Writing a non-fiction book: how do I get started?

Editorial mentor Sophie Bradshaw shares her three-step guide to turning procrastination into productivity.
With fourteen years of publishing industry experience under her belt, Sophie Bradshaw launched Publishing Workshop in 2017. Sophie's tailored coaching programmes and workshops empower authors of all disciplines to transform their editorial skills into a polished, publication-ready product.

We invited Sophie to share her three-step guide to turning procrastination into productivity.

One of the most common questions people ask me about writing a non-fiction book is: 'I’ve got lots of information about my subject. How do I put it all together?’

As someone who has published hundreds of non-fiction books, I know how easy it is for authors to get into a cycle of procrastination and 'research’ and never get started on actually writing their book. Here are three simple steps that will get you out of the library and onto the bookshelves.

1 Identify your reader

This is the first step for any non-fiction author. Your whole book hinges on your reader, so instead of thinking about writing what you know, think about writing what your reader wants. If you are an expert on property development, for example, you may want to think about narrowing that subject down to something more specific. Do some research on Internet forums to find out what people struggle with. If you can identify your reader’s problem then you will be able to write your book just for them.

Of course, your reader may not have a problem; they may simply want to know more about a subject. But whether you are writing a biography, a memoir or a history book, you still need to think about who your reader is. How much previous knowledge do they have of the subject? Do they like long books or short ones? What style of language do they use? These questions will help you to focus on the right themes and complexity from the start.

2 Get started

There are two types of writer: those who can’t get started, and those who can’t get finished. Non-fiction writers tend to fall into the former category: they have lots of information at their fingertips but they just can’t formulate it into a book. This is why I use mind mapping in my book planning sessions, as it is a great way of getting your ideas into a logical order. Here’s how to do it:

  • First, get a pad of sticky notes and start writing single ideas onto individual notes. If you are writing a biography or memoir, these may be key moments in the subject’s life. For a business book, these will be the main topics you want to discuss.
  • As you write them, stick the notes onto a piece of A3 paper.
  • When you’ve run out of ideas, move the notes around into a logical order. If some overlap, great - put them together.
  • You should find that your ideas assemble into natural groups, and these will form the backbone of your book.
  • Now, on another sheet of A3, start writing a mind map of these groups of ideas. You may have one idea with several related ones coming off it. Good - the idea here is to put your ideas into chapters. The number of chapters your book will have will vary according to its length, but as a rule of thumb, a 40,000-word book should have around seven chapters.

3 Make a writing schedule - and stick to it

Once you have created your list of chapters you have a contents page, and now you can create a writing schedule tailored to you. First, work out how long each chapter will be by dividing your total word count by the number of chapters you have got. It is a good idea to make chapters roughly the same length.

For busy people who struggle to write for long periods, I teach a One Page a Day method of writing. This is based on a target of around 500 words a day, five days a week. On this schedule, a 40,000-word book takes 16 weeks to complete. Of course, if you are devoting all of your time to your book and you find writing easy, you could schedule two pages a day. Whatever you do, stick to the schedule - and resist the temptation to edit as you go along. This is the main reason writers fail to finish their book, as they lose momentum and get discouraged by the flaws they spot. Remember: keep writing. You can’t edit a blank page.

Connect with Sophie by following her on Twitter @BradshawSoph, and find out more about Publishing Workshop here.

If you’re about to start your publishing journey, get in touch with us. We can help you create a professional quality book and will be with you every step of the way.

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