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How to Write a Nonfiction Book

How to Write a Nonfiction Book
By Suzan St Maur

I've had 16 nonfiction books published with two more under contract and a third in negs, so am probably classed as a veteran by now!

Here are my top tips on how to set about writing a book…

1. Plan your book very carefully and thoroughly. You will need to show a fairly detailed chapter breakdown and structure as part of the proposals unless you're self-publishing, but in any case you'll need this to work from. Take it from me - the more effort you put into planning and structuring, the easier it will be to write your book in the end. You will also save a lot of time in the long run, because with the plan it's very simple and quick to shift things around and try out various running orders until you hit on the right one. That process becomes a lot more complex and time consuming once you've written the first draft.

2. Having said all that about making the plan as detailed and as all-encompassing as possible, allow a certain amount of flexibility in it so you can move things around a bit as you go. Often you'll find you do make some changes to the running order once you actually get down to writing it if, say, you run into duplications you hadn't envisaged previously.

3. Do not regard "the book" as one vast project - you'll put yourself off, as it will seem like a gargantuan task. Instead break it down mentally into however many chapters you have planned, and think of it in terms of XX separate-but-linked projects. Have a short break and give yourself a small "reward" between completing one and starting the next.

4. Use your plan as a template for research before you start writing. From this document you will be able to see quite easily where you may need to research further, where you're particularly strong on content, and where you risk going into too much detail.

5. By all means use a mind-mapping type of process if that works for you, but use it only to help you create your book plan - not as the plan itself. The plan needs to be linear, because a print book is, and even an eBook is usually read that way.

6. Many people advise you to write the first draft as a stream of consciousness and not worry about spelling, grammar, syntax, logic or anything else because you can sort all that out in the edit. Personally I prefer to get the text pretty close to final draft stage as I go along, because performing a major edit on a 40,000 word document is a pain. You will need to experiment though; every writer has a different way of doing things and there are few absolute rights or wrongs.

7. If you're concerned that your writing style is a bit stilted, overly formal or just doesn't flow, try dictating the text working from the book's plan, then get someone to transcribe it and either you or an editor (see point 8 below), or both, can tidy it up afterwards. All but the most academic types of nonfiction book nowadays must be written more or less as people speak a) because communication of all kinds is becoming far less formal than it used to be and b) because people haven't got the time or interest to plod through wordy text that my be perfect grammatically, but is as much to fun to read as an accountancy text book. Even a business book should be entertaining!

8. Don't over-edit or over-agonise about your text. By all means tidy it up but don't re-work it so much and so many times that it loses all its personality and spontaneity. If you're not very good at writing and editing get a pro editor to work on it after you've completed your first draft - and (here comes the advert because I'm very good at this) make sure the editor knows how to tidy it up without losing your personality and "voice."

There's a lot more advice I could give but without knowing exactly what sort of book you have in mind, it's probably not worth my droning on any further for now. The above is pretty general - hope it helps. This article first appeared on, June 2007

Suzan St Maur is a leading business writer, author, editor and writing coach. Check out her website

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