A guide to writing your first nonfiction book

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Since my first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published last October, I’ve met several people who’ve mentioned their wish to write a nonfiction book. These tend to be people who already write as part of their work. They have strong ideas and expertise, but they feel uncertain about making the leap to a book.

Like all challenges, this one can be broken down. The first thing to say is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You could start this weekend. No-one will know, and no-one will stop you.

As an unpublished writer, the first stage of writing is purely between you and the page. It is a process of self-expression. When it comes to the next stage of writing – entering the writing business – things get more complicated. But that should not prevent you from attempting stage one.

Test the idea

It is likely you will have carried the idea for your book around in your head for a while. This is a good thing. It means the idea is incubating, and should hatch at some point. But if you don’t test it, you might never find out if the concept is strong enough to stand up.

In terms of subject matter, the sky is the limit. The important thing is that this is a subject you feel passionate about. You have something to communicate.

The test is to answer this question: What is the book about? Write it down in one line. Here are some examples I made up:

  • A week-by-week guide to cultivating a successful vegetable patch, with blank pages for readers to track their progress.
  • A self-help book for people who want to convert to a vegetarian diet, offering a mix of psychology, politics and recipes.
  • A compilation of ten mini-biographies of leading women scientists – aimed at young girls.
  • This book tells the true story of the Swiss children sent to work as chimney sweeps in Italy in the 20th century.

Get organised

When the concept is clear in your mind, you can expand it to a one-page pitch. If yours is a long-held idea, chances are you will have already done some research, if not in a targeted way. You need to organise that material. How much do you have? Perhaps you already have your own written content that could be fed into the book, such as articles, blogposts, diary entries or essays. What fresh research do you need to do? Come up with a system to collate your material – folders, notebooks, cards, whatever works for you.

This is the point where the structure becomes important. You need to put some thought into how your content can be arranged. In some cases, for example the scientist biographies mentioned above, the chapter divisions will be obvious. In other cases, you will have to carefully work out how to present your ideas or story. Have a look at the content pages of the nonfiction books you like. Reading books similar to one you intend to write is part of the research process, and an indication of your passion.

Every book is written one chapter at a time. When you are ready, sit down and try to write a chapter. It is only by writing a sample chapter that you will bring forth the style of the book. Expect to have to work through many drafts.

If you are planning to self-publish, you carry on from here. If not, this is the moment to pause and research submitting targets.

Submitting

Unlike fiction, where authors approach an agent or publisher with a polished, completed manuscript, nonfiction is usually sold on proposal. Most publishers and agents ask for one sample chapter, and a cover letter explaining the concept, structure and target audience. They want to hear why you are right person to write the book, what platform you have, and they may ask how you would help promote the book. Submission requirements vary, so do make sure to follow them faithfully to show your professionalism. Expect each submission to take as much time as a job application.

As a first-time writer, you can expect go through this process umpteen times without success. You will receive either no response or standard rejections, and be happy if you get a few words of encouragement from one in twenty submissions. Here is a post I wrote about dealing with rejection as an author.

The reality of the market is that the world is not waiting for anyone’s book. There is an oversupply of authors eager to be published. It comes down to finding the right match. If you present the right kind of book to the right person at the right time, you may be lucky.

Make time

If you do get to the point of ploughing ahead with the book, you will need to allocate time to write regularly. Even if you have plenty of free time, it makes sense to set yourself writing hours, as this is a project that requires discipline. If you don’t have much free time, you will need to decide what can be sacrificed from your weekly activities – television, social media, family time, sport. Something has to give.

Ideally, you should have a writing partner or editor to review your work as you go along, as a form of quality control. But whatever happens, no book should be sent out into the world without some form of editing from another party or parties, as well as proofreading.

I hope you found this advice useful. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may make it the first in a series of how-to articles. Don’t forget to share the link with others through the social media buttons below, and feel free to comment if you have any questions.

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