Taking the plunge into nonfiction writing? Writing true-to-life stories from the heart can be incredibly rewarding, whether it’s a 1000-word blog post or a 100,000-word memoir. Or maybe you’re beginning your journey into traditional nonfiction, in which you help the reader learn something new.
Regardless of what message you’re trying to send, there are a few things you’ll need to have in place so that your core focus and main idea comes across in the most compelling way possible. Let’s dive in.
Why write nonfiction?
First of all, why leap into writing nonfiction? If you’re a born storyteller, moving from fiction to nonfiction might seem uninspired or dull.
Not so, writerly friends. Writing nonfiction books can be a great way to communicate big ideas with a wide range of readers. No longer limited to technical manuals and history texts, nonfiction writing encompasses a variety of powerful mediums through which to educate, incite, and inspire.
Plus, nonfiction can help you process your own feelings and experiences, too. Some writers turn to nonfiction, such as memoirs or personal essays, to address trauma and understand complex relationships. The great thing about these is that while they’re helping you heal, learn, and grow, they’re helping your readers heal, learn, and grow too.
Traditional nonfiction vs. creative nonfiction
When we talk about nonfiction, we generally mean one of two distinct subgenres: traditional nonfiction and creative—or narrative—nonfiction.
Traditional nonfiction is rooted in fact. These are usually designed to teach the reader something new. Most “How To” books fall under traditional nonfiction, as do scholarly and academic writings.
Creative nonfiction—sometimes called narrative nonfiction or literary nonfiction—is a personal piece of writing that tells a story. This might be a story of the writer’s entire life, or it may be an article, blog post, or essay that talks about one particular experience.
More and more, the line between traditional and creative nonfiction is becoming blurred. When contemporary readers turn to traditional nonfiction texts, they often expect the information to be held together by personal experiences. This is a good thing to keep in mind in your own work—readers will absorb key ideas better if they’re able to connect to the humanity behind the words.
You can learn more about the difference between creative and traditional nonfiction in our dedicated lesson here.
The ultimate checklist for nonfiction writing
Ready to begin your nonfiction project? Here are some tips to keep in mind during the writing process to make your work the very best it can be.
Before writing your nonfiction book
Nail down your core idea. Many nonfiction books, essays, and articles fail because they meander away from what they’re really trying to say. Before you begin writing, look at your central theme, argument, perspective, or idea that you want your reader to come away with. Knowing this from the beginning helps keep your piece of writing strong and focused.
Consider your target audience. Who are you writing for? A research paper meant for graduate students will likely read differently than a blog post for a layperson just learning about your niche. Is your nonfiction work going to be read by people who are already familiar with industry jargon, or are they discovering something new for the first time? Try to come up with a clear idea of who will be reading your work.
Write a chapter outline. If you’re writing a longer form nonfiction manuscript, you’ll find designing an outline of all your chapters before beginning your first draft incredibly helpful. This gives you a “bird’s eye view” of your entire book so you can see each of the important points and ideas you’re planning to explore. When you create an outline, you’ll have a clear road map of your writing process.
You can check out our full guide on creating a nonfiction outline here!
Research obsessively. No matter what you’re writing, you’ll need it to be backed by supporting research. This is as true in a memoir as it is in a history text—your story will be more powerful if you have clear dates, locations, and references to all the people you’re writing about. Remember, readers are turning to you to understand something they didn’t understand before. Make sure you have a broad, well-researched base of knowledge to draw from in your work.
While writing your nonfiction book
Set manageable goals. It’s easy to get overwhelmed starting a new project. Try organising your time into manageable bites so you don’t get discouraged. For a nonfiction book, this might be something like 500 words per day or one chapter every two weeks. If it’s something like an article or personal essay, break it down into simple steps: introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion, at a pace that works for you.
Make notes for supplementary research. Even though you’ve already done a lot of research on this project, you’ll inevitably run into things you’re not sure of as you go. Instead of stopping to check every few hours—thereby disrupting your precious creative flow—keep notes on things you need to verify later. You can use notes on the page like “FTT” (fact check this), or keep a running list of details to look into at the end. This helps keep you organised while maintaining your forward motion.
Close each chapter with a call to action. In a shorter form piece, you’ll do this just once at the very end. A call to action is a suggestion to the reader to absorb what you have taught them and incorporate it into their own life. Sometimes, you might do this directly by making suggestions at the end of a section; other times it might be subtler, implied through the emotions you’ve raised and the ideas you’ve presented. Every time you end a chapter or article, think about what you want your audience to do once they put down your book.
After writing your nonfiction book
Take a step back before revisions. So you’ve finished a piece of writing. Congratulations! The very best thing you can do at this point is take a break and put some distance between you and the work. You’ll find the editing stage much easier if you take a step back and return with fresh eyes. Try to set your project aside for a minimum of a few days (a few weeks is better); if you’re crunching a deadline, at least give it a few hours and go get some fresh air.
Try reading it out loud. Once you’re reading to take on the editing stage, see how it sounds read out loud. This will help you catch any typos, awkward sentences, and narrative inconsistencies, and see if your ideas sound compelling.
Consider the key takeaways. Remember the notes you made for your core ideas and your outline? Now is the time to compare those to the finished product and see if you hit each one of the points you wanted to express. Check and see if anything got missed, or if anything received an unbalanced amount of attention.
Edit thoroughly for language and grammar. As an authority on your topic, you need to present yourself as professional and reliable—which means editing like your little life depends on it. A misspelled or misused word can break the reader’s trust in you. Consider getting a professional editor to look at your work before pursuing publishing.
Get outside feedback. Lastly, consider getting some peer review from people who are familiar with your topic, and people who know nothing about it and are just learning for the first time. This gives you a wide range of beta feedback to look at when considering how your work is going to affect those reading it. Once you’ve received a positive response and ironed out any niggling snags in your writing, you’re ready to share it with the world!
Final nonfiction writing checklist
Before looking to publish your work, ask yourself these questions:
Does your book, essay, or article center around a main idea?
Do each of your paragraphs contribute to the core themes in some way?
Are all of your factual statements backed by real factual evidence?
Is your writing clear and concise without being overwhelming?
Are your word choices and tone of voice appropriate for your target audience?
Is your spelling, grammar, and syntax consistent and readable?
Does your piece of writing have a cohesive shape?
Use the written word to make a difference
Writers have the power to effect real change in the world with their words. With the tips on this list, and a little creative inspiration, you can create powerful nonfiction that makes people see the world in a new light.