Planning your nonfiction writing project — including drafting a purpose statement, mapping out the structure, and using proven storytelling techniques — are critical parts of the writing process.
Are you thinking of penning a memoir or other nonfiction book, but aren’t sure where to start? Maybe you’ve started but feel stuck.
Well, it may seem counterintuitive, but the first step to writing your creative nonfiction book is not to just start writing. Step one is planning what to write.
If you sit down to type without a plan in place, you may run out of steam midway through the draft. Too many aspiring authors give up on promising projects due to a lack of organization up front. It’s difficult to organize your ideas on the fly.
But you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Countless authors have walked this road before you, so why not adopt the writing techniques and strategies used by published authors to evade writer’s block and make your manuscript shine?
1. Draft a purpose statement
A purpose statement explains why you’re writing your book and what you hope the book will do for readers. Remember, people don’t buy books; they buy solutions to their problems. A purpose statement helps you identify your potential reader’s problem so you can write the solution for them. It lays out what you hope the audience will take away from your book.
2. Identify Your Audience
If you don’t have a clear picture of your audience, you can’t understand their problems and how to talk to them. To figure out who your audience is, ask yourself:
- How old are they?
- What is their gender?
- What’s their education level?
- What concerns/problems do they have?
- Do they live in a specific geographic area?
- What shared interests do they have?
Don’t forget, you may have more than one audience. Self-help books, for instance, are often read both by the people who need help and by loved ones who are trying to support them. Business books may target business owners and employers in a specific industry, but the principles might help those in other industries as well. Additionally, books are often given as gifts. Who is likely to gift your book to your ideal reader?
You want to have one primary audience in mind, but don’t forget about potential secondary markets!
3. Map out your book’s structure
Plenty of aspiring authors have pieces of a book inside their heads and believe they can sit down, start writing, and fit those pieces together as they go. In reality, they’re likely to hit a snag several chapters in and not know how to proceed. This is traditionally called “writer’s block,” but it’s really more like “writer’s confusion” because the writer doesn’t know how to get from idea A to ideas B, C, and D.
If you plan the structure of your entire book before you start writing, you can eliminate this problem. (The Book Professor® recommends you use a BookMAP to organize your ideas into a narrative framework.)
4. Block out time to write
Between jobs, families, and volunteer work, finding time to write is a common struggle for authors. Daily life can conspire to make your writing sessions few and far between. That’s why it’s important to block out time to write. Treat this blocked-out time as untouchable, just like you would an important meeting or commitment.
Some writers set the alarm two hours early every morning to get up and write. Some always write just before bed. Others dedicate part of the weekend. Whatever schedule works for you, stick to it. Otherwise, you may never finish your book.
5. Use proven techniques for storytelling
The best story in the world won’t appeal to readers if it isn’t written well. And while some people seem to be born with a mysterious talent for storytelling, anyone can learn to write well if you put in the time and have the right tools.
To keep readers turning pages, apply the following aspects of good writing to your work.
Create a a rough draft
Start by drawing up a rough draft — and treat this version like a draft and not a finished product.
The goal of the first draft is to cut your creativity loose and get all your ideas on paper. You can delete, add, rearrange, and refine later. This is one reason why a BookMAP is so important: it makes the rough draft stage easier. You already have a general idea of what belongs in each chapter, feel free to write long and hard without stopping to second-guess big picture organization.
Think like a fiction writer
You may be writing nonfiction, but the functions of setting, character development, and point of view apply to your work in the same way as if you were writing fiction.
- Summary and scene. How much of your story should you condense and summarize? How much should you turn into vivid scenes that make the reader feel as if they were there? Balance summary and scene to keep readers invested in your narrative and turning pages.
- Setting. Help your readers experience the time and place where events occurred by taking time to lay out the setting. Your readers want to feel grounded in the story, especially if your book is a memoir.
- Sensory language When you write a scene, make use of the five senses. Describe sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, and smells.
- Point of view. Learn about different types of narrative point of view, including their advantages and disadvantages. Then choose the right one for your book.
- Pacing. Don’t rush through your story or drag it on too long. Learn how to pace your material to keep readers engaged to the last page.
If you think a nonfiction book is just a vehicle for sharing knowledge, think again. Unless you’re writing a textbook, your audience wants to know about you. They want to know why you have the authority to write on this topic. They’d like to get a sense of your personality. This means you need to share some of your personal story in your book.
For example, Mary Jo Rennert wrote a book for divorcees reaffirming God’s love for them despite their painful circumstances. To help readers trust her message, she shared her own story of divorce, including the pain of being blindsided by an unfaithful spouse. Rennert’s readers know that they are being guided by someone who has walked the path before them, so they feel less alone.
It takes courage to be vulnerable, but it forges a stronger connection with your readers.
6. Embrace help
Writing a book is a long and complicated project that can often benefit from a community of helpers.
Don’t be enamored with the stereotype of a lone genius at a typewriter — many successful authors find value in sharing their work with others and leaning on experts for advice. It provides the accountability you need to get the work done and the feedback you need to improve as a writer.
Seek out a writing community through classes, local critique groups, or even just one or two friends who love to read and write.