Essential Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Non-Fiction Book

05 Jun 2019


According to an article published in the New York Times, 81 percent of people say they feel they have a book in them and want to write it. Another statistic floating around the internet is that 97 percent of people who start a book don’t finish it. I can’t find the original source for that statistic, but I wholeheartedly believe it.

Why? Because writing a book is hard. People view it as romantic and an epic achievement — and it is. But unless you make some technical decisions before you start, you could find yourself in that elusive 97 percent.

Let’s fix that now.

We’ll take a look at five areas of your book you should figure out before you write the first word. And then, just for fun, we’ll look at five extra things you can do to ensure your book is as good as it can be.

Ready? Let’s make sure you’re in the 3 percent of people who finish the book they start.

Who Are Your Readers?

Your first step is to determine who your readers are. When people say they think anyone would enjoy their book, that’s an indication that they haven’t sufficiently thought this through.

For example, an avid financial writer may believe that his books are for everyone. And although he may write terrific books, people who don’t enjoy reading about finances won’t likely read them. His audience is people who are interested in learning about finance, or if he writes more advanced books, people who are in-the-know and want to stay up-to-date on financial topics.

Your first step as an author is to think about who will read your books. If you’re writing it as a marketing tool for your business, your audience is potential clients.

If you’re writing a book to establish yourself as an expert in your field, your audience is your peers and those interested in the industry.

Who is your audience? Write down your answers now.

What Style Will You Use?

Your next step in the process is to think about which writing style you will use. You have four basic choices, and each one will define the personality of your book.

Take a look at these four styles and think about which one you will use to write your book:

  • Expository: With this style, you will explain something in detail to readers. But you will do it neutrally without inserting any options of your own. An example of expository writing is textbooks and how-to books.
  • Descriptive: Descriptive writing uses adjectives to make the reader feel as though they are “there.” And descriptive writing isn’t only for fiction. For instance, if you’re writing a book about starting a business, you can use descriptive language to show the reader what a day in the life of an entrepreneur looks like.
  • Narrative: The narrative style is used to tell a story, but it has its place in nonfiction, too. For example, if you write a book to cement your place as an expert, you will likely tell your story and use the narrative style. Even if you write a book that includes historical events, you can use the narrative style to draw the reader in.
  • Persuasive: Authors who use persuasive writing do so to convince the reader of something. They use arguments, justifications, reasons, and aren’t shy about including their opinion in the writing. You can use this type of writing to sell an idea, concept, or even yourself.

The style you choose should support the type of book you plan to write. If you want to sell an idea or disrupt an industry, write in a persuasive style. If you want to write a nonfiction book that includes storytelling, a narrative style would be appropriate. And if you just want to concentrate on facts and to teach people how to do something, expository writing should be your choice. And finally, if you want to add some spice to your nonfiction book by using colorful language, use the descriptive style.

What’s Your Tone?

Now that you know what type of style you’ll use let’s talk about your tone. A tone is an emotion that is put into your writing. It’s how you feel about the subject matter.

By using this emotion, you will convey a tone to your readers that sets the mood of the book. But once you decide on a tone, you should carry through the book. Otherwise, it will confuse the reader.

If you can think of an emotion, you can create a tone for your book. But tones are generally broken down into the following nine categories:

  • Conversational: This type of writing addresses the reader directly and makes them feel like you’re speaking to them. This article was written in a conversational tone. If you want to engage your readers and elicit trust, using a conversational tone is a great way to do it.
  • Humorous: If you want to add humor to your book, use a humorous tone to convey it. Writers who use humorous tones use lightheartedness and humor to get their points across. Erma Bombeck was the queen of humorous writing.
  • Serious: Some books cover sensitive or important topics and demand that the tone be serious. When you use this tone, you express to the reader that the subject matter is significant.
  • Formal or academic: When one professional writes to another professional, a formal or academic tone is typically used. This conveys respect to the reader. For instance, if you are writing a book about a new finding or idea for your industry, a formal or academic tone might be appropriate.
  • Optimistic or pessimistic: When you’re using a style that includes your opinions or arguments, you can use an optimistic or pessimistic tone to enhance the mood. For example, a child-rearing book may be written in an optimistic tone while a doomsday preparation book would be written in a pessimistic tone.

Remember, you use tone to express your opinion about what you’re writing. The words you choose and your writing style will convey this to the reader.

Which Point of View Will You Use?

You will also need to decide which point of view you will use for your book. Most nonfiction books use one of these four:

  • First person omniscient: If you plan to tell stories in your nonfiction book, using the first person omniscient is a great way to do it. It allows you to show the reader the way with your personal experience. For example, if you’re writing a narrative nonfiction book about your experiences in the industry, you would use sentences such as, “Although I knew better, I invested most of my first year’s profits into a risky venture. That proved to be my first mistake.”
  • First person plural: If you want to break down the walls between yourself and the reader, using first person plural is a great way to do it. Authors who use this point of view willingly take themselves off the pedestal and get down on the same level as the reader. For instance, if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell, you’ll notice that he uses “we” throughout his books. It’s as if you’re traveling alongside him as he makes the discoveries he writes about in his books.
  • Second person singular: With this point of view, the author is also communicating one-on-one with the reader by using the word you. But authors have to be careful here, or they could come across as bossy. For instance, you might say, “You’re probably wondering why I wrote this book, and that’s a great question. Let me explain.” Readers would feel comfortable with you after reading that sentence and want to know more. But this point of view could also go very wrong. Consider this sentence: “You need to make sure you never lose money in the stock market again.” Some readers might be put off by the forcefulness and bossiness of this statement. Pulled off right, a second person singular is a great way to connect with your readers. But done wrong and it might offend them.
  • Third person omniscient: If you’re writing in a professional or academic tone, you will probably use the third person omniscient point of view. It convey the utmost professionalism and states the facts from a journalist type of view. For example, the sentence we used above would be written like this: “People in this position should do all they can to ensure they don’t lose money in the stock market again.”

Now that you understand the way you want to come across to your readers let’s take a look at the next step in the process.

How Will You Format Your Book?

The way you format your book is important because if the content doesn’t make sense to your readers, they will get frustrated and probably quit reading before they get to the end of the book.

Book formatting can make or break a book. It’s easy to become so excited about your book that you skip this important step. But that can lead to an unorganized mess that fails to convey your message. That’s why it’s important to decide this step early on in the process.

Here are five common ways to format a nonfiction book. Which one is right for your book?

  • The list: If your book material lends itself to being categorized in a list, you should seriously consider this format. Steven R. Covey’s, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a perfect example of this type of book format.
  • The 3-part book: This type of book format is broken down into three parts — or more. Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad’s Cash Flow Quadrant is a perfect example of this type of format. In this type of book, The first section details the history of the subject, the second presents the new idea or way of thinking, and the third section tells the reader how to apply it to their life.
  • A simple detailed message: If your book has an overarching theme to it, but you want to present it in multiple ways, this format may work for you. In it, you choose the theme and then present it in a new way in every chapter. This type of format is effective when used with a persuasive tone. For example, if you write a book about why veganism is so great, you can include chapters about food, lifestyle, clothing, personal care products, and household cleaners. Each chapter would explore how veganism affects the reader’s life, along with arguments and opinions about how it affects the lives of animals.
  • Ideas upfront exercises in the back: If you’re presenting a new idea, you might choose to format your book this way. With it, you use the front half of the book to detail and explain your idea, and the last half to teach the reader how to apply it to their lives. For example, in the vegan book I just mentioned, you could spend the first half of the book talking about veganism and why it’s so important. Then, in the second half of the book, you could provide recipes, suggestions about where to shop and what to buy.
  • Chapters as themes: If you plan to write a big book, this type of format helps hold the reader’s attention. The big idea is broken down into themes, and each theme is given a chapter. Then there are mini-chapters inside each themed chapter. For example, Timothy Ferriss,’ The 4-Hour Workweek does this. He includes four themed chapters and then places mini-chapters in each of those to hammer out his ideas.

If you can solidify these things before you begin writing, not only will the process be easier for you, but your book will be better for it.

And after you’ve made some decisions, take a look at the five suggestion below that will help make your book as good as it can be.

Bonus: 5 Ways to Make Your Nonfiction Book as Good as It Can Be

1. Stories aren’t just for fiction: People connect with stores much more than they do with fact and figures. And the successful nonfiction writers know this and use them in their books. For example, instead of telling your readers about the importance of business insurance, tell them a story about someone who went without it and had to face the consequences.

2. Hook them from the beginning: People have a lot of reading choices these days, and many will read the first page of a book to decide if they want to keep reading. That’s why it’s so important that you catch their attention right away. You can start with a personal story related to the book, ask them a question and tell them that the book contains the answer, or talk about something interesting that no one else is talking about.

3. Good nonfiction makes the reader feel something: Unless you’re writing an academic book, you should use some words that convey emotions. Readers connect with books when the book makes them feel something. And that happens with the words you select. Concentrate on using power words, or words that convey a lot of emotion. But don’t go overboard unless that’s the style you’re after. A well-placed emotion-producing word here and there will have a powerful impact.

4. Simplicity is your friend: Some nonfiction writers go wrong when trying to impress their readers with complex logic and big words. That’s not what readers want. Instead, use simplicity to convey your thoughts, and you will be rewarded with happy readers. Use short, to-the-point sentences that spell out the ideas in easy-to-understand ways.

5. Don’t be predictable: The last thing any reader wants is predictability. Even if your subject is dry, you can spice things up by asking the reader a question, or telling them a little-known fact about the topic. Remember, engaged readers make happy readers.

Do you feel better prepared to start your nonfiction book? Take some time to think about each of these areas because they are all equally as important to the success of your book!

Suzanne Kearns 
Suzanne knew she wanted to be a writer at the age of ten when she wrote her first story, and has spent the past 2 decades writing blog posts, magazine articles, nonfiction and fiction books, sales letters, white papers, press releases, website copy, and anything else that can be put in written form. She has written for Intuit, Avalara, NerdWallet, GoPayment, and as a ghostwriter for a few well-known CEO’s. Her work has appeared all around the internet, including on sites like World News and Reports,, and Forbes. She loves nothing more than being presented with a bunch of data and asked to break it down into digestible content for readers. Most days you’ll find her sitting on her porch with her laptop, writing to the sound of the ocean, and marveling that life can be this stinking good.

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