So you want to write nonfiction: how to plan, structure, and write a book that will actually connect with your audience
Writing nonfiction is a smart way to build your business, spread your message, teach a skill, share your expertise, or simply try something new. Whatever your reason is for writing your book, I’m here to make it a little bit easier. I’m obsessed with planning and organizing which tends to come in handy when writing a novel. Below you’ll find my favorite tips and tricks to help you plan, structure, and write nonfiction that will actually connect with your audience.
1. Narrow down to ONE topic.
I’m guessing that if you are writing about your passion, you have a TON of ideas. This can clog up your mind, leaving you feeling overwhelmed.
To counteract the overload, you need to define your vision and narrow your topic.
The process of simplifying can also feel overwhelming, but hold on a little longer. Before you give up, I want you to answer the following questions that will automatically narrow your topic. Don’t believe me? I dare you to try it. You’ll see.
Who is your audience and what are their needs?
Consider age, gender, sex, job, roles, etc.
Consider their problems, fears, situations, feelings, and goals
My audience could be parents dealing with intense anger. They worry that their anger is negatively affecting their family and other relationships. Their goal is to master their anger.
How can you meet the needs of your audience?
Maybe you can simplify their life, help them feel happier, teach them something new, or make a part of their job a little easier.
Let’s say I’m a therapist who has helped many people cope with anger. I could meet the needs of my audience by teaching them emotional intelligence.
Now pick a need that your personal experience or expertise can fulfill. Look at us narrowing already! Let’s continue.
What is your message to your audience (that will fulfill the need you chose)?
Using my previous example, my message could be something like: “You can learn to make anger a friend rather than an enemy.”
What is your overall goal? How do you want your book to influence your audience’s thoughts, feelings, or actions?
I want my audience to feel hope that they can master their anger, learn and apply emotional strategies, and increase their emotional intelligence.
Because I’ve answered these questions, I know my book’s topic is how to make anger your friend rather than your enemy.
2. Create a writing plan that takes everything one step at a time.
Before you start digging in, it is good to have a plan with a deadline. A plan helps you define what success really means and provides you with small goals and rewards to keep you going.
Here are some general plan ideas to get you started:
Create a plan based on word count, number of pages, or chapters.
Write out all of YOUR ideas first. If you feel like a point you made needs research to back it up, type [insert research here]. After you flesh out your ideas, go get the research. This tactic is good for those who get bogged down by the research or those who aren’t yet clear about their book’s message.
Split your plan up into sections based on your rough chapter headings. For every section, write out your ideas and find research to back you up. This way, you vacillate between your ideas and other people’s ideas. This tactic is good for those who are very clear about their topic and get bored doing one thing for a long time.
If you are visual, consider organizing your ideas into a binder and building your book as you go. Print out a section of your ideas and a section of research, then insert these pages in your binder. Having a physical copy of your book will help you organize your ideas in a cohesive way.
Creating a plan based on your personal needs will give you the best chance to finish your book and find success.
3. Answer your own question.
To start formulating the chapters of your book, it is helpful to turn your newly discovered topic into a question. For example, my question would be: “How can I make anger my friend rather than my enemy?” I could write that at the top of a page and write a long list of bullet point answers. You can write anywhere from one word to paragraphs to pages. Set a timer for 30 minutes and let the ideas flow. Challenge yourself to think outside the box.
You could also consider exploring other questions that relate to your topic. For example, I could explore the definition of anger or the reasons why we feel anger. All I’d have to do is write those topics as a question at the top of a page and repeat the process.
Once your 30 minutes are up, start organizing your list of ideas into groups. Which ideas seem like headings? Which ideas seem like subheadings? By the time you finish organizing, you’ve created a rough Table of Contents for your book.
4. Write a chapter outline.
Now that you have a rough list of ideas, you can decide how you want to structure those ideas in a chapter outline.
Here are a few of the most common ways to structure nonfiction:
Chronological: your writing follows a timeline from the earliest point to the latest
E.g. a book that describes physical, emotional, and cognitive development from infants to adults.
Narrative: your writing is organized around a message more than a timeline.
E.g. a memoir that explores the meaning you derived from your life experiences or how you got to where you are today
Problem/Solution: your book explores a problem and provides solutions to that problem
E.g. a self help book about how to cope with anger
Topical: your writing is focused on a topic more than a story
E.g. a book about how to backpack through Europe with chapters about gear, sleeping options, places to stay, or sites to visit
How to: your book provides a step by step experience
E.g. a book about how to build various types of furniture
List: your book provides a lot of ideas centered on a topic
E.g. a book that provides 101 ways to counteract boredom or a quote book
For and against: your book explores all sides of an argument
E.g. a book that organizes the arguments, research, and case studies centered on gun control
Once you choose an overall structure, consider writing down your ideas on index cards. Use the structure you chose to place your cards until you find the organization you prefer. You can also follow this same process in a document on the computer.
5. Write a paragraph outline
Now that you have a chapter outline, it is time to start writing your chapters. Because paragraphs are the building blocks of every chapter, having a paragraph outline is also helpful. I like to think of a paragraph as a sandwich. You start with a topic sentence that states your focus for the entire paragraph. Then you back up that statement using ideas, experience, and research. Finally, you close the paragraph with a sentence that ties everything together and reminds the reader why this point matters to them.
Topic sentence to define the focus
Sentences to back it up
Conclusion sentence to tie it together
For more information, you should also check out Jyssica Schwartz’s article about paragraph structure.
6. Conduct some research
Including research will increase your audience’s trust and establish you as an expert in the field. Plus, especially in nonfiction, research is a MUST. Some people skip research because it is intimidating or they are lazy. DON’T be like them.
Here are some ideas to guide your research process:
Always cite your sources. Plagiarism is not cool.
Make a list of research that would be valuable to your book and subject
Place the research in your outline as you find things. Because you’ve taken the time to clarify your message, you’ll be able to discern between the necessary and unnecessary research.
Consider printing out hard copies of your research and organizing it into piles using your index cards, binder, or outline.
I hope you found these strategies helpful. Just remember to keep it simple.
Words build paragraphs, paragraphs build chapters, and chapters build books!
Instead of focusing on the book, focus on the word or paragraph and a book will naturally follow.
Your message matters. The time and effort will be worth it in the end. Even if only one person reads it, you’ll have changed that person’s life. You’ve got this.
Go free the writer and finish that book!