5 Rookie Mistakes When Writing a Nonfiction Book


It seems that quite a lot of people are drawn to the idea of writing a non-fiction book. Whether it be an autobiography, an instruction manual on racing pigeons, or a self-help book for obesity sufferers, more people than ever realize that they have a store of knowledge, a collection of anecdotes or a well-won panoply of expertise that they feel duty-bound to share with the rest of humanity. Writing a non-fiction book is not as difficult as it sounds, but writing a book that will sell or that is presentable enough that other people might want read it is a trickier proposition. As always, one of the key things about writing any book is having the stamina to finish it. But here are some other tendencies to avoid when approaching the non-fiction book in particular:

1. Getting lost in your research
Research is an activity that is difficult to avoid when writing a non-fiction book. Sure, you obviously need to carry out in depth research if you’re writing a history book, but even an autobiography can demand background reading and fact-checking to make sure that the sequence of events is correct. However, there is a limit to the amount of research you can and should do. It is very easy to fall into the trap of pleasurably poring over background material and forgetting to actually write the book.

2. Taking too long to get to the point
This can be a danger no matter what kind of non-fiction book you are writing. Let’s assume you have written a non-fiction book, which you now want to sell. Think of the reader’s experience. The reader has bought your book because it is a biography of the 98-year-old actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor. The reader is not interested in her childhood (unless it bears directly on what came later). The interest lies in her later life, her acting career, her nine husbands, her erstwhile glamour. So if you take too long to get to the juicy parts of the book readers will lose interest. But the same even goes for writing an instruction manual – in fact, even more so. Readers have bought the book because they want quick answers without having to do a whole lot of research themselves, so it makes sense not to belabor the introductory chapters but instead to go straight to the nuggets of information they crave.

3. Not having a pleasing writing style
This is a bit of a tricky one, because what it comes down to ultimately is a matter of taste and each reader is different. Because you may have done a lot of research and may consider yourself an expert in the field you’re writing about (heck, you may actually be an expert!) there is a danger that you could come across as overbearing and heavy-handed. If you are writing a fairly long book, there is a danger that you can start to repeat yourself. And if you are given to long elaborate sentences you could come across as boring. The key to keeping the reader engaged is to minimize long sentences, keep the action moving along, ruthlessly cut out any extraneous material. Then all it comes down to is finding your “voice,” which should be friendly not alienating, informative, but not ponderously authoritative, and light and readable without being vacuous. One of the ways of achieving a “voice” is by visualizing an imaginary reader you are talking to. One author suggests: “imagine you are in a room with a few close friends and you are telling them something that happened to you, or imparting information to them on a particular subject. Then just write down what you would say. Finding your “voice” is a surefire way of making your book highly readable. That way, when it’s published, your book is likely to garner five-start reviews and that will have a positive impact on sales.

4. Not having a clear structure
With works that are chronological, like a history book or a biography, it is much easier to structure the book: this happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened. But when you are writing a self-help book, an instruction manual, a textbook, or a religious book there may be no clear structure that comes to mind. The best you can do in that situation is make sure that before you present each section, you have already given readers the information they need to interpret what you are saying correctly. If you don’t follow that logical path, then you may end up with copious footnotes in the hope that you can explain things as you go along. Footnotes create their own problem for readers. Should the reader stop and read every footnote, thus losing the momentum of the book, or ignore them and run the risk of not quite understanding what you’re talking about? Needless to say, it is important with non-fiction books to work out some kind of structure in the first place, rather than simply gather information together in a haphazard way hoping that the reader can navigate a way through the book on their own.

5. Writing the book before you have a publisher
If you had just completed writing a novel, your first step might be to submit it on spec to a publisher in the hope that some discerning editor will pick it up and champion it all the way to publication. However, with nonfiction books, generally, the sequence is reversed. You would write to a publisher or agent with a book proposal along with, say, the first couple of chapters (so they can get an idea of your writing style) and hope you are then commissioned to write the whole book. If you decide to write the book before submitting it, there is a good chance that it will be rejected. But even if it is accepted for publication it is probable that the publisher will require substantial changes to the text before it is ready. Both scenarios can be avoided by submitting a book proposal before you go ahead and write the book. Of course, if you decide to publish the book yourself, for example as an independent author, there is no need to submit a book proposal since, in effect, you are the publisher yourself.

Writing a nonfiction book can be tremendous fun and part of the reward can be its eventual publication. You stand a much better chance of seeing your work in print if you can attend to these five simple points.

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