, think so much for coming back on.
Joanna: Thanks so much, Caroline, it's great to be here.
Caroline: I love a repeat guest, it's super fun because I'm like, “Oh, we can just get right into it.”
Joanna: We know each other now, we can just be honest – not that we weren't honest the last time!
Caroline: I always love having people on who have shows because I know how nice it is to be the guest because it's like, “I don't have to plan anything,” but then I also know you're gonna answer well.
You've had so many books come out that are super useful, but in particular, How to Write Non-Fiction is now out. And it was so cute to see you with your Facebook Live bravery with everybody typing in and saying what bestseller list it was hitting while you were on there.
So first of all, congratulations on how well the book is doing.
Joanna: Thank you so much. And it is a bravery in inverted commas. Facebook Live just fills me with fear for some reason because you know that if you make a mistake, people are watching you live, and that's just kind of scary. And it's the first time I've done it for a book launch, and that's after 10 years of putting books out.
So, if people listening, are like, “Oh, my goodness, I could never do that.” It might take 10 years but eventually you might get to it.
And as you say, what's so interesting is as writers so often it's like telepathy, I'm writing something now and next year or something it will appear in someone else's brain, but with the live thing, people are actually giving you feedback straight away.
Definitely, I want to hold on to the bravery and do it for my next book launch too, but that was fun.
Caroline: I have to say, well, we'll link to the, because you can see it later and it is an episode, “in betweenisode” as we say, in your podcast now, so everyone listening can listen to that episode. And you may have the same reaction I had, which was, “This can't possibly be the first time you're doing this because you sound so natural doing it.”
Joanna: I had done a few a couple of years ago, and just kind of got scared, again, the introvert thing. I don't know whether it's introvert actually but just maybe being prepared, we're good girls or at least on the surface. We like to prepare, to have the questions ready, to have thought about our answers so we can be semi-coherent.
And also, maybe that's just part of being a writer. We know that with writing the first draft is the first draft, so no one's going to see that. The first thing that comes out of our brains is not usually the most coherent thing, but then after the editing and everything you can make it sound fairly intelligent as for everyone on your podcast.
I guess I would also encourage people to try this stuff. Whatever is out of your comfort zone.
I'll tell you something I have never done. I have never read my fiction out loud in public, that just scares me stupid, but I've spoken all over the world to thousands of people on the non-fiction topics. So maybe we'll cover that today, like the difference between fiction and non-fiction.
This book, “How to Write Non-Fiction” was very much something that I finally decided to put together. You write what you want to get straight in your brain, and I know I needed to get that straight in my brain.
Caroline: I have to say as a little aside that this makes me want to bring you on for one of your fiction releases that have you read it over the podcast.
Joanna: That'll be a no.
Caroline: Maybe if we involved gin and tonic. But to get into the difference between fiction and non-fiction I think is critical, and also getting things straight in your brain.
One of the things you talk about in how to write about non-fiction is starting with the table of contents which I thought was really helpful to get the topic straight in your brain.
I'm wondering if we could go through how you think about deciding on an idea for what you're going to write a non-fiction book about, and then go step-by-step through the early process, maybe the lead-up to the writing process so that everyone can see how that works.
Joanna: Straight up I think there are two directions that you can do a non-fiction book from.
There's the top-down approach or the bottom-up approach.
I've talked about this to you: I want to write a book on the shadow about writing from the dark side.
This is a topic I'm interested in so the topic is the shadow and creativity from the dark. I want to write it. I will research it and eventually I'll come up with a table of contents, but it's stemming from myself, my interests, the things I want to do.
The bottom-up approach is often when you have an audience and you notice that something is resonating with your audience, and you go from there.
And this for many, many non-fiction writers, they already have some kind of a job or business, or a community. I know you've had the being boss lady, for example, that's a great example of a bottom-up community thing meets top-down.
For me, The Successful Author Mindset is probably the most obvious one, which is really about the psychology of the rollercoaster ride of creativity.
I did a blog post on that and it resonated so much that I was like, “Oh, this needs to be a book.”
So either of those angles are completely valid. Either you just have a book of your heart, you're really interested in this topic or it kind of bubbles up from the people who you serve, your community.
And then, in terms of the kind of the writing, again, there's kind of two ways. One, if you have an existing amount of material. So if you have lots of stuff already like a blog or a podcast or an email series that you can turn into a book, that's one way to start, you know you have that material.
Often those people will struggle because there might be too much. So for those people I say, get one page of A4 paper and write down the most important things. And once you've filled one piece of paper, that's it. That's all you're getting for your table of content.
And the other direction, if you're doing it from the top-down, is to just brainstorm from your interest.
For example, with the writing from the shadow, one of my line items on the table of contents will be Carl Jung, and what is the shadow, for example, or Plato's chariots, how to merge the dark and the light side.
Asking, “Why do people write violence? Why do people write sex?” These are kind of crazy questions for creatives because of course, we do, but how do you tap into that?
Those are the kind of two angles that you can come from with non-fiction books, but a lot of that is also to do with research and the metaphor of the creative pipe.
Julia Cameron has the creative well but I kind of think of it as a pipe which is, you have to put stuff in the top for stuff to come out the bottom, transformed. You have to do your research, you have to fill your brain with all kinds of different stuff so that you can come up with an original take on what is probably a topic that lots of people have written about.
Caroline: I think that really clarifies, yes, it's okay to have a book that is an ongoing thing that you're thinking about like the shadow book.
I love the idea of setting things in either a digital or a physical folder and I love how you talk about using Pinterest for your novels and keeping boards to sort of keep you inspired, that whatever kind of takes you.
One thing I want to ask about, because this is a problem I am having at the moment, is that you seem to have no shortage of ideas and options. And not only that, you have now three names that you're writing under and they span all the way from sweet romance to dark thrillers, to non-fiction.
How are you keeping all of this straight in your brain? And even more importantly, in your writing schedule?
Joanna: I think that word “schedule” is the key. And also I think having different names, it's very difficult in one way because you have to have three different websites, three different email lists, three different brands, which is difficult.
But in another way, it's easier because I actually schedule my time by author name. So you're interviewing Joanna Penn.
This morning I was doing my writing for my next novel as J.F. Penn. And it's not like I have any kind of psychological difficulties, it is that when I sit down to write my thrillers, for example, I have a particular way of doing that.
I go to a café. I put my BOSE noise-cancelling headphones on. I have the sound of rain and thunderstorms, and I sink into that persona. That persona has quite a lot in common with you in terms of the art side and the your tarot side and the interest in these more arcane matters.
When I get into that persona, the things that I'm reading, the things I'm putting into my brain are kind of just segmented. Those things are kept quite separate.
Penny Appleton, the sweet romance I (used to) co-write with my Mum, and that's not something I ever thought I would do but actually, I've done a lot more co-writing in the last few years and it's a fascinating process.
You learn a lot by co-writing, especially with the more junior writer, which is terrible to say about my mum, but it is actually true.
And then, with the non-fiction as I said, my non-fiction is usually of service to my community. And although I benefit greatly because I learn a lot from what I'm writing, it also obviously does make money which benefits me but it also is to help other writers like yourself who are writing non-fiction. It's like, “Here are the things I've learned and hopefully, it will help you.”
Whereas with my fiction, I really feel like I'm being selfish in a way, and it's really weird. I was talking to Steven Pressfield, who wrote The War of Art, yesterday. He was on my show, and I asked him this question…because he writes fiction and non-fiction, and he talks about honoring the muse.
Maybe there are two different muses, a different muse for fiction and a different muse for non-fiction because they almost seem to come from different places.
Now, I know you've had memoir writers on your show as have I, and I think memoir is a bit different because it's almost a combination of fiction and non-fiction, you know what I mean?
Joanna: A lot of my non-fiction has my own journal entries in. How to Write Non-Fiction has a very personal story at the front. So you can share a lot of personal stuff with non-fiction, but I still feel like if you want to see into someone's brain you read their fiction.
Caroline: That is fascinating though because in writing groups I've been in, there is, and this has nothing to do with non-fiction, but there is this sense of these people that you meet and they have this persona.
And then you read their fiction and you're like, “Oh, I had no idea that was in there.”
Joanna: Exactly. And it's funny because I'm pretty obsessed with self-censorship and trying to help people around that because I feel, like I said earlier, we're nice girls with these nice jolly voices and yet some of the stuff I write is very, very dark.
I call myself a vanilla goth. I don't look like a goth but I should be. In my mind, I'm covered in tattoos and I have goth makeup and I go to Day of the Dead, and I hang out in the catacombs like a vampire. But I have this other self-help side which wants to be Tony Robbins.
So you get a vampire meets Tony Robbins type of personality.
But what's awesome about the way we can live now, the careers we have is that we can do all these different types of things. You can indulge all those parts of your personality and there is a place for them that.
I can co-write a sweet romance that has a happy ending and nobody dies which is just not what happens in my thrillers.
Caroline: No, not at all. You're writing in series essentially because the non-fiction is all under the books for authors category, and it isn't the same as in, “You need to know what happened in the one before in order to be caught up for the next one,” the way it is with fiction.
But you are building this catalog in the J.F. Penn world which is absolutely a series, and then you've written other fiction series, and then the how-to author's books.
How are you kind of timing them in your head? Because on your show you say things like, “Okay. My next book up is a fiction book so I'm going to be working on that one.”
How are you timing how many books you want to get out a year and balancing when you go back from non-fiction and fiction?
Joanna: I wish I could say I was super organized and had a production schedule. I have a daily schedule which has time blocks for creation, but what I have been unable to do because of the muse, I will blame it on the muse, I can't seem to schedule the books I'm going to write.
I didn't even know I was going to write this, How to Write Non-fiction this year. I literally did not know that was what was coming up, but I started.
I thought I would just write a little short book because people kept asking me these questions, and then it just turned into a chunky book; it's like 65,000 words or something.
And then with my fiction, I tend to alternate. I do kind of go novel, novella, non-fiction novel, novel, non-fiction you know kind of like that.
But with the fiction, I used to get desperate. I think everyone who writes recognizes that feeling when you're, “Oh my goodness. I am so done with this project. I really want a new project.”
I've had this story bubbling away in my mind. I went to New Orleans two years ago and San Francisco last year, and I knew I needed to write an ARKANE thriller, Valley of Dry Bones.
I've had one set in New York but when I was in New Orleans I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is so European.” And I was in the St. Louis Cathedral, and there's a Bible there which the original Bible is in Toledo in Spain. And so I just needed an excuse to go to Toledo in Spain.
I was there a couple of weeks ago and it was a double thing. It was, “I am done with this non-fiction book and I am ready for my next novel.” So I go places looking for story.
I went there looking for whatever I could find. I went to look at the Bible but found stuff in Madrid. And so now that story is formed in my head. It's been kind of marinating for a couple of years, even though I've written other novels since then and now I'm ready to write that book.
For me, it is very much what comes up in the moment. I don't really know how many books I would necessarily write in a year. I certainly will expect to at least write one fiction or two fiction and one non-fiction, that certainly would be an aim at the beginning of the year, but as to which one, it really is what moves me enough to sit down and do that project.
Caroline: I love that because, in my head, you're so organized, and on your show, you have the, “Okay, this is how the last year went, and here are my goals for this upcoming year.”
I had this vision of this spreadsheet of, “Here's the pipeline for the next seven books or whatever sitting there.”
Joanna: I would love to say I do that, but I think as I said, I'm organizing on a day-to-day basis. And if you schedule time slots for the author names or for creation projects, that is how you get stuff done.
If you make time for it and show up, it will happen, whatever is going to show up. And I think it's amusing because of course, I do record podcasts at the beginning of every year and the end when I talk about how the year went and then my goals for the following year.
What is hilarious is, a lot of what I set out to achieve doesn't happen, but a whole load of other stuff happens.
I wrote a script early this year. I put out so many books last year, I got really exhausted and burned out around books and the book product. So I wrote a script in February, March this year I wrote a feature and that completely refreshed me but I didn't intend to do that at all. Sometimes you just have to lean into it.
Caroline: I love that. I want to talk a little bit more about, so you've got your idea. You may not have scheduled it in advance but an idea has presented itself.
I'm particularly fond of this phenomenon, where you write a blog post which, by the way, everyone blogging is still clearly extremely valid for a number of reasons which Joanna does talk about in her books. But you've somehow interacted with an audience or a community, and people are really responding to something, and then the idea is to turn it into a book to expand it.
I want to come at this from two sides. One is, you've got something like a blog post that's fairly condensed and you want to expand it, and then maybe we can go from the other end that you mentioned earlier that somebody has a lot of material and maybe they want to condense it.
Can we start with the blog post and how you go about picking that apart and making it a larger manuscript?
Joanna: For me, it was a blog post about the rollercoaster of the creative life. And it was all about the binary relationships. So the first line was, you know, “I love writing. It's the best thing. I feel fulfilled when I write,” and then, “I hate writing, it drives me crazy, it takes everything out of me,” and it was all about that. And it was, “I want to be famous. I want to make millions,” and then, “I just wanna be left alone to write in my cave.”
It was only 200 words, but I think the key with blog posts that stand out like that is they have emotion in them. And so that would be my first tip, would be, I bet you if a blog post does resonate there is some form of emotion in it, and some form of deep personal story.
I think this is what happened with How to Write Non-Fiction. I thought I was going to write a little self-help book that would be really short, a bit of a “how to.”
And then it turned out that it ended up with a lot more heart in than I expected, and I end up saying, “Please don't just write another throwaway, non-fiction book. Please bring your heart into it.”
I think that that's the truth with the blog posts or even things we put on social media. It's often the things with heart and human emotion that resonate, and then from there you can expand it.
In that situation, it really was about the dichotomies and the binary sides of creativity that then I actually expanded every single one of those sentences into chapters.
What's difficult about publishing a book is the creative dissatisfaction. You think it's going to be the pinnacle of your life, but it's only the start. So stuff like that, the things that happen.
That would be one tip; really look at the emotion of whatever you've written and try and figure out what it was that hit with the audience.
And then you need to be thinking obviously about the topic but also the specific target audience of your book in the same way as like a podcast.
You and I both have podcasts for writers and they could be writers at the beginning of their journey, they could be established writers. So really thinking more specifically about who you're writing for, and then it is about expanding it.
I like to come up with probably at the beginning, 10 to 15 one-liners. I actually use Scrivener to do all my books.
Caroline: The best.
Joanna: Scrivener is amazing. And what's brilliant is you can just dump one-liners into it. You can just say, “Okay, I'm going to talk about this,” like I said about the shadow book.
And then from there, you expand those. Amazingly, I've done this for, “How to Write A Novel.” So I actually have an online course for how to write a novel. And I thought, “I will turn that into a book.”
So I got transcripts of whatever it is, nine hours' worth of lectures and things, and put them all into Scrivener and I've ended up with 100,000 words on how to write a novel, and I can't tackle it.
Joanna: I know, but I can't tackle it. I look at it and it's too much. So this is the other angle.
If you are a speaker, turning your talks into a book can actually be quite difficult. I almost feel like you have to start again. So if you have too much then I would almost say, start again with just writing down that 15 things and then start filling in the blanks.
But if you've got a lot of material, you might end up turning that into multiple books, and that might be the key, is to really think, “How does this go beyond one book?”
Like you say, I've got a series full of non-fiction which is lots of different things for writers from lots of different angles. It's quite common within the non-fiction niche as well to write lots of books for the same market because we often think about these things. I think you can definitely do both.
Caroline: This is an interesting thing that I notice happening in myself and I notice it in the other people also, particularly with non-fiction, is that people wanna put everything into the book.
I wonder if that comes from something you also talk about very well in “How To Write Non-Fiction” is the sort of fear of, “Am I enough of an expert to do this? Therefore, I'm going to put everything I know into it to prove to myself as I'm writing that I'm an expert.” Whereas you also talk about many times and I agree with you, the advantage of having a series.
To me, the urge to put everything into the book could be mitigated by maybe you write a series of books on different aspects of the topic, then you get to build authority over time.
It's less overwhelming to write a slightly shorter book and you have the advantages which are very clear, of having a series of books for people to buy and read.
Joanna: I think this has a lot to do with the publishing industry.
Caroline: I'm certain of that too.
Joanna: Because the publishing industry will not take a book proposal for a 25,000-word book, usually. The books we see on the shelves at Barnes and Noble and Amazon bookstore whatever are usually in the physical form of the heavier books.
They are thicker, and so they are usually over 50,000 words. But what's interesting in a digital world is, you don't need to write a book that's that length.
My best-selling non-fiction book is, How To Make A Living With Your Writing. It's27,000 words. It's a short book. It is available in print and also audio, it's a short book.
It delivers everything it says on the tin and I don't need to write any more in that. And if you want more, I've got a much longer book called Business for Authors.
But what's so interesting and the reason I wrote that shorter book was because Business For Authors was not hitting the audience I wanted it to. So I wrote a shorter, more accessible book that didn't mention tax and it sold better.
When you are thinking about, what should I do with non-fiction, then really consider, “Okay, what do I want it for?” The book as business card or the book for speakers, that's often kind of chunkier book? Or the book deal where it is a landmark book as such?
These are quite different to the person who has an audience, or wants to build an audience, who wants to write multiple books in a niche, who wants to build the expertise, who is very happy to make $4 per book with digital, with an e-book who doesn't necessarily need a massive doorstop.
These are very different ways of measuring success, but I think because the trend of writing longer, padded non-fiction has persisted in the traditional publishing environment that has meant that a lot of people have padded their books. It would be great if we change that.
And someone like Seth Godin is a great example. He started the Domino Project as a way to publish shorter books, basically his own publishing company, and published a whole load of short books.
Steven Pressfield, who I mentioned, has his own publishing company with his business partner, and they're doing short books. So it certainly can be done.
Caroline: It amazes me, I was thinking of Steven Pressfield as you're talking because I think of all of his books, none of them is a huge, long book. They're very digestible, they're easy to read.
They were originally traditionally published. Were they not?
Joanna: The first one was, but a long time ago.
You can look at lots of older, non-fiction was shorter but then things became longer for whatever reason.
Stephen and Shawn Coyne, who has a fantastic book, “The Story Grid” which I highly recommend, they have Black Irish Books. And they're starting to publish other people now as well. You get to choose…and Steve actually just serialized, his latest book, “The Artist's Journey” on his blog.
So there's another thing about blogs. It's so interesting how you can go both ways with the material, and I actually do this too.
I will write the book and then I'll put the chapters onto my blog, so vice versa. You can bring blog posts into a book but you can also use chapters on a blog if you own the rights of course.
Caroline: Absolutely. This is something to remember, is that the whole industry and the whole concept of writing non-fiction is fluid, and it is evolving all the time. And this is an example of things changing.
The thing that I love too is the idea of using a book as a way to function as an independent standalone and profitable FAQ.
I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that concept because I think a lot of people think about, “Oh, if I write a book, it's in all caps,” and the idea is, “If I'm going to write a book possibly in italics and underlined as well then it has to be a big, big idea, and it has to be some sort of tome.”
I'm thinking of you know, Robert McKee, “Story,” that's all about the whole concept.
But there are other ways that non-fiction books can serve both you and the reader.
Joanna: Totally. I was a thinking there of Elizabeth Gilbert.
Her book “Big Magic” book is fantastic and it is quite big as well but she does say in there, “You do not have to change the world with your book. You don't have to change me with your book. In fact, I'd rather you didn't try, just put your book out in the world and see what happens.”
I think again, the more books you write the easier this becomes. I think it can be very difficult for people who might be approaching their first book. It's like, “Oh, I need to write the book,” as you say.
My first book, Career Change, which is now 10 years old, is about finding a new career if you hate the job you're in, and ended up changing my life if not many other people's.
But that book, when I wrote that, I really did think it was going to be the only book I ever wrote, and I took it very seriously. And I take every book seriously, but what I think we need to think nowadays is, as you say, the FAQ idea is brilliant.
One of my books Successful Self-Publishing, another very short book, is free all eBooks stores, because every day I get questions you know, “How do I self-publish a book?” I'm like, “Okay, you can find it on my blog or just download this book. It's in print as well, and then you'll get all the answers.”
And just on non-fiction and money, because I know you do cover money on your show and we've talked about it before. But if you have a free eBook and that's getting downloaded every day, you can fill it with other things.
So if you have a series like I do it will sell into your other series, it will help the algorithm, people who bought this also bought that, you can put links to your courses, your other books, your consulting services, you can put affiliate links in the book.
You can offer a very helpful resource that also will make you money even if that money is not the direct book sale.
If you just relax into, “This book does not have to be my magnum opus,” then that will really help you. And of course, at some point, maybe you will write that magnum opus.
I think for me the shadow book, which I've been talking about for so long now, feels like a bigger book to me, but I also feel like I need to be a better writer to write a bigger book if you know what I mean. And we're always investigating these things about ourselves.
And if you are writing non-fiction and serving a community, then it's a bit like professional speaking, it ain't about you, it's about them. So how can you help them and that will help you get over your issues probably.
Caroline: I think that's the other thing that comes up, because as you say, “I need to be a better writer to write the shadow book”.
I'm wondering about the people who feel like, “I need to be a better writer to write any book at all.”
Joanna: There are editors. That's important; there are editors. What I would say just on the better writer, Ira Glass talks about that gap between who we are and who we want to be.
But this is the thing, I actually think, and this is not meant to be offensive in any way, but non-fiction is easier to write than fiction. I do really think anyone can write a non-fiction book.
And in fact, the more close to the average person your writing is, the better for non-fiction, because people buy non-fiction to solve a problem or to find out about a particular topic, but usually they want to change something or they need help, and they don't need perfect beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning writing.
Neither do you have to write that if you write thrillers or whatever. It's like with non-fiction, I really think focusing on your audience and being as accessible as possible is probably a better idea. And you can use editors to help you if you're really struggling.
Caroline: This is something I think about a lot too because people write non-fiction every day, they just don't think about it that way. Every email you write is basically writing non-fiction, and people do communicate in many ways primarily by writing.
This is a texting and emailing culture that we live in now and yet the number of times I talk to people about, “Well, yes, I write, and I interview writers,” and people say, “Oh, I'm not a writer.” And I always want to say, “Well, do you email or text people? In which case you do communicate with writing and all that is expanding that and putting some structure around it, and finding a topic that's useful.”
Joanna: This circles back to what we saying about the table of contents, but often structure is what people struggle with with non-fiction.
And it's interesting, last year we did The Healthy Writer, I co-wrote that with a medical doctor. And we struggled with structure right up until our last draft. We were still trying to figure out the order of the chapters, and I think I changed it right at the end as well.
So I do you get that you might have all this information either in your head or in bits and bobs of writing, but the structure of a non-fiction book can be difficult. That's why Scrivener can be so good.
If you're someone listening and you're struggling with structure, Scrivener can help you because you visualize the structure on the screen, on the pane, and then you can actually drag and drop things around, and that to me is the key with non-fiction.
You will never ever write start to finish with a non-fiction book, and please don't try and write the introduction first.
Caroline: Oh no, don't do that.
Joanna: No, that would be one of the last things you write but the structure will emerge.
I really think the first 15 things that you write down will be a starter for 10 and then you will drag and drop things around, you'll create new things, you'll concatenate things.
I do think that a lot of people who write in Word or write in a linear way will struggle with non-fiction in terms of that structuring. So that would be a real tip for structure, because you have to take people on a journey with non-fiction, in exactly the same way as you do with fiction. They have to start somewhere and end somewhere, and not be confused along the way.
You do have to make sure you get everything in the right order. I do think I agree with you that people write non-fiction every day but what they don't do is structure it. So, I think that is critical to write a non-fiction book that satisfies your audience.
Caroline: Absolutely. Scrivener has been a sponsor of the show, so I will say that as a disclaimer, but they were because everybody talks about how much they love it.
And for anyone who's listening, I doubt there's probably three of you left who have not been sold on this, but to be able to write in pieces, see the whole thing and then move things around versus writing on essentially a long spool of paper, which is how Word feels to me, and then having to go, “Where is that bit about that? I wanna work on that bit,” it is pretty revolutionary.
Joanna: I don't know how anyone writes without it now. I don't write fiction in order either. I might write two scenes from the perspective of the antagonist and then I want to intersperse that with other scenes, so I drag that around or that timeline is changed.
I know some people, like I think older the writers, will sit down and by hand, write out beginning to end, or maybe they're just lying.
Caroline: I do that.
Joanna: Oh really?
Joanna: From the beginning to the end of a book?
Caroline: I do. I mean, I write by hand because there's less critical voice coming in. So I have this weird process which is inspired partly by something you talked about, where I will write by hand, and then I transcribe it in with dictation.
Joanna: I was going to mention dictation about getting rid of critical voice with that. Do you find that then?
Caroline: Yes, absolutely. I find that my critical voice is less threatened by writing in a notebook, because then it's like, “Oh, she's just writing in a notebook, nobody's going to read that.”
And then when I transcribe it in I can kind of think, “Oh, I want to phrase that slightly differently.” So that's like a first pass of editing.
And then once I put the transcription into Scrivener, then I can really start saying, “Does the scene actually go before that scene or does it go after it?”
Joanna: That's so interesting. For anyone listening who hasn't tried dictation, you can obviously do it for non-fiction as well, and you can do it straight into the microphone.
I definitely can bypass critical voice if I'm not looking at a screen. If I'm just talking into my recorder and then transcribing it later. I think that if I'm seeing it transcribing on the screen as I talk, that just doesn't work.
Caroline: I can't do that either. I use it I use a digital recorder too.
It made me think earlier also, when you said for someone who has a ton of material and is feeling overwhelmed but is a speaker, let's say you've got a whole bunch of video like you talked about your How To Write A Novel course.
You have a whole bunch of material that's maybe been transcribed, you could maybe pull the themes to put on your sheet of paper and say, “These are the themes I'm seeing that I wanna talk about”.
But you could almost, thinking about a book later, write down the themes in order and then if you're a natural speaker but you're scared of writing, you could use something like Dragon and do some speaking on the topics for each chapter, and then put them straight into the book.
Joanna: Yes, absolutely, I agree with you. And what I think I will end up doing now, I don't think it will be my next non-fiction book but it will happen at some time, will be almost to go through and pick out questions.
I do think that being interviewed on topics, like we're doing you know, the sort of backwards and forwards, is people can pull stuff out of you that you might not have thought of yourself.
But if you transcribe your existing talks or if you talk about something you'll find bits that you can then take that and then do a further session on, so you can almost go deeper every time.
A lot of us talk a lot. That can actually be a great way to get to a first draft, but I think the other thing about structuring with non-fiction these days is almost in common with blog posts, having a lot of white space and a lot of subheadings.
If people open a book and it's looking more like a novel with no subheadings on, most non-fiction doesn't look like that anymore. It actually looks like it has quotes on, it might have questions, it might have subheadings on this, that certainly in the more business, self-help, health niche.
Maybe if it's a biography that might be different, but I think organizing things around questions can also help you with subheadings, and the sort of substructure, which if you're feeling overwhelmed with material, that substructure can help as well.
Caroline: I think something that you talk about in there is if you're feeling a certain way then it's likely your reader will feel that way. You talk about it in terms of feeling bored by the topic and wanting to infuse some personal experience into it.
But I think, by the same token, if you look at a page and the way that it's formatted feels overwhelming or like, “Oh, that's going to be hard to read through,” that is likely to be the same experience for the reader.
Pay attention to that and take it seriously.
Joanna: And in fact, that probably is the number one overwhelming tip for writing non-fiction is, think of your reader, and that sort of circles back to me saying, I feel “selfish” when writing fiction because I don't really think about my reader when I write fiction.
I'm into the story, I'm thinking about my characters, but in writing non-fiction, you're writing it for a reader. You're writing it for somebody who you're trying to help or you're trying to answer a question or share a transformation with the hope of helping someone else through a transformation.
You need to consider where they are in the journey and make sure you serve that purpose. When I said I was bored, it's like, “Oh, I'm really over this,” that's because I was writing chapters that felt repetitive to me because I've talked about it before or I know it already. Whereas for somebody new reading it, it's so important that they understand that.
For example, there is a chapter on, how long does your book have to be, that we've discussed, but for me to write that down in a chapter, it's like, “Oh, goodness, do I have to talk about this again?” But this is important. This is actually one of the key questions that people have every time.
So you want to always keep your reader in mind and serve them with your book. And then one, it will be a better book, but two, it might sell more. Yay.
Caroline: Absolutely, and one final thing to mention too, in terms of being able to separate…because there is always this feeling of like, “Oh, this is so boring and so obvious. Nobody's going to find this interesting,” but readers will find it interesting.
One tool that you've used well for this and the healthy writer is a survey. So don't be afraid to survey people if you have an audience and see what questions come up for them that may be perfectly obvious to you because you've done whatever you're writing the book about so many times but to them it's actually a very crucial and useful information.
Joanna: When I did the survey for how to write non-fiction it was something like 50% of people said that they had not written a book yet because they didn't feel like an expert.
Caroline: That's heartbreaking.
Joanna: I know, and that's something that I had on my list but it was way down the bottom of my list, and yet once that happened I moved that right to near the top of the book. It's the second chapter or something, feeling like a fraud.
Someone said, “I know I have 30 years' experience but self-doubt stops me from writing.” And this self-doubt begs the question, how many PhDs do you need to be taken seriously? It's kind of crazy. And what's so funny as well, is once you write a book on a topic people think you're an expert.
Caroline: Exactly. The cure is writing the book.
You don't need to have the qualifications to write the book. The book will give you the qualifications.
Joanna: I think that's probably pretty common with novelists too. I mean, “How can I write a book? I've never written a book?” And it's like, well, you kind of have to just get going.
If people are feeling like they're not an expert, it really is like coming back to that personal experience, wherever you are on the journey you can help people.
We mentioned Steven Pressfield, I'm not Steven Pressfield. I haven't been writing for the last 50 years or whatever how long he's been writing, I've been writing for 10 years.
Do I have to wait until I'm 65 to write a book on writing?
There will always be somebody who is “better than you,” or you know, “more experienced than you,” but you are the one who is in your situation right now, and you need to share your journey, and you will help other people.
Caroline: I can't think of a better way to sum up this conversation than that.
Caroline: Of course I could talk to you all day as we've said before, but I think we'll leave it there although I've already come up with like three other episode ideas.
Joanna: We'll do it again.
Caroline: So, we'll have to discuss that later, but thank you so much for coming on. As always, so useful, so helpful, and I know everyone is going to love hearing from you, and hopefully we will see a huge uptick in non-fiction books after everyone listens.
Joanna: I do hope so. I'm at thecreativepenn.com, Penn with a double N if anyone wants to come over. And if you have any questions, I'm always on Twitter, @thecreativepenn.
Caroline: Perfect, so do look Joanna up. She's so helpful and approachable. And also she has a lovely Patreon, so you can get in touch with her there which is super fun, also.