Two Decisions to Make Before You Start Writing Your Nonfiction Book
TWO DECISIONS TO MAKE BEFORE YOU START WRITING YOUR NONFICTION BOOK
Most of our ghostwriting clients come to us with some clear ideas of what they want in their book: They know what they want to say, and they know who they’re writing for. They know why they’re writing a book — whether it’s to honor a loved one, bolster their career, share their expertise, or tell their unique story.
They’ve often decided whether they want to pursue traditional publishing or go a more DIY/self-publishing route. They know if they want a coffee-table volume with thick, glossy paper or a more portable and budget-friendly paperback. Some of our book clients even have very specific ideas for the book’s design, right down to the art that will go on the cover.
But there’s more to ghostwriting than paper quality and pretty pictures. In fact, before you write a single word, you’ll need to make some key decisions about voice, style, and point of view. In this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into two of the most important decisions you’ll make about your book: Point of view and tone (or, how the book “sounds”).
Decision 1: Point of View
One of the first style decisions you’ll need to make is whether you want to want to write your book in first-person or third-person point of view. Not sure what’s best for your book? Here’s what you need to know:
In first-person point of view, the narrator is telling his or her story directly to the reader, using the pronoun “I.” First-person point of view feels intimate and immediate, which makes it a great fit for autobiographies, memoirs, and any other books that are more personal in nature.
Here are a few examples:
I’ve never thought of myself as poor. Not once. I wouldn’t trade my childhood experiences for anything. Those years, along with my parents’ examples and guidance, played a tremendous role in my achievements later in life.
I learned to box at school. I liked soccer and cricket, too, but I was best at boxing. In fact, I thought I was better than anyone my age. I wasn’t big, but every time I jumped off the wooden bench and into our makeshift ring, I could dodge and jab better than anyone else.
My first job after residency was with an emergency medicine staffing group. After one year of working with this organization, I was given the opportunity to become a shareholder. The benefits of becoming of shareholder were not solely financial, though: I now had the right and privilege to attend the company’s board meetings
In third-person point of view, there is no “narrator” speaking directly to the reader. While this perspective is a bit less personal, it offers the opportunity to provide information in a more neutral, objective way. This is why third-person point of view is perfect for general nonfiction books, thought leadership books, and subject-driven manuscripts.
Here are a few examples:
What was then called The M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research had opened in 1941 in primitive quarters on a six-acre site near downtown purchased from the estate of Captain James A. Baker – grandfather of former Secretary of State James Baker III. The campus, if it can be called such, included an original carriage house repurposed into an office; former stables functioned as laboratories.
In 1973, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) – better known to generations of Ojibwe people as “commodities.” Commodity items were designed to ensure food security by providing Native people with foods that were higher in fat and calories and lower in fiber than traditional foods. Unfortunately, this “solution” to food insecurity has set the stage for health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, the tongue-in-cheek phrase “Commod Bod” has become shorthand for “overweight.”
Captain America was cool — so cool he became America’s most popular cartoon character during WWII. He fought for truth and justice, crossing enemy lines, tackling Nazi and Japanese spies, mad scientists, even punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw in the 1941 Captain America comic book debut. Americans bought a million copies of that first issue because Captain America was a 2D stand-in for all the heroes — men and women – who would lay down their lives against dictatorship.
Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast rule that says you can’t write a subject-driven manuscript in first-person point of view. And it’s definitely possible to use third-person to write a compelling biography or family history book. Ultimately, the choice between first- and third-person point of view comes down to personal preference.
Decision 2: How do you want your book to sound?
In our 10-plus years of ghostwriting, we’ve found that the question about a book’s tone — that is, how the book sounds — is, hands-down, one of the trickiest elements to pin down. We’ve also found that, with the vast majority of our book clients, this decision is often a case of, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
But there are a few ways you can start. How do you want your book to sound? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you communicate that to your ghostwriter? Here are a few ways you can help narrow it down:
Make a list of descriptive words and phrases
Do you want your book to sound academic or informal? Do you want to come across as a leading subject-matter expert or a humorous narrator? Do you want a warm, conversational tone or do you prefer a straightforward, just-the-facts approach? Would you want people to describe your book as accessible? Folksy? Knowledgeable? Nostalgic?
Here are a few more good adjectives to choose from:
See what’s already out there
Spend some time browsing the physical or virtual shelves of your favorite bookstore, and take a look at a few titles that are similar in subject matter or genre. Are you writing a book about retirement planning for Millennials? Check out a few personal finance books and see which ones you like. Are you telling the story of how your great-grandfather came to America? Browse the biography section to get a feel for the different ways you can tell someone’s life story. Do you want to be known as an authority on vegan cooking, sailing, coding, or entrepreneurship? Take a look at what’s popular in the how-to or reference section. Make a few notes about what you like and what you don’t like about how each book sounds.
Collect writing that you like — regardless of topic
If you’re looking for inspiration, there’s no reason that you have to stick to books about your topic. Do you have any favorite books? Are there any writers out there that you especially admire? Have you shared any interesting, well-written blogs or articles on social media? What did you like about this book/article/blog/writer?
It might sound strange, but almost ANY written content — about ANY subject — can help you get a clearer picture of the kind of tone you’d like to achieve with your own book. In other words, if you like how it’s written, keep it! And, of course, share it with your ghostwriter. Trust us: It’ll help.
In fact, the more you know about the kind of book you want — from thoughts about cover design and binding to point of view and writing style, the easier it will be for your ghostwriter to help you bring your vision to life.
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