As a freelance book editor, I often encounter the same issues when I’m editing books—from common errors to classic questions to book myths. In the world of nonfiction, there are some easy ways you can ensure your book is a winner. So here are my top ten tips for authors when writing nonfiction books.
#1 Don’t write too much
This is the most common issue I encounter with nonfiction books. Many authors believe the myth “A book must be 80,000 words” and end up writing way too much, going off-topic, waffling, or losing focus. I’ve even advised some authors to reduce their word count by 50% or more at the editorial stage. So instead of writing to meet some magic word count, write as much as needs to be written. How long the book be should be depends on the audience and to a degree, the genre. Think: would my intended audience appreciate an 80,000-word book? Is that what they want to read? Writing too much is such a big issue that I wrote a dedicated guide to word count.
#2 Leave sufficient time for your deadline
Authors often approach me seeking editorial services when they already have a print deadline to meet, or are hoping to publish in a few months. This causes two problems. Firstly, good editors often get booked up in advance, so it’s better to seek your editor before you need them. Secondly, comprehensive editing can take months (up to 6 months in some cases), so having a deadline to meet can mean rushing. When you’ve put so much effort and time into writing the book, don’t be tempted to rush the editing phase to meet an arbitrary print deadline—or you’ll end up with a book that could have been better. You can see how long it takes to publish a book here.
#3 Always keep your audience in mind
This sounds obvious, right? However, authors often include information for themselves, rather than for their audience. This can be as small as including information that interests the author but isn’t relevant to the reader—or as big as writing a book that aims to help the reader, but is actually the author’s sales pitch, elongated CV, vented frustrations, or personal memoirs.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely fine to write a memoir or a rant (and that’s what some readers want), but only if the reader knows that’s what their getting. But if they’re looking for self-help or business development, and that’s what you’ve promised, then you need to deliver that. So regularly ask yourself the question: “Is this here for the reader or for me?”—and be honest with yourself when you answer.
#4 Break the information down
If only I had a pound for every time I said this to an author! In nonfiction, readers are often learning how to do something or are developing new skills, a new mindset, or a new approach. So you need to make it as easy as possible for them. It’s very hard to read thousands of words of solid text, so break it down for readers. Give them bite-size pieces of information in short chapters with plenty of headings to break it up.
“Mix up the visual styles so it’s not just paragraph after paragraph. Add bullet point lists, reminders, step-by-step instructions, key point, text boxes, and images to keep the reader interested.”
#5 Link back to the main concept
When you write a book, it’s easy to go off-topic and write about anything that interests you or is tenuously linked to the topic. However, this can come across as unfocused to your readers and leave them wondering why the information is there. To avoid this, at the end of every section, go back and read what you’ve written. Check whether it’s abundantly clear why the information is included and how it links to the main concept of the book. If it’s not clear, then explain its relevance to the book’s main concept. If it’s not relevant, then delete it.
#6 Don’t jump straight into the content
While you’re excited to start writing, bear in mind that the reader isn’t familiar with the content, so you need to introduce it to them first. Like you would if you bought a new friend to the party, introduce them. The best place to do this is the introduction or preface, where you explain the context of the book, what the book will cover, and why you’re qualified to write the book. Without an introduction, it can feel like the reader is jumping in the deep end. See the difference between an introduction and a preface here.
#7 Wrap it up
I’ve lost count of the times that an author has put a ton of effort into writing the book, then forgets to wrap it all up at the end. In the final chapter, you/ should tie everything together. Don’t just say “Thanks for reading” with a link to your Twitter page—show the reader how all of the chapters work together to achieve the final solution. Remind them of the important key points, so that in the future, they can open the book to the summary and get a quick reminder of what they need to do. Your reader will thank you for it.
#8 Have a plan before and after
Before you start writing, make a plan of what you’re going to include. Write a list of topics and turn these into chapters. Under these, write a list of subtopics, then turn these into headings. Doing so will keep you on-track when writing. But it’s also important to have a plan for after the writing phase. This includes seeking an editor, a designer, and a marketer to make your book read well, look great, and be seen. It’s important to consider your marketing plan, and how you’ll promote the book so readers are aware of it. After all, there’s no point writing the book for no one to read it.
#9 Think outside the book
The rise of e-books has meant that authors can quickly publish a book and use it to gain a customer base for their other products or services. While I don’t believe this should be the sole purpose of publishing a book, this doesn’t mean you should ignore your book’s ability to gain customers. Think about how the book can help you achieve your aims. Do you want the book to promote your other services? Do you want to gain customers for your consultancy business, or lead people to your YouTube channel? If so, this needs to be factored in and subtly promoted in the book—avoid the hard sell, as you might put readers off.
#10 Take a break
When you’ve finished writing the book, you might be tempted publish immediately. However, it’s better to take a few weeks’ break and come back to the book with fresh eyes. The break can be welcome relief if you’re tired of the book, and it can give you a new perspective. Read it again and do some self-editing, then send it off to your editor. They’re likely to come back with questions and suggestions, then you’ll start making further changes—so taking a break means it won’t feel like one long, non-stop slog.