While I love reading and writing fiction, I work on a lot of nonfiction books as well— both from a coaching and editing standpoint. In seeing so many nonfiction stories come across my desk, I notice a lot of the same common issues that could have easily been rectified by the author before I even began editing. So, here are the most common issues I come across in nonfiction manuscripts.
Failing to identify why you want to write your book.
Every writer has to have a purpose for writing; the entire project hinges on that purpose. So, sit down and ask yourself, “Why do I want to write this book?” “What do I want readers to gain by reading my book?” The reality is, writing a book cannot be driven by the idealistic thought that you’ll become a best-selling author, you’ll quit your full-time job, and you’ll write from a perfect writing space and go on book tours. Your purpose has to have real weight to it, and honestly your “why” has to do more with what you want your readers to gain and if I dare say—might not actually have anything to do with you or your personal gains. Your book has to be useful for readers to be enticed to buy it and read it.
Misidentifying the reader.
When I’ve asked authors who they’ve geared their book toward, nine out of 10 times I’ve received the response, “I wrote it for anyone and everyone.” It’s a great theory, and I can understand why first-time writers get hung up in that mentality, but it’s not realistic. For example, if you wanted to write a nonfiction book on rebuilding your marriage, the book is not for newlyweds, single people, or anyone in a relationship they would deem “happy.” A book about rebuilding a marriage is intended for one audience and one only—people with broken marriages.
Trying to cast an extremely large net to catch anyone and everyone can actually be detrimental to your book’s success because you’ll inevitably water down the message of your book as a whole. Let’s take the same self-help book for marriage approach again. If you include a few chapters for engaged couples, then a few for newlyweds, then a few more chapters for married couples with children, then you throw in chapters on marriage after kids leave the nest and then you move into marriage in the golden years, you’ll actually rob each one of those sets of married couples from the depth they could have had from your book if you had simply chosen one audience. Engaged couples don’t have the same roadblocks as married couples who have children, and married couples with children don’t face the same obstacles as married couples in their golden years. So, you can’t lump them all into one book either.
So, really sit down and take time to narrow down your audience as niche as you can go. If your book seems too broad to get down to a niche audience, then your book topic is too broad and also needs to be narrowed down.
Writing what you want to say instead of what the readers need to know.
I run into this one more than maybe any of the others on the list. Writers get stuck on what they want to say instead of focusing on what will resonate with the end-user—the reader. Really hone in on what readers need to know, what only you can tell them, and what will make their lives better, easier, or more successful or productive. That’s what you need to write. Those are the stories you need to tell. Writing is less about self-indulgence and more about sharing with readers what they need.
Lack of story structure understanding.
Many manuscripts I edit still seem to be in a first draft—almost journal-like—format. What I mean by that is, the “story,” and I use that term loosely, is written in a “this happened and then this happened” style. There is no story structure, instead it’s detailed points on a timeline. That’s great for developing story concepts, recalling memories and creating an overall sense of time for yourself as the writer, but a diary-style book is not enjoyable for readers. Nonfiction and fiction are actually more similar than most would think—both require a story arc. The simplest story arc to use is:
1. What is the before story
2. Something must happen
3. What is life like after that something happened
Not using a style guide and being inconsistent with formatting.
A lot of people decide to write a book and they have no idea when it comes to style guides or formatting. Sure, the most important part of writing is telling a great story, but it involves a lot more work than that. From something as simple as spelling words correctly to writing stellar sentences to formatting block quotes correctly and using page breaks when you start a new chapter, it’s all so important. It doesn’t end there either: you’ve got regular, bold, underlined, italic, bold italic and more font styles—in reality you don’t need half of them. A simple regular font for most of your book, italic to highlight foreign words or to emphasize words, and bold for subheadings is really all you need. The more formatting work your editor has to do on your manuscript, the less they are able to spend time doing what they should be doing—editing your words. So, find a style guide, Chicago Manual of Style and AP are the two most common for books, and look at how other books in your genre are formatted. Then, do that work on the front end.
Punctuating quoted material incorrectly or not sourcing other works correctly.
More times than not, you are going to incorporate quoted material from other sources in your nonfiction book. Your style guide will tell you the correct way to punctuate and cite each one of your sources depending on its original format. There is also a specific format if you quote more than three lines or 100 words of someone else’s material—a block quote—and correct citation is important to avoid plagiarism issues down the road.
Not using dialogue.
Just because you’re writing nonfiction, that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate dialogue in your story. Actually, dialogue is a key piece of storytelling and readers will expect to find it—even in small pieces—in your nonfiction book. Yes, you do have the responsibility to be truthful when writing nonfiction, you can’t make up conversations that didn’t happen because it will ruin the factual integrity of your story. You can, however, use dialogue to describe a conversation between yourself and someone else or maybe to rely a speech you gave.