The Four Questions to Ask Your Nonfiction Book
(They’re Good For Fiction, Too)
Many first-time authors come to me with a book idea or a book started, and they’re not sure how to proceed. The question they often ask first is, “How should I tell this story? What’s the best way to tell this story?”
Writers of fiction can often get away with starting a story they don’t know well, or where they plan to go with it. Indeed, it’s a hallmark of fiction writers that they are captivated by a character or scene, or perhaps even line of dialogue—and then they write. Dear nonfiction authors, this modus operandi is dangerous for you.
The fact is, there are many ways to tell a story, even factual ones, where you think all you’re doing is sharing information. How you tell that story depends on many details. I could give you a laundry list of questions, but the most useful place to start is with four key big-picture questions that no author should avoid.
Ask yourself these questions as you get ready to write. Continue asking yourself these questions throughout the writing process. As I’ve mentioned before, book concepts change and evolve, and you need to stay on top of these changes.
The 4 Big Structure Questions:
- What is my book about?
- Who am I talking to?
- Why do they want to read this book?
- Why am I writing this book?
Oh, and fiction writers: these questions are for you, too.
What is my book about?
The Captain Obvious question. What is your topic?
Get as specific as you possibly can. Are you writing a book about dogs? As you know, there are a lot of books about dogs. Drill down further—perhaps you’re writing about a specific breed, or about canine health, or about end-of-life choices, and so on. What might help is to think: if we were going to make a radio spot for your book topic, how would you talk about it?
Who am I talking to?
Ah yes, the audience. We should never forget that you have readers.
A dog book for children will be different than one for adults—or for veterinarians or animal trainers. As with your topic, be specific. If you’re talking to veterinarians, do they face a particular set of issues from dogs (or this breed of dogs)? If you’re talking to kids, how old are they? Are they afraid of dogs or do they love them?
Why do they want to read this book?
This question is SUPER important. Why your readers want to read this book might be very different from why YOU think they want to read this book…or why you think they should.
Turn your topic around and look at it from a reader perspective. Why are you interested in reading about this topic? What information or what perspective are you looking for? You can also do market research. What are readers of your genre and topic interested in? What questions they are asking?
Beyond topic, your audience may want to read your book because of your particular style or voice. If you’re witty and funny, or you write well about deep and difficult emotions, that’s another reason they may choose to pick up your book. Think about your book’s voice and style.
Why am I writing this book?
Let’s never forget there is a reason (or many) you are writing this book. What do you want out of it? What does success look like for you? Indie authors as well as traditionally published authors need to think about this. Is your goal to build your business? Develop a speaking career? Reach out to a specific audience? Are you driven to make this book a bestseller? Do you want to be invited to a TEDx event?
In order for your book to work, you need to marry your why as an author, with your audience’s why as readers.
Questions for fiction writers
Fiction writers should not skip this exercise. Although you have more leeway on when you need the answers, these four questions are critical for you also. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, why they would want to read your book or why you’re writing in the first place, your manuscript runs the risk of languishing in a desk drawer or its digital equivalent for a very long time.
The bottom line
Ask these questions more than once. If you find your answers change, use this information. Play detective. Ask yourself whether you like the new direction or you are going off course. Use these four questions and you’ll finish your book on message and on target—and you’ll feel less frazzled and more in control while you write.
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