Guest Post: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Start to Write Your Non-fiction Book

This is a guest post by Paul Lima.

A friend of mine said he was starting to write a non-fiction book. I asked, “Have you answered your W5: who, what, where, when and why yet?”

“I’m writing a book,” he said, “not a news article.”

I suggested that he take a look at the W5, from the perspective of planning his book. Since I have written over twenty non-fiction books (, he cut me some slack. “So how do I answer W5 before I start my book?”

“How is a good point,” I said. “Add hoW to the mix and make it W6.”

And here, in a nutshell, is what I told him.

Before you start to write any non-fiction book, ask yourself who. Who is my target audience? Who am I writing for? Who would be most interested in this book? Knowing your reader helps you determine the tone and style of your book and how accessible material should be.

For instance, I have a book called Copywriting that Sells. While I’d like to think any copywriter might learn something from the book, my target readers are continuing education students taking copywriting courses. Most of them have limited copywriting experience or freelance writers who want to expand the writing services they offer clients.

With my audience in mind, I know I have to cover the fundamental elements of copywriting (not dumb it down, but start at the ground floor) before I get to examples and exercises that will help them become better copywriters.

The next question to ask is what. What is this book about, will this book cover? You need to define what you will cover in your book before you start to write it. Since my copywriting textbook is for an introductory copywriting course, I focused on print and online ads, not broadcast or multimedia ads.

In Harness the Business Writing Process book, I focus on the process of going from blank page to polished email, letters and reports, not on spelling and grammar. That’s a whole other book. So it’s important to know what you are writing about, and focusing on, before you put fingers to keyboard.

The next question is where, as in where are your readers located. If you are targeting an American audience, you will want to use American spelling, even if you are not an American writer. Also, you should use American examples and references and only use other examples if they transcend boarders. If your audience is primarily Canadian, use Canadian “colour” (spelling and examples). While the audience for my copywriting book could be international, it is primarily Canadian because I use it for an online copywriting course I teach for the University of Toronto. I can, however, refer to American ads because Canadians read American publications. Plus many ads that run in the US are used in Canadian publications.

I would be happy to sell my Everything You Want to Know About Freelance Writing book to international markets, and I generate some US and UK sales, but my primary audience is Canadian and I use mostly, but not exclusively, Canadian examples. Working in my favour is the fact that the examples in the book are relevant no matter where the reader is located. Still, before I started to write, I thought about where my primary audience would be located and wrote for that audience.

And then there is when. When will you book be published? Are there trends, factors, situations that you will be covering that might change dramatically by time the book is published? Or will your references and examples stand the test of time? It is something you should ponder before you begin to write. When Harness the Business Writing Process was being edited, the editor picked up on an old reference. It was an early example of online writing that helped me make a particular point. He suggested that I find a more current example. Students and professors would think the book was dated if I was using an old online example. I found something more current.

Then there is why. Why are you writing your book? To entertain, educate, inform, persuade? If you don’t know why you are writing, how will you write content that meets your purpose? You have to know why so that you can meet or exceed your reader’s expectations.

In addition, why your reader would want to read the book is more important than why you are writing it. If you want to sell books (people are not obligated to buy, after all), think about why readers would want to read it and work to fulfill the reader’s reason for reading.

And finally, we come to how. How will you structure your book? How will you begin and how will you end it. How will you get your readers from beginning to end? How will you structure each chapter? Will each chapter have a similar structure, or will each one flow freely?

I don’t start writing a book until I have the beginning, middle and end figured out. I don’t start writing until I figure out the number of chapters, the working title for each chapter, and the subject matter of each chapter. I don’t start writing until I have determined and written down a detailed outline of each chapter. I don’t have a problem with authors who choose to write without an outline. I just find that having a detailed chapter by chapter outline before I start to write helps me write in a focused, efficient and effective manner.

Of course if you feel you need help with any of the above, especially constructing a detailed chapter by chapter outline, then you are the who I wrote How to Write A Non-fiction Book in 60 Days for.

Paul Lima

Paul Lima has worked as a professional writer, communicator and writing instructor for over 35 years. He has run a successful freelance writing, copywriting, corporate communications, business writing, and media relations training business since 1988. Paul is the author of 20+ books on book writing, business writing, and the business of freelance writing.

Visit him online and learn more about his writing and books.

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