7 Questions to Reboot a Nonfiction Book You’ve Been Writing Forever

Image: a yellow and white sign reading "work in progress" attached to a wire fence.
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Today’s post is by author Jennifer Louden (@jenlouden).

As a writing coach, most of my clients come to me after months, years or even decades of trying to write a book on their own and floundering.

I get it. I’ve written nine books and every single time I start a new one, I come down with book amnesia. I look at my published books on my shelf and think, “Are you sure you wrote those? Because you seem to have no inkling of how to write a book.”

So yes, writing a book is hard and if you’ve been working on yours for a while now, there are probably a couple of other issues getting in your way.

  1. Trying to cram every last thing you know into your book.
  2. Writing a book that serves everybody—or at least a number of very different somebodies.

These are the biggest reasons I see nonfiction books stall: being a subject matter expert and your sweet desire to serve as many people as possible. So I’ve come up with a few questions to help you reboot your book without overwhelming yourself or your reader. I recommend journaling your responses to these questions until you feel too bored to write another word—and then writing for another page beyond that. Yes, it’s tedious, but it works.

Do not go back to your manuscript to answer any of these questions. That’s key!

7 questions to ask yourself

1. What does my just right reader already know about my topic?

Exhaust the known. Dare yourself to name what your reader already knows. Don’t worry—you’ll still have plenty of material.

2. What do I know about my subject that I think everybody else already knows?

What are you certain is old hat, already done, too basic, or boring to include?

3. What don’t I trust my reader to know about my topic?

You are very close to your material, which can make you believe your readers are a lot less informed than they actually are. Let your inner know-it-all out by writing everything you don’t trust your reader to know. Be snarky, it’s okay.

Then ask yourself for each item you wrote: Is that true? How do I know they don’t already know this? And does it matter if they don’t know it? (That last question is a game changer!)

4. Who do I most want to reach and change with my book?

I know you’ve heard this advice before, and if you are anything like my writing clients, you do not want to choose one particular reader to write to. I can almost hear you insisting on how many different readers you can serve with your book.

But this kind of thinking fuels a strong tendency to include lots of information that your actual reader could care less about. It dilutes your message so much that nobody cares.

When my client Karen was writing It’s a Tango, Not a War she wanted to write to everybody: doctors, diabetes educators, newly diagnosed diabetics, and parents of kids with diabetes. I kept reminding her that her book was for someone who had been living with Type 1 diabetes for years, who was despairing, often in crisis, completely overwhelmed, and who needed to-the-point information to reset and believe good health was achievable.

After a decade of not finishing her book, with that one reader in mind, she got it done and self-published.

5. What does the reader I want to reach most urgently need to know?

Urgent can point you to what problem or need your reader has that they want to address now. And that can steer you away from all the stuff you want to include that your reader doesn’t care about.

6. What have I experienced around my topic nobody else has?

Experienced is the key because it will help you find your unique frame and hook for your material. It’s more than what you know, it’s the experiences you’ve lived that will bring your book alive. (Do not peek at your existing manuscript. Answer off the top of your head.)

7. What is unique about my experience?

This is where talking to another writer, friend or coach can be useful because it can be tricky to see what makes your experience unique because you’ve already absorbed the lessons and insights. But your just right reader has not. You are several steps or many leagues ahead of them.

Make a list of stories that illustrate your knowledge.

Stories are the engine of good nonfiction writing. Pick up any of your favorite nonfiction books and note how often stories are used to illustrate a point, bring a richness to the writing, and deliver the intimacy readers crave. But instead of going back to your manuscript to make a list of your existing stories, start fresh with the ones that fit this reader.

Steal structure.

For at least a decade or so I’ve been teaching writers the best nonfiction resource you have on hand are the books on your shelves, starting with the table of contents and then studying chapters for the elements or templates that author uses to organize their material.

Seeing structure as something you can borrow, where you can mix and match elements you like from different books—and doing so with your existing book in mind—is often a giant aha moment. Suddenly you can see a shape to fill in with your existing ideas and stories. It’s not just a gargantuan blob of words anymore.

Start fresh.

Use a program like Scrivener or Ulysses to create a new document using the structure you’ve cobbled together. Then copy and paste from your existing document (or more likely 7,000 documents) only what your just right reader most urgently needs to know.

Fill in your new structure, leaving behind—for now—everything you wrote for question one (what your reader already knows). You can do it!

Then look at what you wrote for what you think everybody already knows. That will give you clues to what you’ve neglected to write or include because it seems too basic. But now that you have a bead on the urgent need of your one (1!!) reader, you can fill that in.

Save all your leftover material for articles to promote the book when it comes out or for your next book. Next, work on writing any additional stories, case studies, and transitions that you can now see you need.

I hope these questions help you reboot your nonfiction book and craft a book that delights you and your reader.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Jennifer’s myriad books, classes, and resources for writers.

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