Writing a non-fiction book can be life-changing for you – and also for your readers. So you want your book to be the best it can possibly be.
I've now written 10 non-fiction books, including How to Write a Non-Fiction Book: Turn Your Knowledge into Words, and I know how difficult it can be to get your manuscript right.
In today's article, Boni Wagner-Stafford explains some of the mistakes that new non-fiction writers make – and how to avoid them.
It’s a big deal to begin writing a nonfiction book when you haven’t done it before. There’s a lot to learn and it is a ton of work. You can make it easier on yourself by avoiding these seven mistakes first-time nonfiction authors make.
1. Failing to identify your ‘why’
The biggest mistake first-time nonfiction authors make is in failing to identify why they want to write the book in the first place. This is a foundational issue that affects every step in the writing and production processes.
What’s your motivation for taking on a big project like writing a book? What purpose is the book going to serve, both for you and your readers?
Wanting to publish a bestseller, or to become rich and famous, is not the answer I’m after here. Something needs to drive you.
Cynthia Barlow, a dear friend and respected author of three nonfiction books, including a memoir she wrote in 2012 and published in 2013, says it well:
“In hindsight, had I had any hopes of a bestseller, I never would have a) started it, b) finished it or c) published it, because if you’re going to spend endless time writing the damn thing, you may as well realize how much work and time and effort and focus and patience and determination it takes to see it through to publication. You need a fire in your belly.”
It doesn’t matter what your reason is, your personal or professional why, as long as you know what it is.
Your why leads to your objective, which is what you hope to accomplish through writing and publishing your book, and together they inform the purpose of your book, the approach you take in structuring and writing, and how you market your book.
2. Failing to identify the reader
You cannot write a good nonfiction book without first identifying who your reader is. You want a narrow definition, not the sort of “this book will be for everyone, everywhere” mistake that most newbie nonfiction authors make.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the more specific you can be as you identify your reader, the better you’ll be able to focus the content you’re creating. And the more effective your marketing efforts will be.
Let’s take, as an example, a book I edited on for David Rhodd, a Canadian mortgage broker and investment advisor. His book is about using the equity in your home to generate cash flow and build equity.
In the draft he provided when we started working together, he said that he wanted his book to appeal to the widest possible audience. People in Canada, the U.S., new homeowners, renters hoping to own a home one day, and those with several investment properties already and well on their way to financial independence.
Think about what this would look like for a moment. Any section that talked about Canadian investment rules would alienate the U.S. audience and vice versa. Anything designed to encourage the renter to save up to buy a home would alienate the more established homeowner who already has some investment properties.
After working it through with him, David agreed that his ideal reader was the first-time homeowner working paycheque to paycheque, struggling to cover the mortgage and other living expenses, who dreamed of one day becoming financially independent.
This freed David up from feeling like he needed to address every issue and angle related to investing and home ownership in two countries. His book is much better for it.
3. Not understanding story structure
Writing a book is not like writing in a diary. It’s not like talking to a friend. And it’s not just a free-flowing capture of bouncing thoughts, though we’ve read manuscript submissions that fit into all three of these categories.
Some people, first-time nonfiction authors included, seem to think nonfiction doesn’t require a narrative arc. Non-fiction is exactly like fiction in that they both involve storytelling.
Whether you’re telling someone how to run a meeting or you’re creating an urban fantasy, you need a structure for your story. There are different types of story structure, but the most basic is the one we recommend for our novice authors. You’ve likely heard of it: the three-part structure, characterized by the beginning, middle, and end.
Whether you’re writing true crime, memoir, self-help, business, or any other kind of nonfiction, your three-part story structure should look like this:
- What Was: the way things used to be.
- What Happened: the event or situation that changed everything.
- What Is: what things are like now after the change.
4. Writing what you want to say instead of what the reader needs to know
Sometimes you just want to write what you have to say. And that’s fine if your tome is going to remain locked in the top drawer.
As an author, you have a duty to yourself as well as your reader. If you hope to publish a book that will connect and resonate with readers, of serving a purpose higher than self-indulgence, then you must look beyond what you want to say and write what the reader needs to know.
See how interconnected this all is?
5. Not using dialogue
Dialogue in nonfiction? You bet.
Many first-time nonfiction authors mistakenly believe that there is no place in their nonfiction for dialogue because they don’t have first-hand knowledge of how the conversation actually went.
I’ve had this discussion more than once.
“It’s true,” I acknowledge, “that writing nonfiction means you have a responsibility to be truthful. To relay fact.”
I see the look of satisfaction on the author’s face on the computer screen in front of me — I do my coaching calls via video conference.
“That’s right,” my client says, her voice dripping with vindication. “I can’t write the dialogue because I wasn’t there.”
I continue, bursting their bubble. “You also have a responsibility to craft a compelling story for the reader. And that is accomplished by using dialogue, which helps you set the scene and to show more than you tell.”
Dialogue helps the reader experience your story. Whether you’re describing an exchange in a meeting or a devastating heart-to-heart between a dying mother and her son, dialogue can—and should—feature in the pages of your nonfiction.
6. Not choosing a style guide or being consistent with formatting
What’s a style guide you say? Aha.
A style guide, or manual of style, is a set of principles to help you produce consistent writing. Refer to a style guide to help you decide about issues like hyphenation and punctuation in the same way you’d check a dictionary for the meaning of words.
It may include recommendations for sentence construction, or whether and when to choose passive voice. Some include guidelines on the type of words to use to improve inclusivity and avoid inadvertent racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.
There are three levels of style guide: the style sheet, style manual, or full-fledged style guide.
- A style sheet is a fairly brief list of specific tips drawn up by an author for the manuscript they’re working on.
- A style manual is a more detailed version of the style sheet, often created by traditional publishers or organizations that produce a lot of editorial material and obviously need to be consistent.
A formal manual of style is a comprehensive reference book that covers every stylistic decision you could think of. Examples include the Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style, also known as “Strunk and White,” used in the United States.
How do you choose which style guide is right for you and your book? It’s back to that reader identification step again: choose a style guide suited to the audience you’re writing for.
7. Publishing without hiring an editor
The first time you receive the red-ink markup from your editor can be devastating.
I get it. I’m working with an author who finds it so emotionally disruptive that she ends up in a funk for days, unable to write another thing until the feeling passes.
She and I have come to an understanding. When I send back to her my edited work, I send a clean copy, with all the changes accepted. That way, what she sees is closer to a finished version and not a scarred piece of crap writing (which it isn’t, it’s just how the markup makes her feel).
That’s not really what I’m talking about here though. I’m talking about the first-time nonfiction author who writes the full first draft, has a look over it themselves a second time, making a few changes, and then goes ahead and uploads the book to Amazon.
There’s also the well-meaning first-time author who asks family and friends to review their manuscript first. Better, but still not great.
While feedback from a layperson is better than no feedback at all, you’re likely to find yourself wrestling with matters of preference and taste rather than editorial feedback that will improve the quality of your book.
Of course, as a publisher, author coach, and editor, you know I’m going to make the case for hiring a professional editor. Editing is so much more than correcting typos. It helps with focus, flow, structure, voice, tone, accuracy, readability, and much more.
Click here for a list of recommended editors as well as information about the process, timing, and costs. Joanna has also produced a video tutorial on how to find and work with a professional editor here.
Of course, there are other mistakes first-time nonfiction authors make, such as passive writing, mixing POV (point of view), time-hopping, and telling rather than showing. But by addressing the seven mistakes listed above you’ll be doing yourself, your book, and your reader a big favour.
Are you planning to write a nonfiction book? Please leave your thoughts or questions below and join the conversation.
Boni Wagner-Stafford is a nonfiction author coach, writer, ghostwriter, and editor. She’s an award-winning former journalist and also led public-sector teams in media relations, issues management, and strategic communications planning.
Boni has been at the controls of a helicopter, loves backcountry canoeing, once jumped from an airplane, sang on stage with Andrea Bocelli in a backup chorus, and grew up skiing Canada’s Rocky Mountains. She resides full-time on her 40’ sailboat, Ingenium, unless she’s housesitting in the South of France.
[House photo courtesy Scott Webb and Unsplash.]