The Complete Guide to Writing Non-Fiction
Publishing your work doesn’t have to be a difficult, complex process.
Publishing a book can feel like a monumental task, especially when you do it on your own. There’s a whole world of design choices, marketing strategies, and printing options that you need to navigate before your book finds its audience. Count on Palmetto Publishing to guide you along the way.
While there’s no simple formula for writing non-fiction, all authors go through certain processes as they develop their manuscripts and publish their books. But how do you get from a glimmering nugget of inspiration to a strong non-fiction book? You’ll need a dollop of insight, a smidgen of skill, and a lot of hard work.
The term “pre-writing” can be misleading since these early stages often include a fair amount of writing. Most writers find writing a book easier when they have some idea of what they want to say and to whom. Just don’t let pre-writing drag on endlessly. At some point, you need to start drafting your non-fiction masterpiece.
Pick Your Topic and Genre
You (presumably) want to write a book. Why? What kind of book do you want to create? Even if you already have a clear vision, let yourself dwell in the idea space and brainstorm for a while. Think about possible directions or related subjects to cover.
In addition to finding your big book idea, you need to place it within the proper genre. If someone were to shelve your book in the library, where would they place it? What books would make good neighbors?
The right genre can help you focus your project, and it isn’t always obvious. Consider an entrepreneur writing about their journey to the top. On the one hand, they could write a memoir focusing on human interest elements and a chronological narrative of their life. On the other hand, they could write a business book, incorporating their experiences into the text but structuring it around business lessons they want to teach others. Both could be successful books, but they’re different in important ways.
Popular Non-Fiction Genres
This list is only partial, and some of its items have been grouped together. There are many non-fiction genres, but here are a few popular types of non-fiction books to get you started.
- Memoir: Autobiographies and memoirs tell stories from the author’s life. Autobiographies tend to cover the person’s whole life and come from well-known figures. Memoir is a looser genre, and authors shape them according to their own interests and priorities.
- Cookbooks: Cookbooks are extremely popular. They share a collection of recipes that the reader can make for themselves at home.
- Health/wellness, parenting, and self-help: These books come from writers who want to help readers address personal issues (self-help books), refine their child-rearing philosophy (parenting books), or adopt a healthier lifestyle (health/wellness books).
- History, philosophy, and science. In all of these genres, the writer focuses on a given topic, teaching the reader all about it.
- Business and economics: There is a huge market for books that can teach people how to be more effective in business and with their personal finances.
- Interests and hobbies: This category covers everything from arts and crafts to travel or food writing that isn’t in the form of a cookbook. Authors want to share their passion and related expertise.
- Essays: The chapters in essay books are related more loosely, often around a theme. Each piece can stand as an independent work. In many cases, some essays have previously appeared in magazines or digital publications.
- Arts: Art books collect images, often in large “coffee-table” volumes.
No matter your genre, you need to know its conventions. What do you find when you open a book from that aisle of the library? Read books like yours. Palmetto’s authors write in a wide range of genres, and you can find their titles in our bookstore.
Narrative, Argumentative, Expository, and Other Creative Non-Fiction
These categories aren’t genres so much as larger categories that have to do with the general shape and purpose of the book.
A narrative tells a story. That story determines its shape, giving it a beginning, middle, and end. Argumentative writing seeks to persuade the reader of something, building up a case chapter by chapter.
Most non-fiction falls under the third heading. Expository writing covers a topic in detail, teaching the reader. It may have a linear progression — where each chapter builds on the one that came before — or it may move around to cover different areas.
Finally, some creative non-fiction takes a looser, more exploratory approach that doesn’t fit into any of the first three categories.
Technically, any of these approaches can also be literary non-fiction — non-fiction that is as self-conscious about its artistry as fiction is. But narrative and exploratory books are more likely to fall under this heading.
Find Your Audience
In addition to the genre, you want to consider the audience. What is your ideal reader like? What’s their background and personality? What will they hope to get out of your book?
Strong non-fiction writers know how to write for a specific audience. They develop writing styles that appeal to their readers, cover the topics those readers expect, and stay level-appropriate. A specialist’s book on an obscure area of digital marketing will look very different than a general introduction to the topic, and their readers will differ too.
Identifying your audience also lets you connect with them, an important part of book marketing. Don’t wait until the book is completely done before you get involved with social networks and interest groups.
Age is more than just a number. If you want to write children’s non-fiction, clearly identify your readers’ age range. Reading levels change rapidly as children develop, and you don’t want to overwhelm a young audience or bore an older one.
Familiarize yourself with popular books written for that age range. Later in the process, you can also enlist younger beta readers to help you identify potential problem areas.
Develop Your Routine
The truth is that there’s only one hard and fast requirement for someone to qualify as a writer — you need to write. More great books are started than are finished.
Set yourself up for success. Identify when you can work on the book and guard that time zealously. Have backup plans for when life interferes, and be honest with yourself about upcoming obstacles.
If possible, you might try establishing a regular practice — writing at the same time or on the same day every week. The more you can turn writing into a habit, the better.
At last, it’s time to start writing your book. You may discover things that cause you to change direction or go back to the drawing board. That’s fine. But as much as you can, try to forge ahead. You can (and will) edit later.
Create the First Draft
Want to know a trade secret? First drafts are almost always bad. The absolute best thing that you can say about a first draft is that it’s done. Here’s the good news. No one has to see it but you. So just get that first set of words on the page.
One trick is to make yourself hit a certain word count every day/week/month. Doing so will force you to press on even when you really want to do more (never-ending) research or fine-tune earlier writing.
Pantsing vs. Plotting
Many writers — both non-fiction and fiction — use these words to describe two different writing processes. “Pantsing” means flying by the seat of your pants, writing without a specific outline. Plotters, on the other hand, outline their work rigorously.
In truth, most writers fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Figure out what works for you, and finish that draft. (Are you sensing a theme?)
Once you have a full first draft, take some time to pat yourself on the back. A little time away from the book is also helpful. You’ll be able to come back to the project with fresh eyes and energy.
This is when you want to put on your editor’s hat. You should be your own first editor. Before you start incorporating other points of view and feedback, take the book as far as you can.
The Big Picture
When self-editing a non-fiction book, start with the big-picture questions. Read through the manuscript and figure out what large-scale changes are necessary.
Pro-tip: It often helps to print out the manuscript. Reading a hard copy helps you achieve some distance.
Questions to ask yourself include:
- Have I achieved my main objective? Have you proven your argument, covered your subject, or conveyed your story or idea?
- What’s missing or not yet full enough? Do you need to do more research or write a new section?
- Does everything in the book belong? Are any sections bloated?
- Does the structure make sense? Does each chapter propel you into the next one?
- How’s the personality and tone? Is your voice present throughout? Are any sections dry and in need of some humor or a relatable anecdote?
Incorporating these changes probably won’t be a quick job. Take your time, and make that second draft better than the first one.
After you’ve addressed these major concerns, go through the text again, looking at the individual parts of the book. Strengthen individual chapters and check your facts. As a non-fiction writer, you need to make sure that all your information is solid.
You also want to clean up your prose. The writing itself should be easy to read, clear, and error-free. If you’re a newer writer, consider reading a book on the craft of writing. They’re full of good advice you can use to improve each line.
Check your writing for grammatical errors and typos too. These mistakes make books look sloppy. Grammar-checker tools can help, but there’s no substitute for your own due diligence.
Get an Outside Perspective
Once you’ve polished your book into a draft that makes you proud, it’s time to bring other people on board. Ask friends and writing groups (if you have one) for feedback. They’ll help you see problems of clarity and communication.
If they’re within your budget, Palmetto’s professional editing services can take your book to the next level. Get the expert insight of people who work with books for a living.
There are different types of editing to answer different needs, and you can choose the best option for your project. You can choose whether to invest in large-scale developmental editing or if you’d rather have someone help you with final polish and copyediting.
Once your manuscript is finished, it’s time to send it out into the world. Take your project from a document on your computer to something you could find in online bookstores or even in person.
Turn It Into a Book
This is your baby. Give it the packaging it deserves.
There’s a difference between a thrown-together PDF and a professional eBook. Take advantage of Palmetto’s options for non-fiction books.
Our interior formatting services ensure that your text reads well across different devices. You can even include images or play with more sophisticated layouts.
Get readers excited from first sight with Palmetto’s cover design services. Work with our artists, all of whom are well-informed about the conventions relevant to your genre. We know what works and what doesn’t in the competitive non-fiction marketplace.
Finally, get yourself a print copy you can display on your mantelpiece. We partner with IngramSpark to provide book printing services. On-demand printing means that you don’t have to worry about buying the right number of books or figuring out where to store them. IngramSpark prints books as they are ordered, delivering each volume hot off the presses.
This is your baby. Give it the launch it deserves.
Palmetto marketing services can handle everything from the press release — and its distribution — to your author’s website and promotional materials. We make sure that the people most likely to respond to your work have the opportunity to add you to their list of favorite authors.
For the best results, pair our services with your own marketing efforts. Tried-and-true tactics like publishing an author blog and developing a newsletter are ways to spread the word efficiently. You’ll also need to encourage readers to leave reviews, which help the next round of potential readers find you.
And don’t forget simple word of mouth. You wrote and published a book! Brag about that baby and pass around baby pictures at gatherings of friends and family.
Let Palmetto Publishing Help
We won’t lie. There’s a lot of work ahead — but you don’t have to do it alone. Use us as a source of advice and check out the top-notch services we offer for non-fiction books.
At Palmetto Publishing, we love books. We can’t wait to get our hands on yours and work together to perfect it.