Why This Topic? Identifying Your Why for Stronger Nonfiction Books (Part 1)

I have random piles of books scattered throughout my house that I’m planning on donating. Some were gifts, some impulse buys, but most (unfortunately) are nonfiction.

I’m a re-reader, whether that is fiction, mystery, or nonfiction. I’ve got nonfiction books on my shelf that, when I first read them, I poured over the first part, skimmed the second, and cherry-picked points out of the third. Only to find myself returning years later in a different point in life where the second and third parts spoke to me instead.

That’s the beauty of nonfiction (and fiction too). Sometimes the sections of the book that appeal to you when you first pick it up won’t appeal to you later, but something else will.

What I don’t like, however, is picking up a nonfiction book and thinking it is the topic for me, only to put it down after I read most of the first chapter. When this initially happens, I give the book another chance at a separate time. It could be my current mindset or that it doesn’t resonate with me yet.

If the second read also fails, then something else is wrong with the book (for me). At this point, I peel it apart with my editor tools and typically find that it wasn’t my perspective or mindset that stopped my engagement; it was the entire book.

But what wasn’t working, and how can it be improved? @cass

Intent & Failure to Capture

When writers craft a nonfiction novel about their experiences, life events, or research, their intent is (I hope) for good. They want to share their story, thinking, or experiences and hope others can learn from it.

How you as the author present that material — creative nonfiction, memoir or general nonfiction — is important not only to convey your ideas but also to appeal to the reader. You can have all the best intentions in the world, but you will fall short if you forget who you’re writing for and why you are writing it.

This is what I find to be the biggest mistake nonfiction writers make — they don’t ask their why questions: Why you, why this book, and why readers should read it. Fail to answer any of these and you can end up with a so-so book that readers like me set down after the initial thrill and never pick up again.

Fixing a disconnected nonfiction book is boiled down to answering a few important questions before you start writing. You can do this by journaling, navel gazing, taking a walk, or being tortured by a toddler. The questions are these:

  • Why are you writing this book?
  • Why are you writing this book?
  • Why should readers read your book?

In the first part of this article series, I’ll tackle the first question on why you’re writing about this topic. It seems simple, but there is more than one question to answer about the topic you have chosen.

You want to know why you picked the topic, because knowing the motivation behind the choice of topic will keep you on track to finish the book. Second, it will frame the way you write about the topic, or your author’s voice. And third, it will determine the type of material you’ll need to gather in order to write it.

Let’s get into it.

Motivation & the Finishing Line

There’s a statistic floating around the web that has no attributing source, but it’s this: Only 3% of writers ever finish their first draft. While the statistic might be inaccurate, the reasons behind it aren’t.

Writing a book is hard. Sitting down to pound out word after word on your computer can be arduous. Writer’s block, distractions, and not knowing where to even start are compounded by life, family, and work.

Add to that a topic you’re not very enthusiastic about, or a topic requiring a lot of research (some of it tedious), or a topic with which you don’t emotionally connect, or any other reason that makes sitting down to write difficult, and you’ve created a procrastination monster.

Let’s say, however, you power through and get that first draft done. Great! Except . . . the first draft is just that — the first draft. It’s where you figure out how you want to write about the topic and what you cover.

Then, you have 1,572 thousand edit passes in front of you to tighten the language, rearrange the content, clarify your points, and fix those pesky grammar errors. (It’s not 1,572 edit passes, but it’ll feel like it when you’re done). Add in an idea you’re not jazzed about . . . and you get the idea.

Before you begin to write, you should ask yourself the following:

  • What is it about this moment, this topic, these stories, this research, etc., that begs you to put it down on paper? Does it inspire you? Thrill you? Make you want to a spend hours down a research rabbit hole?
  • What’s your unique selling proposition for your book? I.e, what is it about your perspective that makes the idea unique? What will make your book stand out from the others like it on the shelf?

If you can’t answer these questions within a few minutes of asking them (even if you’re not completely coherent), then you shouldn’t write the book yet. Spend more time and break the idea down or split it into different parts to see what it is that really excites you. And then, go write the book about that.

Your passion and enthusiasm for your topic will be tested throughout the writing and publishing phase, so if you’re choosing a topic because it’s trendy but aren’t excited about, you might want to think again.

Thus, be clear on why you’re writing this book specifically and not some random book on the sex life of ants. What is it about the topic, the way you want to present it, or the experiences you’ve had that make it worth your time to write?

Once you’ve gotten that down, the next question is what narrative type will the book be.

Structure and Materials

Knowing what kind of book — memoir, creative nonfiction, nonfiction — and the topic you’re writing about will guide you as to narrative style, what your initial stories could be, and what materials you need to gather for it.

The narrative could be heavily personal (memoirs, for example), partially personal (creative nonfiction, for example), heavy research and/or interviews of credible sources in the space (nonfiction), or a mix of personal stories and research.

Once you answer this question or at least attempt to, the next part of the journey is made more clear — what material you need to have at your fingertips as you begin to write. Preparing for your writing session will make them more productive and keep you going back for more.

For example, a memoir will be filled with personal stories, but you may need to talk to the people in your life to refresh your memory, read your journals, dig through travel research, etc. For creative nonfiction, it could be personal stories and also research on the topic (either external research or interviews). For nonfiction, you may need to do a lot of research first before you sit down to write.

A formula that has always helped me get my butt in the chair is this: Action (writing your first nugget or story) equals momentum (the ability to keep going) and momentum equals passion (the desire or eagerness to do it more than once). This is how you get that book finished.

One last thing. You don’t need to know what the book structure (narrative style, chapters, themes, etc.) will be before you start writing it. Many writers figure that out along the way or when working with a development editor.

It will help you, however, to figure out what kind of stories to write and what materials you’ll need to gather before you start. This, in turn, will help you figure out how much time each week you’ll need for writing and how much you’ll need for research.

Knowing how much time you’ll need to set aside to write the book will keep you on track. If you don’t set aside time on a consistent basis, you’ll make inconsistent progress and won’t create the momentum you need to finish. While writing every day is ideal, you don’t need to write every day to finish a book.

However, you do need to be as consistent as possible when writing so you finish the manuscript. Neil Gaiman wrote Coraline while writing another book. He didn’t have a lot of time, so he wrote it with just fifty words a day. If you’re aiming for a 40,000 word book, that’s just over two years of work. It’s not fast, but it will be finished, which is the goal, right?

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons someone will put down your book. It could be the tone, the perspective, the way you approach the topic, or that life got in the way and they didn’t pick up your book again. Some of this is subjective and personal to the reader, and you can’t control it.

What you can control is your why. Most writers I work with are jazzed the more they discover about their topic when writing their manuscripts. It fuels them when they get stuck, are overwhelmed by life, or mired in the saggy middle of the book. It keeps them going when they’re on their third revision and sick of reading their own words. It’s something to celebrate when they finally see it in print.

Writing is hard. Finishing a book is even harder. If you don’t know what it is about the topic that inspires you to plonk away at a keyboard for weeks and months, you’ll be less likely to finish the book.

Knowing what you want to write, preparing yourself for the writing process, and being consistent in getting the words down on the paper will help you achieve your goal of writing a book. Being clear on why this topic will keep you motivated to come back for more, even when you don’t think you can.

I really want you to finish the book you’re dreaming up, even if I’ll never read it. Because someone else out there needs it, wants it, or will learn from that book, and if you don’t write it, they can’t. Pick your topic wisely and go forth to do great things.

In part two of this series, we’ll cover the second question: why are you writing this book? This won’t inform the topic, but it will inform how you tackle the materials and what you bring to the table.

Cassandra Stirling writes about nonfiction, memoir, and fiction writing tips, book reviews, and random deeper thoughts on writing. You can find all her writing at cassandracstirling.medium.com. Her urban fantasy series, The Space Between, is available at all major retailers.

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