Having worked with many non-fiction authors, a lot of which were writing a book for the first time, I have noticed some common problem areas. Lots of very knowledgeable people struggle to get their expertise down into an easily accessible read because they don’t know how to write non-fiction; they’ve never done it before and don’t know where to start. Even experts who can communicate very clearly in day-to-day life fail to take a step back and see their topic through the eyes of someone just learning it for the very first time. When they know so much about a topic, it’s easy to go off at a tangent or assume the reader knows much more than they actually do. Their ideas are often inter-linked and it can be hard for them to see what to put in which sections. Things can get very messy. Not only that, but when authors write over a long period of time, they forget which parts of which topics they have already covered (and where) and end up repeating themselves or referring to a topic that has not properly been explained yet and confusing readers (cardinal sin!). All of the above results in a poor reading experience and lots of work for their editor. So, let me show you how to write non-fiction the professional way…
How to write non-fiction books
The secret to writing great non-fiction is having a solid structure plan in place. You need to spend time carefully planning out your structure before you start writing your chapters. If you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going, then readers won’t have a clear idea of where you are leading them or why they should follow you. This is the single most important thing for any non-fiction author to get right, and needs careful consideration. I can’t stress this enough.
Brainstorming and mind-mapping are great for getting the ideas ball rolling, but then you need to marshal all those ideas into a sensible, logical flow that anyone can easily understand, even if they know nothing on your topic. After you have had a brainstorming session and scribbled loads of great ideas down, you need to take a moment (and a deep breath) before you try to organise those ideas into the structure of your non-fiction book. Think about your reader – what problem they are having or how you can help them. Look at your ideas and try to group them into 3-4 parts e.g. “Part 1: What you need to know before you start”, “Part 2: Beginning your journey: how to make it happen”. This will help you shuffle your ideas into a great flow. Now repeat the process, breaking the parts down into chapters. You are now ready to progress to the next stage.
How to write non-fiction chapters
In addition to the overall structure of any non-fiction book, you also need to create a great chapter structure, which can be easily repeated uniformly across all your chapters. This is the precise pattern and flow of each chapter, and where lots of debut authors get themselves (and their readers) in a muddle. Avoid confusing or overwhelming your readers by using our free non-fiction structure planner to make sure you’ve got the right content in the right place. After a couple of chapters, the reader will ease into your style and know what to expect from you in each chapter.
Elements of each non-fiction chapter: learn from the bestsellers
Of course, all books are different, but a lot of bestselling non-fiction books that either help readers do or learn something have these 5 core elements in common. All of these are included in our free non-fiction structure planner and more (download at the bottom of this post). Now let’s take a close look at what the bestsellers are doing:
1. Clear explanations
An easy to understand summary of what the problem or issue is, the benefits of overcoming it, followed by sound advice on how to solve this problem, broken down into sub-sections. This is really important to get right. The reader may know nothing about this topic at all, so they need to be smoothly guided through to get a full understanding. Use clear explanations, and where possible, break up these explanations with subheadings that address a specific element of a larger issue.
Bestseller case study: First-Time Parent: The honest guide to coping brilliantly and staying sane in your baby’s first year. This book was published in 2010 but is still the top seller in the parenting category on Amazon. Why? Because the author clearly explains the issues and breaks down solving them into easy to understand, bite-sized chunks e.g. within the chapter “Prepare” she explains the problem – that many couples go crazy in the baby stores and end up spending a fortune on stuff they don’t know they don’t need. She then groups what you need into sections e.g. clothes, feeding equipment etc. and walks you through what you do and don’t need for each. It’s full of clear, easy to digest information.
2. Examples or case studies
Real-world examples that back your idea/teaching up – these could be things that you have experienced, problems you have helped other people overcome or even things that you were not directly involved in, but which illustrate your point well. Using a case study after an explanation will cement the reader’s understanding and give them a good idea of how this particular thing works in the real world.
Bestseller case study: Bigger, Leaner Stronger is the no.1 natural bodybuilding bestseller, which has already sold over 200,000 copies. This book is full of real life examples of men who have used the author’s system to achieve great results. There are plenty of “before and after” pictures as well as quotes from the men about how amazed and happy they are with their new bodies. Without this kind of visual proof, readers may not have had as much belief in the author’s teaching.
Indisputable facts that prove to the reader that you are right. Your argument may sound pretty persuasive, but a reader is always looking for hard facts, so make sure you’ve backed yourself up. The more credible the source, the more impressed the reader will be.
Bestseller case study: Content Inc. How Entrepreneurs Use Content to Build Massive Audiences and Create Radically Successful Businesses is a book that would be nothing without data. It’s pitched at entrepreneurs and businesses who are going to need facts and figures to persuade them to do anything. Each chapter uses data from a wide range of sources in different sectors, and at the end of each chapter there is a “Resources” list where people can go to read the full reports and articles they have quoted from. This gives the reader huge confidence in the message of the book.
4. Direct quotes
Using other people’s voices to back up your ideas gives greater weight to your argument. You might want to use inspirational quotes from famous people (which get readers in the right, positive mindset for learning whatever you want to teach them) or quotes from people who you have personally helped with this problem (which makes the reader feel like they can trust you).
Bestseller case study: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers is a book built up from interviews the author has conducted with billionaires, so there are a lot of direct quotes throughout the book. That is the value he is offering his readers – access to the billionaires’ secrets. However, the author also starts each chapter with a few quotes from wide ranging sources. It could be a philosopher or a Hollywood actress, for example, each viewing the chapter’s theme from a different angle. This subconsciously gets the reader into the right mental space before they delve into the chapter itself.
5. Tips and take-homes
These short, simple pieces of advice are easy to remember and will stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed. It’s often a good idea to have these at the end of the chapter to reinforce the learning within that chapter.
Bestseller case study: Auto Repair for Dummies is currently the bestselling book in the Dummies series. Personally, I feel that wanting to know how to write non-fiction could learn a lot from carefully analysing the Dummies books – they are so successful because, regardless of the topic, they can guide a novice through to some level of expertise and make the learning easy and enjoyable. Like all other books in the Dummies series, Auto Repair for Dummies, clearly explains how to do various tasks in very basic language. Each section has a special box with tick lists of the most important things for the reader to remember. Putting the most important “take-homes” in special boxes makes the information really easy for the reader to digest.
Write a better book with our free non-fiction planning tool
Given my experience working with lots of non-fiction authors over the last decade, I have created a free non-fiction structure planner that you can download here.
This worksheet makes planning any non-fiction book a breeze. Filling out this planner before you start will make the rest of your writing quicker and easier, as every time you sit down to write, you will have a checklist of what you need to cover, in what order and how. It breaks the whole project up into smaller, more manageable sections that you can work your way through, ticking them off as you go. It ensures that every chapter is neatly structured, guiding the reader through from understanding the issue and why they should trust your advice on it to giving specific examples and take-homes that will help the reader tackle the issue. This results in chapters that readers find valuable and enjoyable. The at-a-glance planner also helps you keep track of what has been covered where, so you can avoid repetition and referencing things the reader doesn’t understand at that point in their learning journey. In short, it is a solid road map that will help you write a better book in less time.
Whatever you are writing, good luck with it and if you need any advice on how to write, self-publish and market your non-fiction book, please book in for a free 1:1 consultation here.