How to Write an Incredible Non-Fiction Book
I often work with aspiring authors who think they’re writing non-fiction but are really writing memoir (or vice versa).
Understanding which you’re writing is incredibly important when it comes to how to write an incredible non-fiction book because it informs the way you write (deliver information to the reader), and it will help you re-focus when you have wobbly moments that create self-doubt. These moments often sound like:
◾️ “I don’t know whether to include this story or leave it out.”
◾️ “I don’t know how throughly to explain the process I used to get through a challenge (or whether to explain it at all).”
◾️ “I don’t know that I have a true process that I even want to teach anyone; I just want to tell my story and hope that it inspires someone else or reminds them that they can overcome challenges too.”
To be clear, one genre (non-fiction versus memoir) is not inherently “better” than another, so get those “shoulds” out of your thoughts right now!
One isn’t likely to sell more or be more well-regarded or generate fewer unpleasant reviews.
But ironically, knowing which you’re focused on writing will help your book to sell better and generate far more amazing reviews and emails from happy readers simply because your focused intent ensures that your words flow more smoothly while avoiding confusion on the part of the reader when it comes to what they’re supposed to do next. (Are they mean to simply feel something or actually do something?)
Whether you think you’re writing memoir or non-fiction, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether that’s what you really want to be doing. Sometimes, we write in a particular way because we think—or have been told—that we should. It feels icky, so we quit, thinking the story isn’t good enough to write—or that we’re not good enough to write it. But there’s no need to quit; we only need to alter our approach.
AM I WRITING MEMOIR?
Memoir and autobiography are far from the same thing, yet oftentimes people confuse the two. Autobiography (or biography) is more of a “she was born, this is where she is now, and here’s everything that’s happened in between). It’s often a far more sterile timeline of events.
Memoir, on the other hand, is the story of a particular time in someone’s life. What happened before or after that point in time doesn’t necessarily need to be referenced (and if it is referenced in order to provide background or clarify, it typically doesn’t require a full chapter—or even more than a paragraph or two). It takes the reader through the feelings, experiences, perceptions, and insights the author gleaned from an experience.
I refer to many such books as inspirational memoir because that’s exactly what they do: inspire. And they do so without the author having any specific attachment to how they inspire.
Perhaps the way they handled something or thought about something or chose to eat an Oreo in a unique way will inspire (or otherwise positively impact) the reader. But the author isn’t banking on that. She is simply owning her experience and sharing how she found peace or resolution to that particular experience.
Examples of Inspirational Memoir:
– Wild by Cheryl Strayed
– Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle
– Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
– Folksong by Cory Goodrich
Takeaway: If it feels good to you to tell your story without specific attachment to how the reader is inspired, motivated, or otherwise moved, you’re writing inspirational memoir.
AM I WRITING NON-FICTION?
Non-fiction is easily defined: it’s not fiction! It’s not made up.
The kind of non-fiction the majority of my clients write is what I refer to as “transformative non-fiction.” The author’s goal is to help the reader transform in some way directly through a set of actionable steps or new thought processes.
Examples of Transformative Non-Fiction:
– The 5-Second Rule by Mel Robbins
– You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
– Deep Work by Cal Newport
– Enough by Elizabeth Lyons (that’s me!)
Takeaway: If it feels good to you to share your process or methodology for working through a specific challenge (while incorporating a few personal stories to illustrate your points remind your reader that you’re a real person not a robot and you truly understand where they are because you were once there), you’re writing transformative non-fiction.
“BUT WHAT IF I’M WRITING A BIT OF BOTH?”
Sometimes, authors are primarily relating their story, but here and there they want to include a few clear directives for the reader. Sometimes, authors are writing about their experience while also wanting to raise awareness about a systemic or public health issue.
In either case, it’s important to decide which side you feel more drawn toward.
You can have a few directives here and there without basing your entire book on hoping the reader takes action on your directives. You can hope to raise awareness of a systemic issue, but raising awareness isn’t your primary goal; your primary goal is to help the person who is already well aware of the issue because they are navigating it!
A desire for greater awareness and understanding of a systemic issue may be the reason a peripheral reader picks up the book, but it’s not the reason your ideal reader picks up the book.
What’s most important is that you go within yourself and ask, “What kind of book feels really good to write?” Then trust that feeling. Because that’s the way your soul wants to deliver a message through this particular book.
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- Showing your readers how deeply you understand their challenge and are uniquely positioned to help
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