5 Questions to ask before you start to write your non-fiction book

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

“I’m writing a book,” he said, “not a news article. I don’t need to answer the W5.”

I suggested that he take a look at the W5, from the perspective of thinking about and planning his book, before he started to write. Since I have written a dozen non-fiction books, he cut me some slack. “So tell me how to answer the W5 before I start my book.”

“How is a good point,” I said. “It wouldn’t hurt to add hoW to the mix and make it the 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 your 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 and have been thrust into positions at work where they are required to write copy. A few students may be freelance writers who want to expand the writing services they offer corporate clients.

With my audience in mind, I know I have to cover the rudimentary 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? What will this book cover? There are many types of ads, each requiring a different approach to copywriting. Print (newspaper, magazine, billboards and so on), direct response marketing (a form of print), opt-in email advertising, online (Google, Facebook and other social media ads, banner ads, multimedia ads), radio and television, and so on. I need to define what I will cover in my book before I start to write it. Since the textbook is for an introductory copywriting course, I focused on print ads and online ads that use text, not multimedia.

 In my Harness the Business Writing Process book, I focus on is 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 – the breadth, depth and scope – 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 might want to use American examples and references and only use other references and examples only if they transcend boarders. If your audience is primarily Canadian, by all means use Canadian “colour” (examples and references). 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 (as well as to private students). I can, however, refer to American ads because Canadians read American publications and watch American TV. Plus many ads that run in the US are used in Canadian publications and on Canadian TV too.

I would be happy to sell Everything You Want to Know About Freelance Writing to the US market, and I do generate some US and even 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 may not seem like a huge question, but 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 nail down a particular point. He suggested that I find a more current example. Students and professors would think the book was dated, he pointed out, if I was using an old online example. He was right. I found something more current.

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

In fact, I’d say that why your reader would want to read the book is more important than why you are writing the book. If you want to sell books (people are not obligated to buy, after all), you should have a sense of why readers want to read and you should 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 the book. How will you structure each chapter? Will each chapter have a similar structure, or will each one flow freely?

While all of the W questions are important, I feel how is crucial. I don’t start writing a book until I have the beginning, middle and end figured out. I don’t start writing a book until I have the number of chapters, the working title for each chapter, and the subject matter of each chapter figured out. I don’t start writing a book until I have a detailed outline of each chapter written down.

For the record, I don’t have a problem with authors who choose to write without an outline, figuring out where they are going and how they are going to get there as they write. I just find that knowing how I am going to write my book – having a detailed chapter by chapter outline before I start to write – helps me write in a focused, efficient and effective manner.

If you want to be a focused, efficient, effective writer, I suggest you answer the W5, and how, before you start to write. And if you feel you need help with that, 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.

Answering the W5, you will find, will make the book-writing journey a little easier and a little more fun. It should help make you a more efficient and productive writer. And it should help make your final product as focused and effective as you can make it – a book that meets and exceeds the expectations of your reader and fulfills your purpose or reason for writing the book in the first place.

(Paul Lima is a freelance writer, business-writing trainer and the author of a dozen books on copywriting, business writing and the business of freelance writing. You can learn more about him and his books at www.paullima.com.)

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