Complete Guide to Nonfiction Book Planning

5 essential steps to plan you work of nonfiction

So you want to write a work of nonfiction, but where do you start?

This Guide to Planning Nonfiction will get you going by helping you define the purpose and basic structure of your book. You’ll find it much easier to write the content when you have a solid framework to guide you.

In this article:

1. Defining your book’s purpose

2. Identifying the reader’s needs

3. Choosing your book type

4. Selecting a design structure

5. Finding your starting point

1. Defining your book’s purpose

The first thing a reader or publisher will look at when considering your book is your book’s purpose, sometimes known as its ‘big idea’. This is the single idea that the book is all about. It’s also known as the thesis – the point you want to prove or explore. You can think of it as the ‘why’ behind your book – the reason why you are writing it.

The purpose must be apparent to the reader in the opening pages. It will be a response to the reader’s needs – in other words, it offers a solution or a different way of thinking about a problem or question that they have.

There are different ways of expressing the purpose. You can put it as a purpose statement, for example:

  • To help single moms start dating again
  • To teach people with busy minds how to meditate
  • To rewrite the history of the discovery of the Americas
  • To teach first-year college students the principles of calculus
  • To show people how to run a successful franchise
  • To illustrate the folly of war through my experience in a combat zone

Or you might express it as a big idea or provocative claim:

  • The US government is run be a deep-state cabal
  • The tipping point for global warming has already been reached
  • The next pandemic is about to begin
  • Your thoughts can make you rich

The purpose is the single idea, lesson or skillset that you want your reader to really get.

Now over to you. Write down, as best you can, your big idea or your book’s purpose.

My book purpose statement: ______

If you’re having trouble identifying your purpose, read point 2 below where we examine the reader’s needs. The needs of your audience will help you refine your purpose statement.

2. Identifying the reader’s needs

For a book to find an audience, it needs to address a particular need the intended reader has and point the way to a solution. Readers are not buying a book as much as they are buying a new skill, a promise of transformation, an answer to a question, a new way of seeing the world, or an escape from reality. In other words, they are reading to fulfil a need or a desire.

In this part of your planning, you want to get an idea of your ideal readers and the needs your book is going to meet. For example:

  • Single mothers (age 25 – 40) wanting to re-enter the dating scene
  • Busy working people (age 27 – 60) who need to learn how to handle stress and to meditate
  • Military history buffs, former soldiers, policymakers and politically engaged people curious about how Afghanistan was lost to the Taliban and the implications of this for future conflicts
  • Business owners and entrepreneurs needing to know how to run Google ads with minimum effort
  • First-year college and university students needing a clear explanation of the principles of economics
  • Men who are curious about military experience, in particular the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Sometimes readers aren’t aware that they have a need for information on a particular issue, but they do have an interest in a general category of nonfiction. For example, if you’re writing a book with a new angle on the battle of Stalingrad in WW2, you might find only a few people actively looking for this information. However, a lot more people are likely to be interested in this story if it is told in a fascinating way and promises a gritty and evocative reading experience. Your potential audience will discover their ‘need’ for the book when they find it while browsing the military history category.

Once you have an idea of your ideal reader and their needs and curiosities, consider how this affects your original idea or purpose. Have you expressed your purpose statement in a way that addresses a target audience and what they want to read about? If not, modify it so it addresses an audience need rather than your need to tell people about something.

Who is your intended audience? _______
What is their need or curiosity? ________

3. Write the book’s premise

The two steps outlined above will help you begin finding the story you are going to tell. The next step is to write the premise, which is a brief statement identifying the reader’s need and how you are going to provide a solution. Here’s an example:

Formal jobs are being annihilated in the new economy and young job-seekers are scrambling to create their own businesses or side-hustles – but most will have left school with zero entrepreneurial and money management skills. The result is years of hardship and frustration ahead of them. The purpose of this book is to enable parents to teach their children the attitudes, principles and skills they need in order to thrive in an entrepreneur-focused world.

Read more on how to write a nonfiction premise.

4. Choosing your book type

You’ve got an idea of your intended audience and the need or curiosity you are going to satisfy, but what kind of book will enable you to meet that objective? There are several common nonfiction types:

  • How to (informational): Providing practical steps to solve a problem or to understand something. Includes genres such as self-help, popular psychology, and practical business methodology (e.g., how to master Facebook advertising).
  • Conceptual (big idea): Exploring a concept or argument rather than solving specific problems. This type is also sometimes called the big idea book, especially if it makes a bold claim backed up with intensive research. Examples include revisionist histories, social issues, current affairs, big ideas (e.g., anything by Malcolm Gladwell), controversial political views, and new ways of understanding culture (e.g., Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel).
  • Memoir, biography and narrative nonfiction: Focusing on a personal story, whether the author’s or that of another person. These books borrow techniques from fiction writing to make a true story read like a novel.
  • History: The story of a particular event or of a group, country, or society.
  • Textbook: Pure information. An emphasis on facts, logical argument, and technical details.

There may, of course, be more types than this, and it’s not uncommon for books to be hybrids of different types.

For this part of the exercise, choose one book type and write it below (you can always change your mind later).

My book type: _____

5. Book structure and design

Once you have an idea of the general type of book you’re writing, you’ll want to consider the design of your narrative. This is all about how you are going to arrange your content and lead readers on a journey of understanding.

These are some common designs you can consider:

  • Chronological: Time shapes the story (linear narrative). You start at the beginning and work your way through to the end, arranging events in the order in which they occurred. A chronological structure is common in histories, memoirs and biographies.
  • Collective: The theme shapes the story (nonlinear narrative). A collective structure consists of different authors contributing chapters on the same theme (for example, a reader on contemporary literary theory). This is a nonlinear structure because there is little causal connection between each chapter or essay. Each one contributes to an overall effect.
  • Hub: The theme shapes the story (nonlinear). This is similar to collective design, but all the chapters are written by the same author. Think of a wheel hub with spokes radiating out from it – the hub is the core idea or topic, and each spoke is a chapter that deals with this topic from a different aspect. There is no (or very little) logical/causal connection between each chapter, but all are connected through the hub in that they deal with the same issue. An example might be an architect writing personal reflections on the built environment of the world’s major cities, with each city its own chapter. This design can also work well for memoirs.
  • Logical/procedural: Argument, logic, or linear processes shape the story (linear narrative). This type of design generally begins with first principles and then guides readers through a process or adds on layers of complexity. The aim is to explore a concept, teach a skill, or argue a point, so logical design is common in ‘how to’ books, textbooks or any work that argues a theory or big idea. The article you are reading now uses a logical/procedural structure.
  • Personal discovery: Your experiences shape the narrative. You teach and inform readers by taking them through the process in which you discovered the principles you are teaching. Bringing in your own experiences like this can be a powerful way of evoking transformation in your readers because they are learning through a story rather than through the presentation of facts. In its purest form, personal discovery design gives us a memoir, but it is also used very effectively for adding a layer of narrative to any of the other designs.

Hybrid design

The designs outline above don’t have to be used in their pure forms, and your book can be a hybrid of two or more designs. For example, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott teaches writers how to live the writing life (logical design) but it is structured as a series of more or less discrete memoir-like stories (hub design). Janet Attwood’s The Passion Test uses a journey (personal discovery) to teach a practical way of finding your purpose (logical/procedural).

Putting it together

You’ve got an idea of what type of book you’re writing and you are getting a feel for the structural designs that might work, so now it’s time to put them together.

Write down the type of book you are writing and the narrative design (or designs) that you think might work for your book.

Type (How to, Conceptual, Memoir/Biography/Narrative nonfiction, History, Textbook, Other): ______

Design (Chronological, Collective, Hub, Logical/Procedural, Personal discovery, Hybrid): _____

6. How to start and end

Deciding on your book type and design might give you a sense of clarity about your project – but it might also induce overwhelm as you wonder just how you are going to start getting the information into this structure.

So let me suggest the following: No matter which book type or design you are using, you can begin by laying out a simple framework of three parts or acts – a beginning (introduction), a middle (body of the argument), and an end (conclusion).  Everything we’ve discussed so far will fit neatly into this structure.

Act 1: The beginning

The beginning section is where you grab the reader’s attention by stating the problem or question you are going to solve. You can do this directly by telling them what issue you’re going to address, or you can do it more indirectly using a story or anecdote that dramatizes the problem. Whatever method you choose, your only goal in the first two pages is to grab the reader’s attention and hook them into reading more.

Once you’ve opened the story with your hook, you can provide more background information or provide a quick overview of how you are going to tackle the subject. For more detail on how to start strong, see my article on basic three-act structure for nonfiction.

Act 2: The middle section

The middle is the main body of your book. It’s where the design (chronological, collective, hub, logical, etc.) comes into play. For instance, if it’s a collective narrative, this is where you arrange all the chapters by the different authors. If it’s more of a personal narrative, this is where you start investigating the problem or going on a journey. The middle section is where you build the reader’s understanding, teach a process, or argue a point.

Act 3: The end

The end is usually a short section where you tie up loose ends and revisit your original purpose statement to reflect on how the question or problem has been addressed. You can also sketch out how the reader’s world will be changed with this knowledge or offer suggestions for further exploration.

Conclusion

The challenge with writing an article like this is that there are so many forms of nonfiction I can’t possibly cover everything. However, I hope I have at least pointed you in a general direction and given you ideas to get started. Ultimately, there is no set structure or style for any work of nonfiction, so it’s really up to you and what works best for your particular story.

One final tip – don’t let any part of this article cause you to get stuck trying to find the right response. Authors seldom know the exact purpose, type and structure of their books when they first start writing. Sometimes the most appropriate form only appears after a very rough first draft. So give yourself the liberty to experiment and see what happens. Then do a second draft where you arrange everything neatly and follow a coherent structure from problem statement all the way to the conclusion.

If you need help with any aspect of planning or writing your book, take a look at my author coaching offers below.

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