Writing Journey of The Non-Fiction Book

by limebirdvanessa

I am on a non-fiction book writing journey. It is rather like taking a long road trip:

– I must ensure my tank is topped up regularly (for me, this means endless intake of coffee and snacks whilst writing).
– Sometimes I need to stop for repairs (despite my intention to just keep writing, there are times when I have to stop, assess the damage, and fix a few things in my writing before I can move on).
– I have long stop-offs that repeatedly put the journey on hold (my kids, my day job, my life).
– Sometimes I have a passenger (my partner, on whose shoulder I will sob “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” and he will say “You can! You can! I will buy you a burger from a cheap roadside cafe, I will put air in your tyres, and then you can get back in the car, do your seat belt up and carry on with the journey”. And he does, and I do).

Of course all those things can apply to writing a fiction novel too, but there are some considerations that may be more relevant when writing a non-fiction book. I have been researching what it is that publishers and literary agents want to see when they are asked to consider a non-fiction book. I also recently attended a workshop being run by a major UK non-fiction publisher about how to give your book the best chance of getting published. I am certainly no expert, this is my first non-fiction book and I am learning as I go. However, it seems sensible to me to be aware of what publishers are likely to be looking for, well before you reach the stage of contacting them, probably before you even put finger to keyboard and start writing. Of course each publisher will have different requirements, but these are some general questions that are worth considering:

What need is there for your book?
Publishers want to know what need it is that your book will fill. It is important that you are able to clearly identify and articulate this. It isn’t enough that your book is interesting or informative or funny, it must be needed.

Who are your target readers?
Publishers are often told by prospective authors that their book will appeal to ‘The general public’. There are no books that appeal to absolutely everybody and therefore making claims that yours will is unlikely to get you far. On the other hand, you don’t want your targeted readership to be such a small and select group that it is unlikely more than half a dozen copies of your book will be sold. Therefore aim for something that falls in between ‘The general public’ and ‘Redheaded Sagittarian plumbers from Ipswich’.

Is your book time-sensitive and/or timely?
If your book is relevant to current events, will it still be relevant in a year or two year’s time? It is not expected that your book must remain relevant for ever, but a reasonable amount of shelf life is obviously needed. When considering this, you also need to take account of the length of time it takes to get a book published and on to the shelves. Even if your book is not highly time-sensitive, it should be timely; that is to to say, can you explain why the best time for this book to be published is now, and not five years in the past or the future?

What is the competition?
What other books are out there that are similar to yours? What is it that makes yours different?

What will your book do for the reader?
What is the actual purpose of the book? Is it to inform? To entertain? To educate? To influence? Be clear on what it is you are trying to achieve.

Is your book country-specific or might it have international appeal?
Some books are very obviously only relevant to one particular country. However, if your subject is potentially of international appeal, then you may want to consider this when writing so as not to rule yourself out of the possibility of going global. For instance, if your book is full of references to resources that are only applicable to people in one country, then you are limiting the international potential of your book. That isn’t to say that all books should be written with an international market in mind, but just that it is something to consider.

What qualifies you to write this book?
This could be relevant formal qualifications, or it could be your own experiences and research. Whatever it is, can you say why it is that you are the best person to write this book?

These points are all just as relevant if you are planning to self-publish – there is a reason why publishers want to know these things; they have a pretty good idea of what is likely to sell.

Do you have any experience of writing non-fiction books? If so what did you learn along the way?


27 Comments to “Writing Journey of The Non-Fiction Book”

  1. I have never written a non-fiction book, although I have edited them. I don’t know that I’d ever want to write one–I like making things up too much. But there are certain topics that appeal to me, and that I’d like to learn more about. Researching and writing would be the best way to learn (for me–as I’m a hands-on learner).

    I love your tips, too. You have a nice way of breaking everything down so that writers who feel uncertain can get a better grasp of what all is involved in the process.

    • Thank you. I think I prefer writing non-fiction to fiction. It uses a different type of creativity. For instance, if I have a particular piece of information that I want to impart, I obviously don’t want to just state it as a dry piece of information, so I start thinking about whether there are any real life anecdotes I can share that might illustrate it, or I might come up with a little practical exercise that the reader can try which might draw them towards discovering that piece of information for themself. I really enjoy that type of creativity probably more than making up a story completely from scratch. I think that’s why I tend to prefer writing magazine articles rather than short stories (although I do short stories too, but they don’t come as easily). And of course most of us regularly write non-fiction when we do our blog posts!

  2. This was a great article Vanessa, anything that helps us travel smoothly down the path to publishing is such a boon. It’s a good idea, finding out what a publisher is looking for before you submit to them. You can hardly read one book or magazine and think you know what that publishing house/editor is all about.
    I really enjoyed the list of questions, most could apply to fiction as well. Especially liked the “Who is your target reader?” question, Redheaded Sagittarian plumbers from Ipswich?? Baaahahahaha!

  3. Oh, that’s such a useful summary and one that will be re-read a few times so it is properly assimilated. In my own case, I have a very clear idea of the proposition of my book, a firm idea of the shape that I want the book to take, themes of individual chapters, I have good positive feedback to the concept but … and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, I can’t get into a fixed routine of writing on a daily basis!!

    Makes me feel as though I’m just playing with the idea of writing a book (not done it before) and not seriously committed to it! If I spent as much time writing the book as I do writing my blog, I would have cracked the book months ago! Or is that my excuse for not writing??

    • Thank you Paul – you sound exactly like me! That’s where I’m at with my book, I keep dabbling in it, and can’t seem to spend proper amounts of time on it. I figure that if I keep publicly talking about it (like with this post) then that will spur me on because I wouldn’t want people saying “Whatever happened to that book you said you were writing?”.

  4. Thank you for the tips, Vanessa. Most writers would never think to ponder these questions, myself included. I am going to copy these useful tidbits, so I can read them again.

    Blessings – Maxi

  5. Those are very helpful tips for non-fiction writers, and some of them are equally applicable to those of us who write fiction. I think it’s best to have these in mind as early as possible to keep from getting off-track and then having to do massive reworkings.

    • Yes, I think it can be tempting to just write and then consider the other things as part of a book proposal, but it I found it’s really helped me with the shaping of the book to keep these things in mind from very early on.

  6. great summary on what’s needed. As a new writer myself I could really use this!!
    Thanks for the great post!

  7. I wrote a nonfiction book proposal awhile ago for a subject matter specialist who ended up deciding she didn’t want to write a book after all. In the process, I used a very helpful guidebook called “Thinking Like Your Editor: How To Write Great Serious Nonfiction–And Get It Published,” by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

    In addition to the excellent points Vanessa listed above, the book discusses how editors will “read between the lines” of the proposal, especially the part that “qualifies” the author. They say that the author should “not be afraid to make observations and draw inferences.” Editors don’t want an author who is “tentative or qualifies” all of their statements. In other words, have a backbone and an opinion, but be fair.

    The author should understand the background of the target audience so they know what to leave out. You don’t want to go on and on about the physics of shooting pumpkin projectiles if the audience just wants to know how to make a pumpkin shooter with their kids, for example.

    Editors want an author with a “strong authorial voice” and “passion for the topic.” They want the author to “pull readers into his/her world and “make it come alive. And since a book proposal usually includes a sample chapter in addition to an outline, the sample chapter should grab the editor and leave them begging for the rest of the book.

    Lastly, the author should “know what’s already been said on the subject” so it doesn’t get re-hashed unnecessarily and display an ability to write well through precise use of language and narrative structure. Even in the nonfiction world, no one wants to read something that’s poorly written.

    I think it also helps to read well-written nonfiction before “attempting these tricks at home.” I read Mary Roach’s book, “Packing for Mars” (and reviewed it on my blog a couple of months ago) and found it to be well-written and filled with delightful humor. Readers (and editors) love books that kill these two birds. (No offense, Limebirds.) :o)

    Rabiner’s and Fortunato’s book has other helpful information if you’re interested in reading more about the topic.

  8. Further to Jilanne’s book recommendation, others may be interested in this person’s review on Amazon:


    I bought five books to help me write a book proposal:

    “How to Write a Book Proposal, 3rd edition,” by Michael Larsen

    “78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might,” by Pat Walsh

    “The Forest for the Trees,” by Betsy Lerner

    “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, 4th edition,” by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander

    “Think Like Your Editor,” by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunado

    The worst was “How to Write a Book Proposal.” This book felt like a bad date, like I wanted to wash my hair after reading it. The intent is to teach you to be an “Authorpreneur (r).” Yes, Larsen has registered this word. You’ll learn such gems as everyone has 250 friends, and each of them has 250 friends, so you can “spread the word” about your book to more than 62,000 people by e-mail. I think there’s a word for that — spam. Larsen also says to include your promotion plan in the book proposal, including pushing “the paperback edition as hard as you can” when it’s published a year after the hardcover edition. I’m not an agent or editor, but I’d think that an agent would giggle quietly to themselves if you were so presumptuous as to include a marketing plan for the paperback edition. (To the author’s credit, he doesn’t say you should suggest which actor should play the main character in the movie version of your book.) Then there’s the chapter about including illustrations and cover art. Excuse me, I thought the editor and art director develop the cover art? I can’t imagine creating the book cover to include in the proposal. And the author recommends including a “surprise,” such as a baby shoe with a note saying “Now that I have a foot in the door.” The book has one good piece of advice: pick a good title. For example, “How to Write a Book Proposal” is a title that will make 100,000 aspiring writers buy your book, regardless of how awful the book is.

    “78 Reasons” was good. Some sections are wrong, such as #38 and #39, which correctly advises against paying for a vanity press to publish your book but confuses this with self-publishing. I’ve successfully self-published two books, and unsuccessfully self-published one book. The correct answer is that if you have a niche book in a niche market you know well, self-publish. Self-publishing mass market books is a recipe for disaster. Some of the advice is excellent, such as #16, about “killing your little darlings” (a scene you think is brilliant, that you build the rest of the book around). While most of this book is sound advice to a novice writer, as an experienced writer I didn’t learn anything new.

    “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” covers the entire process from thinking of an idea through book proposals, book contracts, publicity tours, etc. It’s a good overview but each chapter is too short. You’ll need to buy another book about book proposals, etc. I’m keeping my copy as a reference to turn to occasionally but it’s not the last word.

    “The Forest for the Trees” starts with six essays about writing, with topics such as alcoholism, self-promoting poets (starting with Walt Whitman), the childhood of famous writers, writers who are too successful too young, etc. These are interesting reading. The second half of the book is essays about publishing, starting with literary agents. One paragraph describes the plethora of surprise gifts writers include with their query letters. She’s received baby shoes, presumably from readers of Larsen’s book. She says: “Please resist the temptation to do any of these outlandish things…a simple, dignified letter with a clear statement of your intent and credentials will win more affirmative responses than any gimmick or hype.” If you read Larsen’s book, read Lerner’s book as the antidote. The next essays are about dealing with rejection, the life of editors, what writers want from editors, how book covers are designed, book titles selected, etc. This book is descriptive, not proscriptive, so you’ll learn how the world of books operates, if not be told how to write a book and get it published. I enjoyed the author’s “voice” and I recommend this book.

    The best book is “Thinking Like Your Editor.” The first half of the book is about preparing your book proposal. Unlike the other four books, reading this book made me completely rewrite my book proposal. The author begins by emphasizing the three most important things about a book: audience, audience, and audience. Who is going to buy your book? Not who might be sort of interested in your book, but who will feel that he or she must read your book. I’d thought about this before, but reading Rabiner’s book made me think lucidly about this. She then walks you through the elements that must be in a book proposal, such as your thesis, or what makes your message unique and new and challenging; why is now the time to publish this book; and why are you the person most qualified to write it. The second half of the book is about writing your book, including the importance of narrative tension in non-fiction writing, and of presenting a balanced “argument” to make your views more convincing. The other four books made me say, “uh-huh, uh-huh” and not do anything. Rabiner’s book made me spend several days working on my proposal. (My 2003 paperback copy has the typos corrected.)


    Best wishes, Paul

  9. Great article! I’ve never delved into non-fiction, though when I was a teen I fancied my journals would be interesting to the world to read after I became famous LOL!!!

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