Non-fiction covers a lot of bases including memoir, self-help, true crime, how-to and history. Whatever type of non-fiction book you want to write, this guide will offer a step by step process that will get you closer to your writing goal
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Both of my non-fiction books are very different. One is a mental health memoir and the other is a how-to guide for freelancers called Out of Office, but both began with a sense of curiosity. I think writing should come from creativity, first and foremost, so I don’t advise that you to plan your book writing process based on trends or trying to fill a gap in the market.
Instead, challenge yourself to dream up an idea for a book that you would simply love to write. Because the reality is that it can take anywhere between six and twelve months to write a non-fiction book and it requires a lot of focus, so above all you should make sure that you enjoy the process as much as possible.
There are a lot of books out in the world, and as little as 1% of them will end up becoming bestsellers so your book might not become an overnight success, but you should still aim to feel proud of what you’ve written.
Open your mind to new ideas for your book by consuming new topics in the form of books, podcasts, magazines, newspaper articles, movies and documentaries. Keep a notepad handy at all times to make a note of any ideas that come to mind, and enjoy this exploratory phase of writing. I also find it helpful to journal on a daily basis as this allows me to organise my thoughts and free write about anything that’s on my mind. You’ll be surprised at how many brainwaves you have when you’re journaling about nothing in particular.
Once you’ve spent a few weeks (or months) mulling over your idea, set aside a day to get everything out on the page. First of all, get a large piece of paper and write down all your thoughts about the book you’re considering writing. I find doing this with pen and paper is much more effective than writing out words into a document. Try creating a mind map based on a few of the larger topics and gradually noting down any threads attached to each one.
For example when I was brainstorming my book Out of Office one of the main topics was mental health. The threads attached to that were words like social media, taking time off, isolation, money worries, etc. Once you’ve done this for several topics you’ll start to see just how much information you have to work with, how they link together and how it will form the structure of your book.
If you feel ready to start structuring your non-fiction book then you can move onto the next step. However, if you feel like there are a few gaps in your knowledge or some interesting threads you’d like to follow a little further then now is a good time to do some research.
Dig deeper into the content you consumed at the ‘be curious’ stage. Look at the bibliographies in the books you read, read newspaper articles and biographies on the people who interest you the most. For non-fiction books, I love using the Blinkist app to get a general overview of the key ideas of the books I’m interested in before I read the full book. Audiobooks are another great way to deepen your understanding of a particular subject area, before you settle on a book idea.
Pick a structure
The structure for your non-fiction book will depend on the type of book you want to write. In my mental health memoir, I open the story at a dramatic low point which took place in my late twenties, a sort of prologue which sets the tension early on. After that, I use a fairly standard chronological structure that follows my childhood through to the present day. In Out of Office, I structured the book to follow the typical journey of someone who wants to go freelance. I start by explaining what freelancing is, lay out the pros and cons and then offer practical advice on how to get started, grow and develop over time.
Your book might offer a step by step process to solve a specific problem. In which case, you should aim to write the book in a way that makes this as easy as possible for the reader to follow. For example, you’ll probably need to explain some of the concepts early on in the book to allow the reader to understand and implement the advice you give later in the book.
I like to organise my ideas visually, and this is how I’ve planned all of the non-fiction books I’ve written. Take a look at the mindmap you’ve created and cross out anything that is no longer relevant.
Now, get a stack of post it notes and copy a single word or idea onto each note and stick them on a blank wall. You’ll end up with lots and lots of sticky notes, but now you can rearrange them into a loose structure. Group similar topics together, then rearrange them into an order that makes sense for the reader. For example, when planning Out of Office, it made sense to talk through basics like how to raise an invoice before more advanced chapters such as how to raise your prices.
You might find that some topics are actually themes and crop up several times throughout the book. That’s OK, just write a few more notes and stick them in wherever you need them.
For example, in my mental health memoir I knew I wanted to talk about my love for writing as a child, then contrast that with my lack of creativity as an adult. Similarly, in Out of Office, isolation is something I write about in multiple chapters of the book as it makes sense to talk about the widespread issue in the beginning and then offer advice to manage it later in the book.
Draft an outline
For me, the whole point of this process is to create a book outline that will then act as a guideline to write the book. If you’re creating a book proposal to send out to agents or publishers then you’ll need an outline as part of that, but even if you’re self-publishing you’re going to need some sort of plan in place before you sit down to write. Using the post it notes you rearranged earlier, you should now see the basis of your outline. Remember to include a short introduction, then divide the book into sections, then headings, then subheadings. It’s OK if you’re not 100% sure of the chapters and their exact order. You can only plan so much and a lot of the answers you’re looking for will become clear through the process of writing the book.
Now you should have a loose plan for your non-fiction book. If you’d like more support on actually writing your book, you might be interested in my Find Your Voice course which teaches you techniques on how to hone your writing style and write from personal experience.
How to Write Non-Fiction by Joanna Penn https://uk.bookshop.org/a/4750/9781912105779
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind https://uk.bookshop.org/a/4750/9780738215549
Depression in a Digital Age by Fiona Thomas https://uk.bookshop.org/a/4750/9781912478507