How to Determine What to Write Your First Nonfiction Book About


Some authors want to write. They are addicted to putting words down on paper. It is cathartic and entertaining. They love the social identity that comes with the territory of being "a writer." Such people define themselves by their struggle as bleeding artists for a noble cause that few others can understand. Talking about the book they are working on provides the same social reward as actually writing the book, so they follow a very inefficient yet outspoken path to finishing it.

The opposite of this is the author who cares only about making the finished product work the best it can be. An outcome-oriented approach may seem counterintuitive to writers who have learned to love the journey of writing, not the destination they thought they were traveling to. It's natural for us to associate greater value with things that require greater effort. While there are many scenarios in life where focusing on the process of creation is the ideal choice, it can become your worst enemy as an author undertaking a large and intensive project.When a writer focuses on the process of writing, they create roadblocks to production. They just want to "do," never to "be done." The same habit manifests in every area of life where we fall into patterns of chronic problem-solving. We cease looking for permanent solutions to liberate us from the tyranny of symptom fighting. This fundamental flaw in the human psyche keeps most people locked into narrowly defined cycles without significant progress in any of life's domains.

Some writers refuse to let their babies grow up, obsessed with perfecting their work to the point where they are making mindless nitpicks or ruining a passage that was already in its ideal state. It's a vicious cycle that keeps the troubled writer working harder and harder just to stay in the same place with their manuscript. They have nothing to look forward to, only the imperfections present before them.

A creator who values their time focuses on the outcome they intend to produce. They want to reach their outcome most efficiently and effectively, never sacrificing their vision, so that they may free their time to focus on the next inspiration when it arises. They must not fall in love with an idea and become distracted by the process of planning and crafting.Further, if an author grows attached to something they have written, merely because it took much effort or emotional activation to write it the way they did, they will not clearly see what ought best be revised or eliminated about it as they edit their work. If they are required to kill portions of what they have birthed for the good of the book's quality, they will lament the loss. It will be difficult to make unbiased decisions about optimizing the transmission they intend. The unwillingness to kill one's darlings is a manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy that prevents people from walking away from their mistakes simply because they have spent a long time making them.

Composition Hurdles

Some people are gifted with fluidity of composition. They can seamlessly articulate whatever appears in mind. Exceptional writers who can churn out 10,000 words or more in a single day love to boast of their rapid progress. They make casually paced writers feel inadequate for their inability to keep up. Yet, these hyper-typists may be the ones who never complete a single polished and publishable work. Ample creative faculty, without discipline or focus, does not result in creation.People with a message who hate the act of writing may actually be more likely to finish authoring a book than people who love the act of writing. They have set their goal and will find the most efficient way to achieve it. They aren't infatuated by struggle. Writing is just the means to get where they know they must go. They want to finish what they start as quickly as they can, so long as they do not sacrifice the quality they initially set out for. The writer who focuses on the outcome and not the process will walk away with a finished book long before the writer who is in love with voicing their own thoughts.

Holding the motivation to see a large project through to completion is difficult for people who have never had to delay gratification for months or years before seeing any reward. They must adopt a larger time-scale perspective. They must find the strength to see the process through the hard times where inspiration and resilience seem lacking. They must know what they are trying to accomplish and keep that purpose in mind at every step. Even if they are truly dedicated, the writing and publishing can take much longer than they anticipate for reasons they can't control.

Motivation from Money

The unfortunate truth of selling books is that the majority of self-published authors never make any significant income from their work. They may not even make back the amount they invest in publishing processes like editing, cover design, and promotion. For the self-published author who learns how the market works and can tailor their books to reader demands, each book becomes a new source of sustainable income. The reliable expectation of monetary reward is extra incentive they can use to both finish their work quickly and ensure that it is the best it can be.

Additional income is a useful catalyst for action. Money is a useful means for making the abstract concrete. We all have spent a lifetime learning to assess the value of things by their monetary cost. People know what an extra $500 feels like. It's concrete. There's an immediate emotional reward. We cannot react the same to the abstract concept of being a successful author or its many long-term benefits.
The income opportunities made possible by publishing a book don't end with book royalties from copies sold. There's a trite saying among internet entrepreneurs that "the book is the new business card." It's their way of saying that professionals of a certain caliber of expertise are expected to have authored a book detailing their knowledge or unique approach to what they do. The author can then slap a poorly photoshopped headshot on the cover, pick a generic, hyperbolic title to summarize the theme of the book, and print copies for a couple of dollars apiece and give them away or sell them at their networking events and speaking gigs. It's a low-risk and lazy way for them to try to boost their brand authority.

Motivation from Meaning

Maybe you don't care about the money you will make or the boost in publicity you will receive from your book. Perhaps your motivation to write is more spiritual or esoteric than that.

For people who pursue meaning through intellectual and artistic means, such as writing a book, recording a song, or innovating a device or technique, the potential spread of their influence is only subject to the scarcity of their physical mediums. As a writer, the value of your actions does not derive from your fingers tapping away at your keyboard. It is not the same as a builder who creates value by swinging their hammer or pulling their saw. The influence of the paper pages of your book is more than their tangible function as objects to be held and turned.

All serious authors write to influence the minds of their readers. When someone thinks and acts differently because they have read your book, you will receive an intangible reward greater than any other effect of authorship. You will cultivate a sense of purpose in your craft. One intellectually creative act can go on to create influence over and over. There is no practical limit to how far it might go.

Think about a book that has influenced you more than others and stayed with you for years. Recall an author who revealed a profound new perspective or touched your mind in ways no one else ever had. Why did it affect you when you first read it? Why has it stuck in your mind until now?

What creates influence is different for every reader. What people respond to depends on where they are in life and where they are looking to go next. If you have your heart set on becoming an influential author, it's because you believe that somewhere within the substance of your thoughts and experiences is a message with timeless potential. It can reach others the way that your extended mentors reached you through their writing.

Motivation from Authenticity

Unknown authors who write with authenticity and genuine authority will outshine unknown authors who write with ulterior motives. Authenticity is not something an author can fake (at least not for long). No matter how well vanity authors think they can cover them up, their true motivations are bound to seep out at some point within the contents of a full-length book. The more they expose themselves, the more readers notice incongruities in their presentation. This is why so many books receive middling-to-negative reviews complaining that the book seemed designed as a giant advertisement for its author—not a heartfelt message meant to improve the lives of readers.

Resist the urge at this early juncture to go for the easy win when thinking about what book to write. Don't settle on an approach that seems obvious or derivative of what's already successful. You can stand out from vanity authors by being authentic and clear in your message. You cannot write to get something from your readers. You can only write to give them something vital they may not have known they were missing.

Once your book exists on the open market, it will liberate mental space within you. You will be able to devote more psychological real estate to new ideas after you've crafted a container to hold the old ones. The mind has a way of excusing itself from having to refresh the same information time and again once you've stored it somewhere outside yourself. By writing out your philosophy and organizing your unspoken knowledge, you will develop a more efficient mind than when it was loose in your head.

The Danger of Not Knowing What You Want

If you begin working on a book without being clear on what you want it to be, you may end up continually overhauling your vision as you go. Some revision is unavoidable and should be encouraged. There's no reason to stay dogmatically aligned with your original vision if you develop ways to improve it during the outlining, drafting, or editing process. But there is a practical limit to this. Fundamentally changing who you are writing for, the tone you want to use, or the type of information you will cover months or years into the drafting process is counterproductive. It's often a sign that you have the potential for multiple books in you but lack the clarity of mind to separate them.

I've seen would-be authors suddenly decide that everything accomplished up to that point with brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and editing would need to be thrown out because it no longer aligned with their evolving vision. In these situations, the process of being made to explicitly verbalize their knowledge and perspective advanced their paradigms. Sometimes, they realized that there were holes in their knowledge that were obvious once everything was written down in one place. They didn't know how to reconcile this fact with the ego and public brand image they built for themselves around these ideas. They realized that publishing a book threatened to expose their farcical knowledge, and it became a very threatening prospect. Regrettably, they usually couldn't use this realization as an opportunity to refine their approach into something worth publishing.

Other times, once a prospective author's basic message was down on the page, it became mundane and uninteresting to them. It wasn't exciting to keep slaving over what no longer seemed like a revolutionary approach, so they felt they had to keep pushing themselves to produce something utterly unlike anything ever published before (even though this would be their first book and they would have plenty of opportunities to write more advanced ones later).

None of these people, despite their apparent earnestness to share their message in the form of a book, ever published anything. They continued spinning their wheels for years, lost in the maelstrom of their incomplete and conflicting ideas about what they wanted to communicate. They remained in denial about their lack of progress toward their increasingly lofty authorial goals and finishing anything worth printing.

This is where the cliché of the author who only talks about writing but never finishes anything comes from. They are married to an idea that has nothing to do with reality.

About the Author

Gregory V. Diehl is the founder of Identity Publications and author of several popular nonfiction books on business and personal development. His book The Influential Author is a lengthy, in-depth guide to crafting and publishing meaningful nonfiction books at or beyond the standards expected from traditional publishing. 

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