How to Write a Nonfiction Book in 8 Steps
Nonfiction writing covers a lot of ground. From self-help books to memoirs to historical biographies to technological, scientific, and political journalism, there’s a work of nonfiction writing for every aspect of the human experience. Writing nonfiction is primarily an exercise in research, introspection, and observation. Here’s how to do it:
- Find your story. The first step to finding a great book idea is to follow what makes you curious. Listen to podcasts. Research a topic that calls to you. And be patient with those little sparks of ideas. If you’re only working on material you find useful right now, you’re drastically limiting yourself. You can’t know in the moment what you’ll need later; the pressure is too high. Explore your ideas and set them aside for later. Build yourself a back shelf that’s packed with all kinds of really cool things.
- Identify your “why.” The core of any worthwhile creative pursuit is the “why”: Why are you setting out to write this particular book? Think through the story carefully, and identify exactly what you want to say. Think of this as the central dramatic question in a novel: You’ll come back to this thesis again and again throughout your writing.
- Identify your target audience. Are you writing for history buffs? The self-improvement set? Are they academics or casual readers? Are you aiming to appeal more broadly and write a bestseller? People often seek out nonfiction for stories about a shared experience—are you writing for a niche or a larger, more general audience? Holding this group, or person, in your mind while you write allows you to tailor your message and writing style even further.
- Do your research. Research is a combination of real-world sleuthing and creative brainstorming. Instead of relying on internet searches, go to the library. The library is full of underused librarians whose job is to help you. If it makes sense, ask around your community to find people who may have lived through the experiences you seek to write about and interview them.
- Piece together the narrative. Pulling a coherent storyline out of a mountain of research or lived experience is no small feat for any nonfiction author. Consult your “why” again, and map out the moments that you feel are crucial to the overall impression you wish to leave on your reader. Create a list of characters, settings, and conflict points, and experiment with a few different ways to present them in an outline.
- Set manageable goals for yourself. Strive to write 500 or 1,000 words a day (depending on what you think you can reasonably accomplish). Having to meet a word count quota will help you get over that perfectionist bug in your ear. Let nothing stop you from hitting your goal—not procrastination, not writer’s block, not even bad writing. You’ll fix it later in the editing process. Just stick to the writing schedule.
- Make chapter outlines. Sometimes even a rough table of contents is enough to show you where you need to go. Under “introduction,” list all the questions you hope to address in your book. Under “conclusion,” list the answers you hope to provide. Working backward from the ending can help bring clarity to the chapters in between. What is the big moment you want to land on? What do you need to cover in order to get there?
- Approach your writing one chapter at a time. Think of each chapter in a nonfiction book as an individual essay. You begin by introducing its focus, outlining its context and touching on what it adds to the overall narrative. Next, you’ll set the scene: What are the elements that define the subject of this chapter? What’s its history? Then, it’s time to argue your case: Provide examples that illustrate the chapter’s main focus more thoroughly. If you’re writing a personal story, that could mean moments or memories from your life. If you’re writing a presidential biography, you’ll paint scenes from the historical record (this is where all the interviewing and research you’ve done comes in). The ending of a chapter should feature some sort of takeaway—if your book aims to teach a skill—or cliffhanger to take you into the next chapter.
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