This is the 2nd article in my two-part series on how to write a great nonfiction book. You can click here for Part 1 of this series. In Part 1, you learned the first three steps in the writing process that I have used to write my first two books. In this article, you’ll learn the final three steps in this process.
Step 4: Organize and outline your content.
The best nonfiction books have a framework that makes it easy for the reader to follow a process to get from point A (where the reader is today) to point B (where the reader wants to be in the future).
As the author, it is your responsibility to do the heavy lifting for the reader and to provide an organized, logical framework and/or step-by-step process to follow. While doing so takes time and effort, it leads to a much more effective book than one that only provides a random collection of advice.
Once you have written at least 10-20 “articles” about your topic, it is time to start organizing the content for your book and to create a basic chapter-by-chapter outline. Understand that your content and outline will evolve throughout this process, so don’t worry about getting this perfect right away.
Just draft your initial outline. Then, tackle one chapter at a time. While your initial batch of articles (Step 3) probably addressed sub-topics from multiple chapters, it is helpful at some point to focus your attention on one chapter at a time.
Try to get each chapter to at least 80% done before you move on to another chapter. Why 80%? Well, it’s not practical at this point to aim for 100%, since you will be getting feedback (Step 5) and editing your book (Step 6) later in this process.
Once each chapter is at least 80% done, then (and only then) are you ready to draft your introduction and conclusion. Your introduction should grab the reader’s attention quickly, emphasize why the book is important and how the reader will benefit, mention your background and credibility for writing the book, and provide a brief overview of the layout of the book. Your conclusion should reiterate why the book is important, provide a concise summary of the book, and end on a high note with an inspiring message or story.
Step 5: Ask for feedback.
One of the most uncomfortable (and most important) steps in the writing process is to ask for constructive feedback along the way. It is easy to lose perspective when you are writing by yourself for a long period of time. This step will help you ensure that your words have the intended impact.
Ask at least 10-20 friends or colleagues to review a sample chapter. Make sure these people have different backgrounds, personalities, and perspectives. Send each of them one sample chapter, along with the sample introduction of your book- so that they have some context for the book and the chapter that they will be reading. You should also tell your reviewers who the target audience is for your book, since some of your reviewers might not be part of that group.
Ask for feedback on the style and substance of your writing, and tell people not to worry about typos or grammatical errors. You should also tell your reviewers to be brutally honest, and that they are helping you by providing constructive feedback, not by telling you how great your writing is.
Here are the exact five questions that I sent to my initial reviewers for Work Stronger, so that they would feel comfortable providing constructive feedback:
- Do you have any questions based on what you read? What did I miss or not explain clearly/thoroughly?
- What questions or objections might other people have about what you read?
- How would you describe the writing style and tone?
- What do you like best about what you read?
- How do you think what you read could be even better?
In addition to asking friends and colleagues to review a sample chapter, try to get at least one person that you trust to review the entire manuscript with you. This will provide extremely valuable feedback on how chapters tie together, and so on. This requires a lot of time though, so it’s not appropriate to ask a bunch of people to do this.
As for me, my father and I went through the entire manuscript for each of my books. We also made each experience into a small trip. We got a suite at a hotel, and went chapter by chapter over a two-day period for each book. This process made my book much better, and I will always cherish this experience and time with my Dad.
Step 6: Edit. Edit. Edit.
If you ask for constructive recommendations, you will likely get some feedback that is not positive. I certainly did for initial drafts of each of my two books. While this can be uncomfortable, asking for and being open to this kind of feedback will help you create a final book that is much better. Pay extra attention to feedback that comes up more than once. You are looking for themes.
Once you have gathered constructive feedback from your reviewers, go back on your own again to make any necessary revisions. Then, begin your final editing process. While this can be tedious, it can make the difference between a good book and a great book.
For example, after I made changes based on feedback from my reviewers, I then read and edited my entire manuscript 5-10 times on my own for each of my books. Each round of edits made the book much tighter and clearer and much more reader-friendly.
Is this obsessive? Absolutely. Does this level of effort lead to a much better final product? Absolutely.
To be clear, you are not aiming for perfection with your editing. That will never happen. While I’m very proud of each of my books, I could still find some additional ways to improve each of them if I went back again and reviewed them again now- after each was published. At some point, you have to decide that you have taken your book as far as you can. However, many published books would have benefited dramatically from at least 1-2 more rounds of thorough editing.
While writing a book takes a lot of time and effort, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience that can improve your life and the lives of thousands of other people. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this project. Take it one step at a time:
- Step 1: Identify your topic and your primary audience.
- Step 2: Identify at least 10-20 sub-topics or FAQ.
- Step 3: Follow a writing schedule.
- Step 4: Organize and outline your content.
- Step 5: Ask for feedback.
- Step 6: Edit. Edit. Edit.
This is the exact process that has helped me two publish books, and it can work for you, too!
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Earlier in his career, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.