Non-Fiction Basics: Prep for Your Project

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Even if you have plenty of experience writing fiction or short articles or blog posts, a non-fiction book project can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, you can make it approachable with the right plan.

I’m a die-hard pantser with my fiction: I write where the spirit takes me. Maybe you are, too. Non-fiction doesn’t work that way. To keep readers’ interest, your book will need well-organized content with a clear focus. If you approach the project without a plan, you’ll waste a lot of time and words.

Choose your topic and focus area

Most books ideas start out vague. Maybe you spent two years working on a cruise ship and want to write a memoir about your experiences. Or maybe you want to write a self-help book for teens whose parents are struggling with addiction. You’ll probably need to narrow your focus before you start writing.

Compelling non-fiction is specific. For example, successful memoirs don’t recount every detail of the author’s experience chronologically. They zero in on a single time period, experience, or subject. A self-help or instructional book needs laser focus, too. Whatever you’re writing, it should fill a well-defined need for your readers.

Identify your target audience. Why will they need this book? Try your hand at writing your book’s promotional copy: the back cover blurb, the Amazon product description, a tweet-length pitch. If you can’t fit your idea into these snappy pitches and blurbs, keep refining it.

Define your qualifications

As you develop your concept, ask yourself the first question you’ll get from an agent or publisher: why are you the best person to write this book? Fiction writing can speak for itself. For non-fiction writers, skill is secondary to credibility and authenticity.

In the case of the cruise ship memoir, firsthand experience provides the first qualification to write the book. But if you want to write a self-help book for teens with addicted parents, you should have some expertise in the subject area.

Non-fiction is a crowded field, and you need a hook to set you apart. For an extreme example, see Dr. Faith Harper’s book Unf*ck Your Brain, which raised over $46,000 on Kickstarter. Her videos (warning: she makes liberal use of profanity) demonstrate both her credentials and her unique approach to the subject of trauma and mental illness.

Determine the kind of book you want to write

Will you write about your topic in the form of a memoir? Self-help? History? Biography? Something else? Whatever flavor of non-fiction you choose, read a few books you think would sit near yours on a bookstore’s shelf. Identify the components of a successful book in your genre. If you don’t know where to put it on the shelf, others won’t, either — and that’s not a good thing.

Create your outline

Writing your book will be a snap with a detailed outline. I began my book Order from Chaos with a ten-page handwritten outline. This gave me a chance to arrange my content into logical sections and chapters. I got a handle on the big picture before I turned it into a 63,000-word document.

As you outline, look for red flags on length and structure. Does your book make sense? Will you have too much or too little content? You may even want to write chapter titles on index cards so you can physically move them around.

Make a plan for research and supporting material

Will you need to conduct interviews for your book? Check out books from the library? What about photos or diagrams? Make a plan for how all of this will happen. That will prepare you to make efficient use of your time by writing some sections while waiting on materials for others.

Set a daily word count goal and tell your friends and family

Give your project the time and respect it deserves. Assuming non-fiction book writing isn’t already part of your daily work schedule, figure out when you’ll fit it in. Set a daily word count goal and share it with your family. Make sure they know this is a serious project that may affect your available free time. If you can, schedule a few writing retreats, whether it’s a weekend alone at the beach or a few hours at your local public library. Use an accountability partner to keep your progress on track if you need to.

Ready, set…

Unlike fiction, you can — and should — map out your non-fiction project in detail before getting started. Define a clear focus and structure for your book and schedule your writing time. By the time you finally open that blank Word document, you’ll feel confident and prepared.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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