17 Insanely Actionable Strategies That Will Make You a Better Nonfiction Author Today
Last week, while I was talking about our audiobook program with an author embarking on his second book writing journey, we touched on the fact that one of his goals in 2019 was not to just become an author again, but to become a better author.
Now that he is more confident in the whole publishing process, he has the headspace to start thinking about improving as an author.
“Esbe, this year I want to write something sophisticated, I want to nail it. I’m going to read all the books on writing!”
I told him, it’s not enough to learn how to write better.
You need to put what you learn in practice to write better, to become a more advanced author. You need to take action.
Something I hear repeated across the board, is people with good ideas and messages to share, who are too nervous about their writing abilities to get their books done.
So I want to do my part to shatter any excuses you may have about it being “too difficult” to be a great author. Below are 17 different actions that can be done today that will immediately improve your writing. All of these actions you can start within the hour, and most should become daily habits.
There are 17 different tactics here, if you do only a couple of them you will see development in your growth as an author.
Let’s go, today! :-)
1. Enhance your skills by writing every day.
It goes without saying but the best way to make writing come more easily to you, is to write more! It doesn’t even have to be on your book. Many nonfiction authors can’t justify the time to work on their book for an hour every day — some are also running businesses — but that’s not an excuse. Make time for writing every single day, even if it is a blog post or piece of content that you can use for your business, even if it’s only 30 minutes. Writing content of any kind is beneficial, it is all good practice, getting you into the headspace of your readers.
Schedule time in your calendar. Open calendar.google.com.
Select a time you’d like to do your writing and add an event called Writing Time.
If you can do the same time every day repeat this event daily, otherwise schedule in your entire week’s worth of writing time and set each even to repeat weekly.
Use Scrivener to make it easy to sit down and work on your book everyday.
Outline your book down the to supporting arguments of each chapter by following this guide. If you outline it granularly, it will make writing easy as you won’t have to think about /what/ to write about. You won’t draw a blank nearly as often
Use Bear or something similar to write content in. It doesn’t matter too much what program it is, as long as you can open it up easily every day and it doesn’t take much effort to start writing.
Start today, if you have time, do 30-60 minutes of writing. If you don’t, schedule your writing time for the rest of the week in your calendar.
2. Engage your readers using story building techniques even if you’re writing a nonfiction book, not a novel.
It can be tempting to think that we don’t have to put in as much effort with the storyline when we are writing nonfiction. Although it is true we often don’t have plot lines to keep track of, or character development, it is good to think about story structure. Story building techniques have been used for a long time by fiction and creative writers but the fact is, even nonfiction is best told through story. Readers respond to story structure, it engages them.
Plot the Set Up, or Act I
This is where you introduce your story’s protagonist, in a business nonfiction this is usually you, the author.
This is the why section. Why should the readers listen to you? Why should they care about the topic you’re writing about? Why are you writing this book? Why did you decide that this mission was worth writing about? Why is there this problem that you’re solving in the first place?
Plot the Confrontation, or Act II
This is main section of your story line, where you set about trying to solve the problem you set up in Act I, and all the conflicts that arise during your journey.
This is the what section. Describe what the problem and what can be done to solve it. What are the biggest conflicts that will come up during the reader’s journey to get to where you want them to get to before the end of the book? What are the solutions for each of these problems?
Plot the Resolution
This is where you and your reader win against the problem you’re writing about. This is where you release the tension of Act II.
This is the how section. How can your readers put into action the solutions you presented in Act II? How can they reach the end of the journey you’d like to take them on in your book?
3. Learn from the best by reading every day.
This is so straight forward, but in order to be a better writer, read more! Reading professional authors’ work helps with your vocabulary, it teaches you good sentence structure, and you can see what makes a book good and what makes others more painful to read. Aim to read at least 30 minutes a day so you can be influenced by the best.
As you did with writing, plan reading time in your calendar. When can you catch 30-60 mins each day to read.
Unlike writing, where content is okay, you should try to read books, not social media, news articles or blog posts. Read books in your genre to get an idea of styles that you like, as well as books outside of your genre to influence your overall unique style.
Get an eReader like a Kindle so it’s easy to read anywhere, any time or use a subscription service such as Scribd.com and read on your phone or laptop. Scribd works like Netflix, you pay $9.99 a month and get access to a library of books, as many as you can read or listen to.
4. Take advantage of classes, often free, at your local libraries and college.
Most cities have free or very cheap workshops that will help you improve your writing! Check your local library or colleges for classes.
Google writing classes in your area. For example, I googled: free writing classes New York. I got several results including:
Free public workshops at libraries around the city run by the NY Writers Coalition: Public Workshops
A list of workshops around town from TimeOut: 10 Best Writing Classes in NYC for Aspiring Authors
Gotham Writers host free workshops in libraries and bookstores: Free Writing Classes - Gotham Writers Workshop
Search through the results and see if you can make any.
Schedule what you can into your calendar — these workshops can double as your writing time so no need to schedule in twice!
5. Develop your ideas and arguments by writing on a forum.
Some forums, such as Quora, are a great place to practice your writing. Not only can you use the questions asked there as prompts (so you’ll never run out of things to write about), but you will improve how you communicate your ideas and opinions through your writing.
Sign up to Quora.com.
Find topics that you’d like to write about — these can be the same as the topics in your book to help you develop your ideas, or different topics that you also have expertise or opinions in.
Read upvoted answers. This will give you a good idea about what works.
Start writing. Write answers to anything you find interesting. Practice your grammar, sentence structure, your authority and your style. Practice developing arguments so that the reader can understand, make it easy for them to agree with your viewpoint.
Listen to any feedback you receive in the comments. In general, Quora users are supportive, so their feedback can be quite useful.
6. Write to the best of your ability by figuring out your best environment to write in.
Having a productive writing environment can change the game for some authors. It can take just a small change to your writing environment to improve how fast and how deep you get in the zone when it comes to writing.
Clear your desk or table from clutter.
Try not to write with your laptop on your lap, bad posture isn’t good for productivity. Instead, set up at a table or a desk.
Figure out if you like writing in a noisy or busy environment. Some authors love working in cafe’s, while others get too easily distracted.
Find out what music, if any, helps you concentrate. Use songs without lyrics you can understand so as not to focus on the words of the song, but rather the words you’re writing. This could be classical (my personal favorite), study music found on YouTube, or mediation tracks on Spotify.
Have all your things ready on your desk before your writing time starts. You don’t want to spend 10 of the 30 minutes you set aside for writing setting up your laptop, making a cup of tea, finding notes around the house etc. Make writing time as easy to slip into as possible.
Make sure you’re wearing something comfortable. This may not seem important but you want to be distraction free once you’re in the zone, so comfy clothing is a must.
Make sure your mind is comfortable too. Writing is often worse when you’re upset, angry or otherwise emotional. Sure, jot down your feelings to use later as fuel for character development, but it’s usually unwise to try and sit down to write without a clear head.
Once you’ve found what works, stick to it! Repeat this environment every time you sit down to write if you can, and that way you will signal to your body that it’s time to get in the zone!
7. Read your work out loud as part of the editing process.
Yes, you may feel silly doing this one, but it can be so helpful.
You often write very differently to how you talk. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes it’s just weird. Your eyes will also often skip over mistakes or things that aren’t quite right when you’ve written them, but reading your writing out loud will help you notice them.
It’s easier to pick things up that don’t sound quite right, than those that don’t read quite right.
1. Once you’ve finished writing a piece or a section of your book, read it out loud.
2. Mark down any parts that don’t sound right to correct later, then keep reading.
3. After you’ve finished the piece, go back and correct the writing. Read it aloud again.
4. You can also record yourself reading aloud. When you find a mistake, just say what you’d like it to be instead. Then listen back to the recording and write your correction from what you said.
8. Use Grammarly and learn from it.
Grammarly is an automated proofreader, a grammar improver and a plagiarism checker. It has a basic spelling and grammar checker for free, however, I think it’s biggest benefit is in the premium version. If you purchase the premium version of Grammarly at $29.95/month or less (cancel anytime), you can learn quite a lot from it. Grammarly premium will show you:
Critical grammar and spelling checks
Advanced checks for punctuation, grammar, context, and sentence structure
Vocabulary enhancement suggestions
Genre-specific writing style checks
Definitions and synonyms via double clicks
Explanations of grammar rules
It will also:
Detect plagiarism (checking more than 16 billion web pages)
Check your writing across the web
Catch contextual spelling and grammar mistakes
Add words to your personal dictionary
Go to Grammarly.com and sign up.
Once signed up, Grammarly will prompt you to Personalize Grammarly. You can skip this for now.
Then, you can either download Grammarly as an app onto your computer, or continue using the web app. Once you’re ready to upload a section of your book for editing, choose ‘New’.
Copy and paste your piece into the Grammarly page.
When you paste, a popup will appear where you can set your book’s goals. Describe how you want to use your book, for example, for a business book I chose that my intent was to inform, my audience is knowledgeable, but not experts, the style of the piece is intended to be formal with strong emotions.
Grammarly then takes these outcomes you want for your piece and analyzes the section.
For example, for a couple of paragraphs I pasted into Grammarly, premium detected alerts for 7 word choices, 3 wordy sentences, 1 complex sentence punctuation, 1 incorrect verb form usage, and 1 inappropriate colloquialism (especially important if you’re trying to write a formal piece).
Make sure you are checking all the suggestions and alerts from Grammarly, though, and not just blindly accepting them. As Grammarly is AI based, not human based, it does get some suggestions wrong. These are easy to spot with common sense, so just make sure you check each one before accepting it.
Make sure you’re taking note of why and how Grammarly suggests you improve your writing, this is how you learn for your future writing.
9. Hire a book/writing coach or editor.
To really power up your writing skills, hire a professional. Book coaches can help you with your outline development to get you off on the right foot, they can keep you accountable (don’t underestimate the importance of this!), and they can help you overcome the challenges of writing. You can use a book coach for your entire book, or just for a certain section you’re getting stuck on. They will review what you’ve written, and tell you how to improve. You can even hire a coach to teach you just about one certain writing technique — they will help you build that skill, and encourage you.
You can also work with an editor to give you a critique of your work so far. This is usually more of an evaluation, where they will look at different aspects of your writing including organization, structure, writing style, etc.
Search for a book or writing coach, or an editor on Google.
Contact them and make sure you are clear about what you want. Not all book coaches are writing coaches, and not all writing coaches are book coaches. Not all editors can critique in this way. Be clear with them what it is you want and ask for references.
Don’t take their critiques personally, just learn from them. You are paying them to help you improve your writing, don’t waste your money by being offended. Everyone can improve their writing, even J.K. Rowling.
Contact me if you’d like a list of book/writing coaches and editors I recommend.
10. Resonate with your audience by understanding who they are and their verbiage.
Your audience should never be “everyone”. In order to be a better author, you must know who it is you’re writing for. The more specific you can be the better. Who do you most want to resonate with?
The best way to answer this is by answering a different question first:
What are your goals for your book?
To get to the bottom of your goals for your book, ask yourself the following:
What are some outcomes you want from publishing your book?
After you publish, and you’re standing there with your freshly printed book in your hand, what will you do with it?
How are you planning on using your book?
What will writing & publishing this book allow you to do that you couldn’t do without it?
Once you’ve honed in on your book goals, you can then use them to figure out exactly who your audience will be:
Based on those goals, who do you think your primary audience will be?
Write down the demographics of anyone you think would be in your audience — what are their ages on average, their preferences, etc?
What do you know about your target audience?
Write about a day in the life of an audience member’s shoes.
Now that you know exactly who your audience will be, you can be more mindful of what words you use and how you use them while writing your book. For example, if your readers are more experienced in your industry, you would not want your word choices to be too basic, and you would want to avoid over-explaining points they are likely to already know. The information would seem too trivial for your prospective audience.
However, if your audience were lay people, you would want to avoid advanced jargon, otherwise your target audience might be scared of the complexity of your words. They might not even give your book a go if they thought it was too advanced for them, judging just by your word choices.
Is there slang or jargon that your particular audience uses? Can you increase their trust in you by using words they’d resonate with? What are cliché words and phrases in your industry? Decide whether using them would make your audience feel more comfortable, or would it make their eyes roll — this usually comes down to how sophisticated the audience is.
There is so much power in knowing exactly who your audience is. Remember, if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no-one. Even Harry Potter had haters.
11. Become an authority by editing out passive voice.
Passive voice is a style of writing, where the person or thing that is being targeted by the action of the sentence is moved to the start of the sentence rather than the end. For example:
The chair was sat on by me.
The puppy is loved by Paul
In the above examples, the chair and the puppy are the things being acted upon, at the beginning of the sentence. It’s called passive voice because the subject — the person or thing at the beginning of the sentence, where the focus is — isn’t doing anything, they’re passive. The puppy and the chair are being acted upon.
A much stronger way to write is in active voice. For example:
I sat on the chair.
Paul loves the puppy.
The subjects here, at the beginning of the sentence, are Paul and me. Paul and I are being active, we are actively sitting and loving, Paul and I are the focus of the sentence.
Active voice sounds more certain to the reader — therefore if you want to come across as the authority, you should aim to write in active voice as much as possible.
Search your writing for to be phrases such as “was,” “were,” or “is”. Then do a quick check: if the sentence ends with “by someone or something ”, or if you could add “by someone” at the end of the sentence, then it’s probably a passive sentence.
I read the book.
This does not end with “by someone”, nor could you add it to the end have the sentence still make sense. This sentence is active, not passive.
The book was read.
This does not end with “by someone”, but you could add it at the end of the sentence and have it make sense: The book was read by Jane. This indicates that the sentence is passive and should be altered to: Jane read the book.
A word of caution though — technically, passive isn’t always wrong.
The library was burnt down by the fire.
This sentence does end with “by something”, so it is passive. Depending on what you want to focus on, this may be the correct form. If you want to emphasize that it was the library that was burnt down because the library is more pertinent to the story than the fire, then it should stay passive, reading as above. However, if this part of your story is emphasizing the fact that it was the fire that burnt everything down, then the sentence should read: The fire burnt down the library.
Handy hint: Grammarly will pick up instances of passive voice for you so you don’t have to search for “to be” verbs yourself!
12. Be more engaging by editing soft action verbs.
Weak action words bring your writing down to a more basic level, and can be more boring for your audience to read.
This check is best done after you’ve written a smaller section, as it can be difficult to do a search of your entire document for weak verbs. If you’ve already written your manuscript, just read through it with weak action verbs in mind.
These are the sorts of verbs you are looking out for:
Is, Am, Are, Was, Were
Be, Being, Been
Have, Has, Had
Do, Does, Did
Shall, Will, Should, Would, May, Might, Must
Sometimes you simply need these words, but often you don’t. Read through your work and anytime a sentence sounds dull, it’s likely to be because of one of these words:
I would suggest you and your friend go outside, right now!
Removing the “would”: I suggest you and friend go outside, right now!
Figuring out why a person is the reason for the problem is what makes for an interesting case.
Removing the soft verbs: Figuring out why a person creates a problem makes for an interesting case.
In both the examples above, removing the weak verbs makes the sentences more powerful. It doesn’t necessarily mean thumbing through the pages of a dictionary for hours, both these examples use “normal” verbs — I just made the sentence less impotent.
Verbs ending in “…ing” are equally weak, and luckily are very easy to fix:
He was taking…
It was facing north.
These could both easily be switched to, he took, and, it faced north, which sound more powerful and authoritative.
13. Submerse readers in your story by editing “to be” verbs.
Similar to the last point, give “to be” verbs stronger symbolism. This time, instead of just changing the verb, trying rearranging the whole sentence to create more of an impact.
Search your document for am, is and were.
He was suddenly overcome by a surge of rage.
Rage is a better adjective than anger so you’re part of the way to a compelling sentence, but that pesky “to be” verb is holding you back: was overcome.
An easy trick to making this sentence much more captivating is to visualize what the subject is actually, physically doing. Then use more powerful verbs to capture that action. For example, you might change a sentence like the above to:
He suddenly swiveled on a heel, face seething with rage and started towards me.
14. Go on a which hunt (also that):
This one is truly simple. Search your writing for the words “which” and “that”. If it makes sense, remove the words from the sentence altogether. Remember, the less fluff, the more powerful your writing is.
He needed to delete the file that was on the desktop
By removing “that,” the sentence still makes sense and it’s more concise: He needed to delete the file from the desktop.
Sophia hesitated, she didn’t want him to panic about the spider which was on his head
This sentence would simply change to, Sophia hesitated, she didn’t want him to panic about the spider on his head.
In many cases you can just delete the "that" or "which”.
15. Edit adverbs ending in “ly”:
Another easy way to spot weak sentences is to search for adverbs, or words ending with “…ly,” and replace these adverbs with a more powerful verb.
He smiled happily at her.
This could rather be, he beamed at her.
“Beamed” creates a much more powerful image in your head than “smiled happily.”
16. Edit prepositions: to, in, at, for, etc. for wordy phrases.
Clear, concise writing usually reads more professionally. Make your arguments authoritative and easy to understand by editing out wordy phrases and sentences. This can be done by searching for prepositions such as to, in, at, for, as. Replace wordy phrases with more concise ones:
As of late: lately
Cause harm to: harm
For the duration of: during, throughout
In the midst of: during, throughout
At this point in time: currently, now, or can often be removed altogether.
Due to the fact that: Because
17. Don’t lose readers with overcomplicated phrases
Pumping up the quality of your verbiage will definitely improve your writing and make you a better author, however be warned: be colloquial when you should! I know it’s tempting to use the thesaurus when you’ve used the same word three times in the chapter already, but make sure you’re keeping it real. Don’t use obscure words when normal words work better, in an attempt to make your writing more interesting.
Would you say, "Hey, why don’t we bounce (or canter, frolic, gambol, leap) into the pool to cool off?” If you wouldn’t say it, then your character probably shouldn’t either. Hop or jump would’ve worked great here, as in, Hey, why don’t we hop in the pool to cool off?.
Remember, you don’t have to do every item on this list to become a better non-fiction author. Pick whichever ones you think you can implement today and start there. When you have the time, go back and apply the rest. Even using just one of these tactics will improve your writing.
Let me know in the comments which of these you are going to try first, or if you have any other great pointers on becoming a better writer, post them below too!