How to Write a Good Nonfiction Book Quickly

Lisa Tener
Feb 4 · 5 min read
Start with a vision and then map the book!

I’m teaching Week 2 of my book writing program this week and I’m struck by how helpful it’s been to me to revisit the early aspects of book writing. I’m into draft 3 (or so) of my own book and returning to clarifying my market and revising structure has been liberating.

Start at the Beginning to Write a Book Quickly

I just love beginnings — getting in touch with the vision of a book, thinking deeply about future readers, seeing what’s possible.

Because we focus on writing a first draft of a well-crafted book in a short period of time, it requires us to be efficient and effective in all we do. We don’t cut corners, but we work strategically.

What does this look like? Here are a few outtakes from book concept consultations that took place in the last few days:

It’s easy to try to invent something new, but if you already have a system that works, use what you have. One call was with an expert who has over a million visitors to her website. She clearly knows who her audience is and how to engage them! Plus, she’s taught much of this information before in a course.

It makes sense to use the structure from her existing course; it works! I can’t tell you how many times, though, I see people starting over with their book. Now, it’s not a bad idea to ask yourself, “Is this the most effective structure and format to get this information across?” but don’t change things just to change things.

I first suggested she use the steps of the course as her chapters. The challenge is that there are only 5 steps, making her projected chapter lengths 35 pages. This seemed way too long for her harried audience. It turns out, though that each step has around four modules, making 4 chapters in each of 5 sections-20 chapters, each around eight to nine pages. That seems like a good length for a busy audience.

Leave the Time-consuming Parts for Last When Possible

I found myself repeating this: if you’re an expert, sharing a system you teach or use in your work, or if you’re writing a memoir, you may not need to research the heck out of the subject before writing.

In fact, it can liberate you, strengthen your voice and speed things up if you leave the time consuming aspects — like additional research and interviews — for last.

While it doesn’t work for all books, this system works well for many types of prescriptive nonfiction like self-help, how-to and business books, as well as some memoirs, as long as you know your stuff.

Write from what you know and write a first rough draft with relative ease. Leave placeholders for where you need to do additional research or interview an expert.

This can prevent “analysis paralysis” which can keep you in research mode way too long, and it can also give you the much needed momentum to feel confident to complete the book quickly, versus taking so long to complete one chapter that you give up.

Of course, there may be places where research or interviews are absolutely necessary. However, think first before research and decide whether you can write from what you know and research later.

In addition, if you get stuck on one chapter, consider skipping that chapter and moving on to the next part of your outline or-perhaps even better-writing the chapter you feel most excited about writing next! Generally, a solid outline will help you work effectively and efficiently without having to write in a particular order. Sometimes, writing out of order frees your writing and creativity up in other ways.

When to Write Your Introduction

Should you write the introduction first?

It depends.

If you need to spend some time getting clear about your readers’ needs, mindset and pain points, writing the introduction and addressing these can help you get closer to your readers in preparation for writing the next chapters.

And as you describe the book, its contents, its benefits and how to engage the material effectively, you’ll get more clarity that will help you write.

On the other hand, the introduction can often be an experiment that you try a few different ways until you hit the right note. In that case, it’s preventing you from getting that quick rough first draft of the book. If you begin writing the introduction and you feel as if you’re treading water, consider moving on and returning to it later, so you can write your book expeditiously. If you already have a solid outline for the book, chances are writing several iterations of the introduction is not going to get you much additional clarity on that first draft. Keep moving.

Are there exceptions to the rules? Always. That’s why I recommend listening to your gut instinct as well (or “consulting your muse,” as I think of the creative source).

One thing I’ve found myself suggesting to a few people in class is, if you’re writing a book that’s prescriptive (rather than narrative) or a combo of prescriptive/narrative, consider creating a blueprint for a typical chapter.

You can use post-it notes to map out each chapter with color-coded features or elements. One suggestion — use the full sticking kind rather than the ones that stick on one edge only. I had a few post-its fall off while transporting to and from the library.

It can be something like this (just as an example):

  • quote
  • story
  • tie story to teaching/information; provide info on xyz; define terms, share what research shows, etc.
  • sidebar (can be science-y sidebar or a brief example/story or defining a term, etc.)
  • provide questions for reflection and/or checklist and/or exercises or something else for readers to use for assessment and engagement, to integrate and apply the information
  • possible action step for readers

So, if you are getting ready to write and want to write a book quickly, consider this first. It will help shape chapters and save you time.

Walking the Talk

Preparing to restructure my book by mapping the current draft

A week and a half ago, I spent Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the Jamestown Library outlining my book. While I have a first draft written, it’s helpful for the developmental editing process to have various aspects/features/elements on color-coded Post-it notes and be able to move things around.

Note: it was a little challenging to keep the Post-it notes in place. Don’t try this on a windy day! (or if you do, make sure they are secure).

Although I plan to move some of these around, I ended up taping them down for now since they started to fall off. A participant in class gave me the tip to buy sticky notes that are sticky all over the back and not just on one edge! I will definitely do that next time!

How About You?

Are you starting a book? What’s working? What questions are coming up? Do you have any insights or tips to share for getting started, writing a book quickly, getting the voice just right or writing your best?


Originally published at https://www.lisatener.com on February 4, 2020.

Lisa Tener

Written by

An award-winning book coach & author, Lisa helps writers succeed, from idea to book deal. She writes about writing, publishing, creativity and more.

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