This blog outlines 10 common mistakes to avoid when writing your nonfiction book, to help it achieve self publishing success.
Consistency is so important in nonfiction – it ensures your book is presented in a polished and professional way. Inconsistencies disrupt readers at best and leave them with a negative, unprofessional opinion of the book at worst. Patterns are preferred in nonfiction! Always make sure the following elements are consistent:
- Headings and subheadings
Whether bold, underlined, a larger font, left aligned or centred, headings and subheadings must be the same throughout the book. Headings and subheadings guide your reader through your book as well as provide easy to find reference points. Using a variety of different styles just looks messy and unconsidered. Don’t make headings and/or subheadings too long either – they are content markers and meant to stand out on the page, not blend in with the body text.
As with headings and subheadings, format other elements consistently too. These elements include: UK/US spelling choices, font size and styles, use of italics, dates, times and numbers, abbreviations, straight or curly speech marks, size of graphics (tables or illustrations etc.), and use of the Oxford comma.
Nonfiction books usually include lists. Lists help order information as well as offer readers respite from denser body text. In order for lists to serve their purpose, they must be presented consistently to enable the content to be easily digested by the reader. If bulleted, use one style throughout. If numbered, use one style throughout. It’s as simple as that!
2. Unnecessary repetition
There’s a fine line between reminding readers/reinforcing information and explicitly repeating yourself too often throughout a nonfiction book. There are no word count awards for nonfiction, in fact, the more concise you are the better! Be mindful of repeating the same information again and again – personal details especially.
3. Irrelevant details
Nonfiction is all about imparting helpful and relevant information to your readers. Before adding yet another quote or personal anecdote or something tenuous someone random once said, stop and consider whether it is:
- Helpful for the reader
- Relevant to the subject
- Interesting for the reader
- Absolutely necessary to include
If it’s not helpful, relevant or particularly interesting, there’s probably no need to include it.
4. Forgetting to focus on the reader
As with all content, whether a social media post, a blog or a book, the reader must be the focus. A self published nonfiction book is not a celebrity memoir – readers need help and/or advice and/or information and/or inspiration and/or motivation, so that is what you must give them. Unless you are writing a comprehensive autobiography, beware of detailing the minutiae of your life, especially if your nonfiction book is primarily intended to provide a specific outcome for your readers.
5. Illogical flow
Nonfiction needs to be clear, concise and, above all, make sense. A logical flow could be achieved by evaluating whether the book:
- Is ordered chronologically
- Connects similar ideas
- Follows a tried and trusted outline
- Repeats patterns throughout
- Guides the reader from a starting point to an end point
6. Lack of references
Any facts included in nonfiction books must be appropriately referenced. These include:
- Book titles
- Song lyrics
- Internet research
Insert references as endnotes, footnotes and/or on a dedicated references page at the end of the book. If in doubt whether something needs to be referenced, always check!
7. Mix of language styles
Depending on the topic of the book, you may opt for a formal or informal tone in the language you use. However, stick to one or the other. Switching language styles within or between chapters will definitely confuse your reader. Remain consistent throughout.
Informal: slang, swearing, contractions, idioms, humour, layman’s terms, use of emojis, short sentences, direct reader address etc.
Formal: standard English, academic/specialist terms, higher level vocabulary, complex sentence structures, third person narrative etc.
8. Jumbled narrative voice
Many nonfiction authors address their readers directly throughout their book by using second person narrative voice (you/your). Others impart their wisdom/message using first person (I/my). Some use a mix of the two. All three choices are acceptable but beware of jumbling narrative voices in the same sentence(s) or paragraph(s) to avoid jarring your reader.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It’s like your first day at school, not having a clue about anything. You feel scared. However, the intensive course taught me so much about myself.
Here, the author jumps from their own (first person) personal experience (I) to generalised (second person) statements (your/you), then back again.
It would work better like this:
I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I felt scared, like I did on my first day at school, when I didn’t have a clue about anything. However, the intensive course taught me so much about myself.
As the author is recounting their own experiences, it makes more sense to maintain the first person narrative for the full example.
9. Assuming knowledge
Never assume your readers will know what you mean – about anything! Even if you think something is obvious or self-explanatory, some readers may still be none the wiser. Go through your book carefully, thinking like a reader who may know little to nothing about the topic (unless the book is specifically intended for a more knowledgeable audience). Are you sure they’ll understand everything in it? If not, briefly clarify where necessary.
Recruiting beta readers is also an excellent way of evaluating whether the information in your book is easy to understand/accessible enough.
10. Cluttered sentences
As with the overall flow of the book, information must be clear and concise at sentence level too. Ruthlessly edit all your words – there’s no need to use twenty when ten will get your message across more succinctly. Waffle is not welcome in nonfiction so cut the clutter!
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