Why You? Identifying Your Why for Stronger Nonfiction Books (Part 2)
We all want to write a book people will read. For fiction authors, the goal is to entertain, enthrall, and occasionally educate. For nonfiction authors, the goal is (usually) to impart some wisdom, help a reader who may be in a similar situation, help the reader improve themselves, or educate.
In Part 1 of this series, the big question to answer is: what is it about this topic that makes your perspective unique? Or in business speak, what is your unique selling proposition? If you haven’t read it, I recommend you go back and do so.
In this part, I’ll cover the second question: why are you writing this book? Knowing what you’re bringing to the table will keep you motivated to not only write the book but also to sell it. Yes, you not only sell the topic when you market the book, but also yourself.
Writing a book is scary. Not only is it a big undertaking requiring many hours of work, but you also have to put it out there for others to read. While writing a manuscript and giving it to an editor, beta reader, friend, or anonymous stranger to read, you’ll most likely face the big writing fear — impostor syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Even when you know the content going into your book, you can still question your ability to write it. Most writers, except for those unicorns out there, face impostor syndrome at some (okay, many) points in their careers.
Impostor syndrome can be as small as “I don’t think my grammar is good,” to as large as “my writing sucks,” “I have nothing to say,” “no one will read it,” “who will listen to me,” etc. It also sneaks up on you just when you think you have it foiled and/or just had a big win.
Individuals facing impostor syndrome feel “their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud,” according to a 2011 study by Jaruwan Sakulki and James Alexander entitled “The Imposter Phenomenon,” which is based on Dr. Pauline’s groundbreaking study in 1985 on the topic.
Intellectual fraud is an obstacle many writers I have worked with have faced, even if they have spent their entire careers working in the field in which they are writing. I’ll say that again — they are successful at their topic and still feel like a fraud when they sit down to write about it.
It’s a tricky beast and can paralyze you from finishing your book. While this article isn’t about how to overcome impostor syndrome, reminding yourself why you are an authority on this topic can help combat it. Remember your successes — that first chapter, finding the perfect piece of research, or nailing an interview — and use that as a springboard to keep you moving forward.
I also recommend making sure you have a support system in place to remind you how much you’ve accomplished. This can be another writer, a family member, a friend, a mentor, or a combination thereof. The person(s) in this role can give you examples of what you’ve overcome, your successes, and your desire for the book you’re sitting down to write.
Knowing why you feel qualified to write your book will go a long way to help you combat impostor syndrome. It will also give you a better idea as to how much external research you’ll need to do to make the book credible for your readers.
Authority & Credibility
If you ask any random human out there what makes one book credible over the other, they’ll always start with the author and their credentials for writing about the topic. Being a respected contributor in the field is one way to determine that, but you can also be credible if it’s your life story, your experiences, and/or you’ve done the research.
When you get to this part of the question, what you want to ask yourself is: What is it about your experiences, life, way of thinking, or perception of the world or this topic that makes it necessary for you to write this book? What is it that makes your idea and the way you present it special?
If you’ve read the first article in this series, I’m sure you’re wondering how that is different from the unique selling proposition of your topic. The difference is this: the answer to the first question is what you’re writing about; the answer to the second question (this one) is how you’re going to write it. It’s about your voice, your perspective, and what your experience brings to the content, rather than the uniqueness of the content itself.
To add clarity, let’s look at a few examples. Writer A and writer B are both writing about the sex life of ants.
- Writer A wants to discuss how the ants’ behavior impacts their society in the colony.
- Writer B wants to discuss the biological implications of an ant’s sex life across the forest in which they live.
It’s the same topic, but not the same approach — the unique what of the book.
Now, let’s break down the two writers and their credibility to write them — the why you part of the discussion.
- Writer A is a sociologist, who has studied a variety of sociological topics, including those of insects.
- Writer B is a biologist, who has studied the long-term impacts of the natural world.
Let’s add a nuance:
- Writer A is a PhD student. They’ve published a few papers and are working on their dissertation. They’ve done the research and they’ve extrapolated the data, but have no real world experience outside of their university years.
- Writer B has a Bachelor’s in Science. They’ve spent their careers working in research institutes and have helped out on numerous studies. They also have access to some of the top scientists in the field to interview and add to their research material in their book.
Are both credible? Yes. Your credibility to write about the topic doesn’t have to be a degree or years of study, even though you (and your impostor syndrome sidekick) may think you do.
For those writers who don’t have experience in the field (either research or work experience), you can still be credible as long as you include people who are authorities in the book. This could be quotes from their work, books, or appearances, or you could also conduct interviews. In other words, you get your authority by the credible sources you include in the book.
For memoir writers, you have the easiest response to this question, because you’ve lived the experience you’re writing about. You may still want to interview those who were in your life at that particular time, though, to make sure your memory of the moment is as accurate as possible.
For creative nonfiction writers, you fall somewhere in the middle and it depends how creative you want to be. If you lean more heavily on the narrative side, follow the memoir writer’s advice. If you lean more on the nonfiction side, follow the nonfiction’s advice. It’s more about balance in your case, since you straddle the line.
The most important thing to remember when tackling this question is why you feel you have what it takes to present the topic properly, no matter how you get there. As long as you have the goods, readers will see you as credible.
One of the key roles I play as a writing coach and development editor has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with the writer. I’m there to cheer them on, nudge them when they’re not getting the work done, and remind them of how much they’ve accomplished so far. And it almost always includes their authority on the topic, which is why this question is just as important as what topic they’re writing about.
Now that you know why this topic and why you, the next question is crucial. The most important part? It’s not about you at all, but it’s arguably the most important one of the bunch.
Stay tuned for the last and final question in this series: Why should readers read your book? (aka what’s in it for them?). It’s a doozy.
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.