How not to write a book: 5 mistakes to avoid when writing nonfiction

As a nonfiction book editor, I see my fair share of great first drafts, but also some pretty average ones. A mediocre first draft isn’t too much to worry about if you have a talented editor to help you get it into shape. But if you can avoid making these mistakes in the first place, you don’t necessarily need to hire an editor. So, let’s take a look at the five biggest mistakes that I regularly see in nonfiction manuscripts. That way, you can avoid them when you’re writing your book.

1. The shambles  

There’s little worse in a book than a chaotic mess that the reader can’t follow. If a book lacks structure, order, and flow, then it doesn’t present a clear journey for the reader. This makes for frustrating reading and means it’s difficult for the reader to achieve their goals or overcome their problems. This error generally happens when the author didn’t have a plan—or had a plan but didn’t stick to it. Of course, it’s possible to impose a structure after the book has been written, but it’s far easier to start with a plan and expand out from it.

2. The waffle 

We’ve all read (or more like not read) books that were 100 pages too long. Books that waffled on, with too much “padding”, wordiness, and repetition. It’s important to remember that readers most likely have a massive TBR stack and a busy life, so they don’t like their time being wasted. And they probably won’t finish it. Writing too much often happens because the author had a magical and often mythical word count in mind (you find out more about word count here). Readers’ time is precious, so don’t write more than you need to write. Less is more.

3. The ghost 

In this sad tale, a well-intentioned author wrote a book because they truly wanted to help people. Unfortunately, they weren’t clear on who they wanted to help and where their expertise was best directed. As a result, the book doesn’t help anyone. This often happens when authors want to help “everyone”. Unfortunately, if you try to speak to everyone, you end up speaking to no one. As such, it’s vital to have a clear, specific audience group in mind when you’re writing. Hone in on their lifestyle, goals, and problems. Know your audience and write for them.

4. The ego 

While an author may start writing with the best intentions to help others, it’s easy for the ego to take over. Suddenly, the author is talking about themselves more than they’re talking to the reader. They’re reeling off their in-depth life story and sending the reader to sleep. Telling the reader your story is important to build rapport and credibility, but unless you’re super famous and writing your memoirs, the book should be for the reader, not about you. So, when you write about yourself, take an honest, objective look at whether it’s there for them or you.

5. The gambler 

There are many risks you can take in a book, but the risk of getting sued shouldn’t be one of them. When you use information, ideas, or quotes that you’ve gained from other sources, you absolutely need to reference where they came from. (Note that for quotes under 100 years old, you need to gain permission to reprint from the publisher.) Nobody likes referencing or gaining legal permission. But getting sued for copyright breach is far less fun. If someone else said it first, then credit them for it.

What next? 

Once you’ve written your book and avoided these pitfalls, the question is what to do next? Is it time to hire an editor, a designer, or a proofreader? Do you go straight to publishing? In the next blog, we’ll look at what to do when your first draft is ready, so stay tuned! For now, watch out for these five nonfiction mistakes on your writing journey and you’ll see the reward in positive reviews and increased book sales!