8 Rules for writing nonfiction books

Eight rules for writing nonfiction books

Actually 24 rules in three sets of eight that will see you through the process of writing a nonfiction book. If I had titled this article 24 rules would you have clicked through or said "later?"

by David Patterson

Don’t let the fact that all rules are meant to be broken stop you from following these rules for writing nonfiction books—at least most of the time. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: You can break all of the rules some of the time and some of the rules all of the time, but can’t break all of the rules all the time—or something like that. And, yes most of these rules can be applied to fiction.

Finally, they're the rules for writing nonfiction books I know today. When I learn something new, I'll probably come back and change them.

There is no better place to start writing
a nonfiction book than with the process

  1. Start today.
  2. Writing a nonfiction book starts with an outline.
  3. Hold to your outline. If you find you can’t, make a new outline.
  4. Write every workday—at least five days a week.
  5. Don‘t begin the writing day by rewriting what you wrote the previous day.
  6. End the writing day by writing down a thought with which to begin tomorrow.
  7. Pick a minimum number of words you'll write each day and stick to it, recording the number of words you actually write and keeping a running total of your progress.
  8. Trust your ideas and abilities, and trust process.

Writing nonfiction books is about
clarity of ideas and structure

  1. In writing nonfiction books, fewer words make for better reading—cut, cut, cut. If a word doesn’t add to a thought, it subtracts from it. Words such as very and really are words that add nothing and have no place in good writing. Really I very much mean that.
  2. Nouns are, and verbs do. Adjectives equivocate, and adverbs slow—use adverbs sparingly and adjectives more so.
  3.  Use words that you speak every day, and use conjunctions.
  4. Read what you write out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound right to you, it won’t read right to others.
  5. Simplify your sentence structure. When a sentence isn’t working, break it into more and shorter sentences.
  6. Writing nonfiction books is about the whole not the parts. Don’t let the perfect word get in the way of writing a good sentence, or  the perfect sentence get in the way of writing a good paragraph, or the perfect…  Okay, okay, you get the idea.
  7. When a thought comes into your head, jot it down. Don't wait. If you wait to put it in the right place, you’re likely to forget it.
  8. Don’t try to show the reader how smart you are.

In the end writing nonfiction books
is all about the readers

  1. Know your readers. If you can’t describe them, you can’t write a book they’ll want to read.
  2. Readers won’t start a book unless they anticipate it offering something greater than the value they place on the time they'll put in reading it.
  3. Readers don’t always read nonfiction books from beginning to end—make sure your book delivers the goods if read piecemeal.
  4. There are readers and there are skimmers. Writing with both in mind helps you turn the skimmers into readers.
  5. Readers don’t finish books that don’t make them eager to turn the page.
  6. Readers want to be surprised—to learn something and experience the new.
  7. Reading a book changes its content because that content is filtered through the qualities, knowledge, and experiences of the reader. Don't try to prevent this by preaching.
  8. Readers are your co-writers. You need to write with their needs and wants in mind. They are your partners.

1 thought on “8 Rules for writing nonfiction books

  1. Debbie Gross

    This was a refreshing article. Lately, the new “big” thing is breaking the rules in writing. And though I believe that this can be a useful thing to do, I found it alarming how far some writers suggest you take this.


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