How to Write a Great Non-Fiction Book, Probably
25 Mar 2017
Instead of my usual musing about anxiety & brains & life & things, today I’m going to answer some questions I got sent about how to write a book.
Specifically, my correspondent wanted to know how to write a great non-fiction book.
Before you say it… god knows why they came to me.
I certainly don’t claim to be a world expert in writing non-fiction. At best, I’m probably the world’s foremost humorously custard-based mental health writer.
Even so, my comedy book about anxiety has been surprisingly successful, so perhaps something in my experience might be useful to somebody.
As I started replying to the email, I realised this might benefit from being more widely shared. So here we are.
How to Write a Book, A Bit:
1) Outlining the book is one thing I’m struggling with, how did you outline your book? (e.g. did you plot your personal story on a story arc to help shape the book?)
One of the goals of Walking on Custard was to put into logical order everything I’d learned about anxiety.
In other words, if I went back in time to when my anxiety was at its worst – what would be the FIRST thing I ought to teach myself?
And then what would be the next thing? And so on…
That’s because in real life, the journey was far from smooth. I learned many useful lessons, but all out of order. I got a little lost, many times.
So the book was to make sense of that journey, and sharing the benefit of that experience with others.
Specifically I realised that I needed to start with ‘myself’ – the internal, mental issues like ‘how does my brain work’, ‘how do I relate to myself’, ‘what do I have control over’, etc.
After that it made sense to expand outwards to other people, then to goals and desires and systems, and eventually all the way to death and the meaning of life itself.
So that “zooming out” from inside myself outwards to the wider universe became my structure.
I listed the topics I wanted to explore, and put them into order: from deep internal fundamentals, right the way out to the deep mysteries of the universe.
Of course, that specific ‘how to write a book’ advice isn’t transferable directly to any other book, but I think the process is reproducible, and goes something like:
- Consider the number of ‘steps of inference’ required to explain your idea. (i.e. what’s the FIRST thing someone needs to learn to understand your main idea… and then the next, then the next…)
- Come up with an overarching structure that provides a narrative to your idea.
2) Non-Fiction books can read a bit dryly, how did you ensure an exciting reader journey?
I’ve always had a drive to make jokes, and I usually struggle to keep humorous observations out of formal work I’m doing. But because this was MY book, I didn’t censor myself. Instead, I turned my natural impulses up to eleven.
This meant I did things like include little fantasy stories which helped to illustrate what I was talking about. If I felt like putting in a story about a wizard in between chapters about psychology, then I did it.
Naturally, I was worried about this.* I was concerned that ‘being myself’ could be annoying, but in the two years (!!!) since the book came out, not one person has complained to me about this.
* (Of course, “naturally”, I worried about everything, hence the anxiety in the first place. But you know what I mean!)
I think readers respond to authenticity, which comes from us being genuinely ourselves.
Of course, that means we won’t appeal to everyone, but sometimes fear of ‘putting people off’ leads us to tone ourselves down. If we do that we end up not appealing to our natural audience, instead creating something that’s tolerable to everyone, but exciting to no-one.
In my case, I suspect that for everyone who is put off by my humour, somebody else finds a book which really speaks to them. My favourite compliments are when I’m told reading the book felt like they’d made a friend. I put enough of myself into it that it felt that they were really talking to me, which is just what I’d hoped!
So the answer here is simply: be yourself, as hard as you can.
That’ll be very different to me being me, or other authors being them. And that’s fine. Some people will love your style, others will be put off, but that’s fine too!
3) When you shared personal struggles with your audience and how you overcame them, were they given raw, detailed exposures?
If you’ve read Walking on Custard you’ll see that I shared some very raw, difficult moments. Not just the suicidality and anxiety, but also the vulnerability of recovery.
I felt this was necessary to tell my story. I didn’t want to gloss over the hard parts.
And I very much didn’t want to paint myself as some ‘perfect guru with all the answers’. Instead, I wanted to demonstrate that it’s possible to struggle with anxiety while writing a book about anxiety… and that that’s fine! Part of the point was to show that anxiety doesn’t need to stop us from doing big, scary, vulnerable things.
Plus any dodging around the issue would be so obvious: “I had anxiety and it was bad, and here’s my tips to handle it” might be fine, but isn’t especially compelling.
As a practical tip for this, I found that it helped to be vulnerable about the vulnerability itself.
So as my Inner Critic piped up in my head while I was writing – “you suck, this book sucks” – I responded by writing the inner critic into the book.
(This really annoyed my inner critic, but helped me to relate to them, and I think it made the book more relatable than if I’d pretended not to have an inner critic in the first place.)
4) How do you move from that personal story to giving someone applicable, or easy to use action steps?
Ha. I have no idea how to answer this.
My style tends to be conversational and silly, so after finishing a vulnerable story I might be tempted to make a joke, or draw a graph about dairy products, or write a parody of a children’s story, and to somehow use the above to provide a practical tip.
I tried to ALSO state plainly what I was trying to say. Usually I’d try to demonstrate every point I was making several times: once in a story, once in some abstract thoughts or jokes, and once just straight up: “So what I’m saying is, doing X helps you to solve Y and it works because Z”.
This wasn’t a strict rule, but I think it worked for me, and kept the book fun while also communicating clearly.
5) What are some good tips for communicating to your reader in a supportive fashion rather than a top-down/”do this”/authoritative voice?
Again, I think this comes down to managing your own ego. I never ever got close to being tempted to see myself as anything other than a human sharing his story.
I aimed to gently offer my thoughts and experiences, and giving the reader space to analyse/accept/reject them as they see fit. If I made the argument well enough, then it would be clear why this particular anxiety tip is useful for them. (Or not, if their circumstances are different, but I usually tried to explore that where possible too.)
My perspective was more “hey, let me tell you some things you might like, and let’s have fun while we talk about it”, rather than “I shall descend from my Holy Mountain and you will be grateful for my wisdom.”
That said, I believe there is a place for authoritative voices too. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, as well as the exact nature of your authority to speak on any given subject.
6) If you’ve received any feedback from your readers about the story or structure, what would you have done to improve it?
HOW DARE YOU IMPLY MY BOOK COULD POSSIBLY BE IMPROVED
… ahem. As I was saying, managing your ego is important.
Anyway, of course I’m sure there’s lots I could improve about Walking on Custard.
Even on the day it was released, part of me wanted to work on it more, to polish it, to add things, to take them away… but that process can go on forever. Once it reached the point where it was done, anything after that wouldn’t actually have improved it that much.
(In fact, one of the chapters talks about perfectionism, and how ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. If I made it better in one way, it necessarily makes it worse in another. e.g. if I made it more authoritative – now it feels less human. And vice versa.)
But even with hindsight… I don’t think there’s anything in there that I would remove. There are things I’ve learned since it came out that I might add. But on the whole it said everything I had to say at the time, and I’m still pleased with the structure, and the journey it takes the reader on, and the help it provides along the way.
The early drafts sucked, of course, but you have to go through those and keep going until you hit a point where you feel okay with it.
7) Could you recommend anyone I should reach out to with similar questions? If not, any books that have this format that you recommend reading?
This is the hardest question!
I’m not aware of any books with quite the slant of Walking on Custard
(In fact, I’m often asked which shelf it should be found on in a bookshop, and I honestly have NO idea. Is it humour? Autobiography? Self-help? Fantasy fiction? All of the above?!)
But I’m sure I’ve read some great personal books which also provide practical advice. I just can’t think of any off the top of my head.
So what I’ll do is, leave this part of the post open and make a list as they occur to me.
I hope these inexpert thoughts have been helpful! There’s a lot of ‘how to write a book’ stuff out there, so hopefully this can provide a little useful ingredient to you.
I’d love to know if you do find anything useful.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.