How to Write a Nonfiction Book: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors

Thursday, October 17, 2019

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

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.

Manipulating Time

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 on your computer. So, pour yourself something to drink, get rid of distractions, sit down, and get writing.

Nonfiction Writing Techniques:
How to Write Informative (and Exciting!) Nonfiction 

Some readers steer clear of nonfiction because they think it’s just a collection of boring old facts, with nothing exciting happening. This is really just because they haven’t read a good nonfiction book yet. Nonfiction can be just as much of a thrill to read as fiction: maybe even more so, because you know that what you’re reading about has really happened.

So, as a nonfiction writer, how do you get your ideas across in a way that will earn your book a place on everyone’s list of favourite books?

1. Remember the story

Many of the most popular Hollywood blockbusters were actually based on nonfiction books. Even the teen movie Mean Girls was based on a self-help book, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes. Just because it’s not a figment of your imagination doesn’t mean it has to be dry. Good nonfiction still tells a story, even if it’s about a topic like business or science.

For you as a nonfiction author, the challenge is not just to choose a story to tell but also to choose a story that your readers will find compelling. What you may find interesting may not necessarily be something that will appeal to readers. So, you need to think objectively about the story. Is it interesting to you because of who you are, or is it interesting because of the story?

2. Set the scene

Any story—even if it’s true and even if it’s not really that compelling in itself—becomes instantly more compelling if you set the scene. You want to draw your readers in and make them feel like they’re right there with you. They’re not going to feel much when you simply say that you went to see the bank manager. They are, however, going to feel like they’re part of the action when you describe the bank manager’s office: the bland colours of the walls and furniture, the glare of the computer, the smoothness of the mahogany desk, the smell of the products the cleaners used, the sounds of traffic outside, the dry taste in your mouth. When you describe the scene, remember not to focus only on what things look like. Tap into all five senses.

3. Bring your characters to life

One of the elements that every good story has in common is the lifelike characters that populate it. Everyone you’re talking about in your book is a character. Your readers want to know about each of these characters. What do they look like? What are they wearing? What do they sound like? What are their quirks? That bank manager you’re talking about in your book will sound more like a real person if you describe his sensible haircut, his starched white shirt and sober tie, his formal way of speaking, the way he keeps using his middle finger to push his glasses back in place.

4. Beware of TMI

TMI: too much information. When Tolstoy rambles on and on about the dog running through the meadow, you feel relieved when Anna Karenina finally throws herself into the path of that oncoming train. While it’s important to set the scene and describe your characters, it can also detract from the story if you give too much irrelevant information. It’s one of the quickest ways to lose your readers. So, think critically about what you include in your description. It has to add to the atmosphere but if you need more than a paragraph or two for it, it’s overkill.

5. Remember dialogue

Think about the person you know who tells the best anecdotes. Do they tell the entire story in indirect speech or do they use direct quotes, complete with the voices? Dialogue is a great way of making a scene come alive.

In writing nonfiction, you may be reluctant to use dialogue. You need to stick to the truth, after all. However, there are ways to incorporate dialogue without losing credibility. You may find quotes from interviews, transcripts, court documents and the like. Otherwise, you can use representative dialogue, where you don’t quote what the person actually said but create dialogue from what they may have said. When you go with representative dialogue, however, you need to make it sound authentic. Consider the person’s speech patterns, accent, phrases they’re known to use and the context in which they’re speaking. That bank manager is probably not going to call his clients “dude”. When he’s talking to his surfer buddies though, he will use a very different kind of language.

6. Use plain language

While you may be tempted to show off your great vocabulary, you need to remember that first and foremost, you’re trying to communicate effectively. If nobody understands the words you use, how will they understand your message? Simplifying your language will get the message across more effectively. It will also make the text more conversational, as if you’re talking directly to your reader—and it will keep your book from becoming dull.

Using plain language doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down your message. You can still explain complicated concepts. Now, however, you’re doing it in a way that your readers are more likely to understand. Some of the basics of using plain language in your writing are:

Use the active voice.

It’s more conversational than the passive voice and it’s easier to understand. The passive voice, in contrast, can make your book sound like it was written by a little grey man, in a grey suit, in a grey government office. Of course there are times when the passive voice makes more sense. However, if you use it too often, you’ll definitely lull your readers to sleep.

Use simpler words.

Remember how your English teacher told you to write the way you speak? Well, how often do you use words and phrases like “consequently” instead of “so”, “such as” instead of “like”, or “discombobulate” instead of “baffle” in everyday conversation? (Full disclosure: I love to use the word ‘discombobulate’ 😄)

Avoid jargon.

Just because you understand the meaning of a term doesn’t mean that your readers will. If there is a simpler or more common synonym for the term, use it. If you can’t avoid jargon, explain what the term means. Remember too that slang is a form of jargon. For instance, when you say something is “sick,” your readers may interpret it as a negative rather than the “amazing” you intended.

Use shorter sentences.

Stick to the main idea in each sentence. To avoid monotony, you can vary the length of your sentences. However, try to keep them to no longer than twenty words.

Avoid nominalizations.

Nominalizations are those nouns we form from a verb: “usage” from “use”, “formation” from “form”, and the like. Nominalizations make your writing sound overly formal. They can also be difficult to understand.

7. Remember your research

While nonfiction tells a story, it’s ultimately about facts. To have any credibility as a nonfiction writer, you need to be able to back up those facts. Even if you’re writing a memoir, you need to get the facts right. Do you have the dates right? Are you sure about the timeline of events? Was that building there, in that street, at the time you’re writing about? In the age of Google, there’s no excuse for not doing your research.

8. Dig for deeper truths

Nothing in this world just is. There’s always a reason why things are the way they are. When you dig for the story behind the story, it can give you more insight into your message. And when you understand the message more clearly, you’ll be better able to explain it to your readers.

9. Add the final touches

Once you’ve written your first draft, it’s time to add the final touches to your book. You need to get it edited, source your illustrations, have the layout and cover design done and have a proofreader give it the final once-over. These are all aspects that you can outsource to professionals with the technical know-how.


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Boni Wagner-Stafford

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.