Writing your first non-fiction book?

David Craig remembers the lessons he learnt writing his first book.

Are you considering writing your first non-fiction book? If so, how do you start?

The reason I pose this question is that I was recently approached by someone who had read one of my books, Squandered (published in 2008) and this had inspired them to produce their own book. They had sent their book to the usual agents and publishers and got the usual, mostly automatic standard rejections. So, they approached me and asked if I could help.

I read the book and felt that hidden inside was a really powerful story. Unfortunately, the book was 137,000 words long and had a title that was far too subtle for me to understand. Though, perhaps I was lucky. At least the author didn’t send me the original 200,000-word version – about the same length as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

I suspect that the basic problem with the book was that it contained everything the writer wanted to say in the way they wanted to say it rather than them thinking through what the reader really wanted to hear and how to best communicate that.

So I thought back to how I approached my first non-fiction book.

First the length. In an age of every-shortening attention spans, you have to have a pretty powerful message to keep anyone’s interest for much over 75,000 words (about 300 pages). In fact, if you can’t present your proposition in 300 pages, then you may have a problem with excessive verbiage you should deal with.

Then structure: as my background was working as a management consultant running organisational efficiency projects, I approached my first book like I would a project. I broke the book down into easily manageable pieces of work. If I was going to write about 75,000 words, then that meant around fourteen or fifteen chapters of around 5,000 words each. This hugely simplified the task of writing a book because now all I had to do was write fourteen or fifteen 5,000-word essays. By splitting the book into these fourteen or fifteen easily digestible chapters, the task of writing a book somehow seemed easier than when being faced with the need to produce 75,000 words. Moreover, to make the book even more digestible for readers, I split these fourteen or fifteen chapters into three to four sections of just a few chapters each.

The title: with so much information overload nowadays, my inclination was to avoid excessive subtlety or creativity in my choice of titles. Some of my titles – Rip-Off, Squandered, The Great European Rip-Off, The Great Charity Scandal, Don’t Buy It! and The Great University Con – may seem a little too ‘in-yer-face’ for many writers. But at least readers know what to expect when deciding whether to buy my books. This approach – thinking through what the reader wanted to hear rather than what I wanted to say; keeping to around 75,000 words; splitting the book into three to four clear sections and fourteen to fifteen easily-digestible 5,000-word chapters and choosing ‘what-it-says-on-the-tin’ titles helped me with the ten books I have now had published.

Of course, my approach is not for everyone and some people may find it too ‘mechanical’. But some new authors might find this useful when approaching their first book.

David Craig is an agency writer and is happy to collaborate with new authors on their first non-fiction book. His latest book THE GREAT UNIVERSITY CON written with Hugh Openshaw has just been published.

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David Craig

For over 20 years, David Craig has worked for and competed against some of the world's best and worst management consultancies. He has sold consulting in 15 countries in Europe, US and Asia to almost 100 organizations, including Disney, Mobil, Dupont, Roche, Air France, Eurotunnel, The NHS, CapGe...More about David Craig