Do you want to write a non-fiction book? Are you struggling with where to start or how to get it done?
This article will take you through a step-by-step guide to the process. It starts with thinking about your book and structuring it before diving into the actual writing.
If you need more help, check out How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn Your Knowledge Into Words, available in ebook, print, audiobook, workbook and Large Print editions.
The more work you do upfront, the easier the book will be to produce.
I’m currently writing my fifteenth non-fiction book with more planned, and my process is quite defined these days. I find writing non-fiction books a ‘palate cleanser’ between novels. It’s a very different form of writing, more structured and more aimed at helping others.
(1) Decide on your definition of success
Before you jump into actually writing, it’s worth deciding on your own definition of success as this can be critical to whether the process is satisfying for you.
Some authors ‘just want to help people’ with their non-fiction books, others want to win literary prizes, others want to make money. It’s very unlikely that the same book will satisfy all of these desires, so you have to decide which is most important to you.
These are the main reasons why authors want to write non-fiction books in particular and some of the possible definitions of success:
- You want to help people around a specific topic and usually you will have been through an experience yourself that drives the writing of the book. This was my experience with Career Change, a book I wrote to change my own life and now helps others discover what they really want to do. It sells small numbers consistently every month but it’s not a book I spend time marketing. It was my first book and it’s successful because I finished it, published it and it continues to help people.
- You have a business already and want a book to demonstrate authority, augment your business and open doors to speaking and other business opportunities. The point of the book is not necessarily to make money in itself but to drive people to the rest of your business. This is the ‘book as business card’ model. For example, my book, How to Make a Living with your Writing, drives people to my other books and courses. The aim of the book is to provide an introduction to that extended material. The definition of success is based on how many people sign up to a specific email list, and we’ll explore these possible business models a little further on in the article.
- You are deeply fascinated with a topic and want to produce a seminal work on it. These are the type of non-fiction books that go on to win literary prizes, books that may be commissioned and that consume the author for a long time. One example would be The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
- You have an audience and write to fulfill their needs, which often coincide with your own interests. I started out writing non-fiction to learn what I needed to know myself about self-publishing and book marketing. I discover what I think by writing a book about it these days. I wrote How to Market a Book when I was learning about marketing, and Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur, as my own writing career transitioned into a global business.
- You want to use non-fiction book sales as the basis of your income, so you want to write multiple books in a niche and dominate that market. Some authors do make a full-time living writing these kinds of books. One example is Joseph Alexander who dominates the guitar niche on Amazon.
Once you have decided on your definition of success, you must then decide on the specific topic for your book.
(2) Decide on the specific topic for your book
You’ll most likely have some idea of the broader aspects/topic of your book. Some examples might be:
- You’re a speaker on corporate communication
- You’ve discovered a diet that works for you
- You’re an expert on the history of the USA
But now you need to narrow the topic down further.
Firstly, put yourself in the mind of the reader. Why do people READ non-fiction? And how does that relate to your idea?
- They want an answer to a specific problem. This explains the popularity of weight loss and self-help books every January. What specific problem will your book solve?
- They are interested in a specific topic and buy lots of books on that area. I have a ton of books on writing, and most likely, so do you! What sub-categories does your book fit into on the online bookstore and is this a niche that people are buying lots of books in?
- They like the writer. This is why anyone with a large platform will likely get a book deal. Just check out those YouTubers, celebs and anyone with a big enough blog or podcast or TED talk. If you have an audience, you can get a book deal because people will buy and read it anyway. Do you have an audience already? What do they want from you?
These questions will help you define your target market, your ideal reader.
If you already have an author platform, a blog, podcast, speaking or other business, then you will already know who your readers are, but for many non-fiction writers, a consideration of audience comes after the book is written and they are wondering how to market it. But understanding who your reader is in advance of writing will help a lot, and any time spent on it now will help later on.
Next, research your niche on the bookstores.
You should know of 5-10 books that are similar to the book you want to write, or at least are targeted to the same audience.
Search for those books on Amazon and then look at the sub-categories on the left-hand side of the page. These are where the book sits in the virtual store. You can then click into those sub-categories and find other books that are in the same niche.
These questions should help you narrow down the specific topic you want to tackle in the book as well as your target market. Expanding on my earlier examples, the more specific topics might be:
- Employee engagement: how to communicate to employees in order to drive your business to success. Aimed at CEOs and corporate managers.
- Easy gluten-free and vegan dieting for weight loss and health. Aimed at busy women who have struggled with other diets and can’t spend a long time in the kitchen preparing food.
- Military history of the USA in the 20th century, and how that has shaped the current situation. Aimed at men who buy in the Military history category and intended to be the first in a series on US military history.
[If you need help with researching categories, check out this tutorial on choosing categories from Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur.]
(3) Brainstorm your table of contents and get into the research fun!
Now you have your specific topic, you can brainstorm what areas you will explore in detail in the book. At this point, you want to go wild, and just put everything down. You’ll likely cut a lot of it out and some of your ideas might even end up in another book.
For example, when I wrote Business for Authors, I had a whole section on mindset. But it turned into a monster topic so I carved that part off and wrote The Successful Author Mindset.
This part of the process is where I start to use Scrivener. I create a project for the book and a document per idea. Many of those will be concatenated or discarded later but I will just write down anything that comes to mind at this stage. You can use a Word document or Evernote or physical index cards, but you do need to capture everything at this stage, even just a few words per idea.
This is also the time to focus on research and expanding your knowledge on whatever topic you’re writing on. I usually read a number of other books on the topic to get more ideas and because I’m a research junkie, I can definitely spend a lot of time on this part of the process!
Some authors can get stuck in this phase for way too long, so set some deadlines and make sure you keep focused on the final result.
For more productivity tips, check out Productivity for Authors.
(4) Decide on your book title
I always like to know my book title upfront, but of course, you can decide on it later.
Non-fiction book titles have an advantage over fiction because they can be keyword rich and specific enough to be found through search as well as still making sense to the reader, whereas fiction is pretty much impossible to title with related keywords.
For example, my thriller, Gates of Hell, is more likely to be found by those shopping in the sub-categories of action adventure and supernatural thriller, rather than by people specifically searching for ‘gates of hell.’
Readers of non-fiction often shop by sub-category or by keyword search e.g. my book, How to Market a Book, is titled specifically for keyword search reasons and comes up at the #1 spot on Amazon for that search term.
But how do you know what readers are searching for?
Just go to Amazon and do some research using the search bar within the Kindle sub-category. Start typing and there will be a text drop-down as above that includes the most popular search terms people are looking for.
This will give you some ideas as to what people want and you may find it surprising!
I spend a good amount of time thinking about different words and checking them out this way before I decide on a title. Longer keywords (keyword phrases) are sometimes even more useful, so I will just add a letter on the end of the search e.g. gluten free a, gluten free b, gluten free c, in order to see what else is there.
Write down as many relevant keywords as you can find, even if you don’t use them in the title, as these will be useful later if you self-publish.
Choosing the right sub-categories and keywords is one of the most important aspects of self-publishing. I’ve recently used a couple of reasonably-priced reports from K-lytics to determine the data to use for new books and also repositioning older ones. I hate fiddling around with data so it’s great to find someone who loves it and makes it easier for us all!
You can also use Publisher Rocket which helps you mine Amazon for keyword options.
If you need more help, check out this tutorial on choosing keywords by Dave Chesson from Kindlepreneur
(5) Create your first draft
You may already have a lot of material for the book in some form. If you’re a speaker on a topic, you might have a PowerPoint or KeyNote deck or handouts. You might have piles of notes for your research or lists of recipes. Or it might just all be in your head.
Now you have to turn that into a first draft … and this can be harder than it sounds! Most people who want to write a book never finish one and completing a first draft is usually where they fall down.
My definition of a first draft is a version of your book that can be read end to end and stands as a coherent whole. It doesn’t have “fill this in later,” or “write other section here,” in it.
Yes, it will be rough, and it will need editing, but to get to a finished book, you need a first draft to work on. Your finished book can be equated to Michelangelo’s David, a perfect statue that emerged from the rough block of marble. But first you have to create that block of marble, and for authors, that’s the first draft.
Here are some tips for getting it done:
Dictate your book
This is particularly good if you’re a speaker already and you have a lot of material in powerpoint slides or even recordings of your talks or even just rough notes. Speak into a digital recorder, create an mp3 file and then use a service like Otter.ai, Descript.com, Trint or Speechpad to get that transcribed into text, which you can then take into the editing phase. Click here for more tips on how to dictate your book.
Use timed writing sessions
This method changed my own writing life as if you allocate a specific time to write when you’re not allowed to do anything else, you WILL produce something!
I generally write first draft material away from the desk I use for other things – like blogging, podcasting, email, social media and other business stuff. I find it easier to create elsewhere so I go to a library or a coffee shop or just another area of the house. I set my timer, plug in my earphones and turn on rain and thunderstorms and write.
For non-fiction, it can help to focus on a chapter at a time during these timed writing sessions. If you write 2000 words per session and you’re aiming for 60,000 words, it will take 30 writing sessions. Do the math and schedule the sessions. No excuses!
Monitor your progress
I use Scrivener flags to indicate my progress through the draft, as per the example shown left. When I brainstorm topics and just dump words into the chapter, I leave the document as a default white. When I have ‘processed’ the chapter and written it into a first draft state, I add a yellow flag. I use blue and green flags for different parts of the editing process.
Once the whole project has yellow flags, my first draft is done and I can move into editing (covered further below).
You can use Scrivener to set word count goals for the whole book and also for each writing session to keep you accountable. I’m pretty much obsessive about checking these per session as I love watching the status bar turn green!
Once you have a first draft, you can start to think seriously about the next steps.
For non-fiction authors, you will want to consider how the book fits into your existing business, or how you can use it to build one.
(6) Design and incorporate your funnel and back-end products
A ‘funnel’ is a way to direct your readers through a journey with you, preferably through your books, services and other products, so that they are a happy customer and you make a decent return.
For fiction authors, the funnel usually involves a series or books in a similar genre as well as getting people onto your email list.
For example, if you check out Stone of Fire for free on any of the online bookstores, you will then be prompted to get Day of the Vikings for free if you sign up to my email list. Stone of Fire is also the first in the 11 book ARKANE series, so you might go on and read the others if you enjoyed the first. That’s about the extent of it, and fiction authors rarely have more premium products to offer.
But non-fiction authors can design a much more lucrative funnel to back-end products, which are separate to the book.
For example, our communication consultant author has a lot of potential for up-sell as she is aiming at the corporate market. She could have the following:
- Non-fiction book – priced $6.99 – $9.99 as a way for people to discover her work and build her credibility (this is a niche where people expect to pay more for books)
- The book offers people a specific audio and video download if they sign up on her email list
- This email list then offers a series of video tutorials that lead into a premium course, which she sells for $499
- She offers 1:1 corporate consulting at $1000 per session based on the expertise in her book
- She offers one day seminars on site to corporates at $20,000 per day
This is a pretty typical funnel for a non-fiction author aimed at the corporate market, but many authors aren’t selling at this level. So let’s take our gluten free cook. She could have:
- Non-fiction book – 101 delicious gluten free, vegan, easy and fast recipes for the busy woman who wants to lose weight – priced $2.99 – $6.99
- The book offers extra recipes and a shopping list with favorite brands and maybe a video download if they sign up on her email list for free
- This email list then offers a series of video tutorials that lead into a premium cookery course, which she sells for $99. The email list also contains recipes that utilize kitchen equipment that she can link affiliate codes to and make commission on.
- Or perhaps she offers a membership site, where the customer pays $9.99 a month for access to new recipes and tips and a community where she can get support around this type of life change. Communities with support are really popular and can be lucrative, but they do take a lot of work to manage
Of course, if you want to become an authority in your niche, you can also focus on writing multiple books under the same sub-category, providing a similar funnel to the fiction author model. This is most likely what our military history author would do, and it's what I do.
If these types of business models interest you, check out How to Make a Living with Your Writing, which goes into more detail on how you can build this type of business yourself.
(7) Get a professional book cover designed
You could do this step as soon as you decide on your book title, and it’s definitely worth doing early so you can use it as marketing collateral on your website.
For non-fiction book covers:
- Look at the top 100 books in your sub-category and take screen prints of the ones that you like and resonate with. The trend right now for non-fiction, certainly in the business niche, is to have very clear text and one dominant image. You can give these screen prints to your designer as a guide for the type of cover you’re looking for.
- Remember that many readers shop on devices and see the cover at thumbnail size, so there is little point putting quotes in small text on ebook covers. You can always add it onto your print version at the publishing stage, but remember to optimize for browsing at a small image size.
- Research book cover designers and check out their portfolios to see if they work in your genre. Here’s my own curated list of designers, although of course, there are many more.
- Get feedback from your target market. I go back and forth on this as sometimes the feedback can just be confusing! But if you use a design service like 99Designs, then you will get multiple designs and can do a poll to your email list and social media followers. You can also use a service like Pickfu, where you can get opinions from people outside of your network.
- Finally, don’t design your cover yourself unless you are a designer already. A pro book cover will make a HUGE difference to the way your book is perceived.
When you get the book cover files, get a 3D image as well as a flat one, as you will use these in a lot of different marketing materials going forward.
(8) Go through the editing process
A first draft is just that. You now have to go through the process of turning that draft into a professional finished product.
Here’s an overview of my own editing process:
- Self-editing. I work in Scrivener and once my whole project has yellow flags, my first draft is done and I print the whole book. I do my first self-editing pass on paper, old-school style! I scribble all over it and make notes where I need to write more and restructure the book, often rearranging chapters. Scrivener makes this very easy as you just drag and drop to rearrange chapters. [If you need help with learning how to use Scrivener effectively, check out the Learn Scrivener Fast course, which is excellent.]
- Rewrites and more self-editing. Once I’ve been through the whole book on paper, I make all the changes back into Scrivener and often print and go through the same process again until I am happy with the book.
- Beta readers. These are readers in your target market who read the book and offer comments on the content. For my book, Career Change, I gave an early copy to people working in my department in the day job who I knew were dissatisfied with what they were doing. They came back with questions and suggestions for what to include as additional material. After feedback from beta readers, you may do further rewrites to incorporate any changes you agree with.
- Professional editor. There are different types of editors and it will depend on your confidence with your draft as to which you use. You can engage a structural editor to help you with the overall arc of the book. A line edit is the classic red pen approach to the detail of the book, and you can also get technical editors to help with terminology. After feedback from the editor/s, you will likely do another rewrite to incorporate any changes you agree with. If it’s your first book, the editing process will be hard on your ego, but remember, the editor’s job is to make your book better and help you learn the craft. Every dollar I have spent on editing has been worth it and I continue to use editors for every book. The more eyes on your book before publication, the better it will be on launch.
- After I have made all the changes, I send the book to a proofreader who does the final read before publication. This is to avoid the inevitable typos that occur in rewriting. Of course, some will always slip through but I like having this final check in the process.
You can find my own curated list of editors and proof-readers here, as well as more articles on the editing process.
Congratulations! You now have a finished non-fiction book.
Need more help?
If you'd like some more help on your author journey, check out:
- My Books for Authors, including How to Write Non-Fiction, Successful Self-Publishing, How to Market a Book, and more
- My Courses for Authors, including How to Write Non-Fiction, and How to Write a Novel
- The Creative Penn Podcast, interviews, inspiration and information on writing, publishing, book marketing and making money with your writing every Monday
- My videos at YouTube.com/thecreativepenn