If you want to be a successful nonfiction author, you must recognize that you are in the business of helping people solve their problems. That’s what distinguishes nonfiction from fiction. Whether you’re writing a how-to, self-help, reference or cookbook you are offering tips, guidance and motivation to waiting readers. The writer who is able to speak directly to the needs of the reader is the writer who will be most effective in getting her books read, bought and shared. You can be that successful nonfiction author if you follow these three steps.
1. Become a good listener
At a recent writing workshop, I listened to the many questions members of the audience asked about writing and publishing their books. A few of them are
· Do we need to finish a book before submitting it to a publisher?
· How do I go about organizing the information I’ve been writing for years?
· What’s involved in self-publishing my book?
· How do I know if I can trust an editor with my manuscript?
· How do I decide on the topic of my book?
People reveal a lot about themselves as they speak and especially when they ask questions. If you are a good listener you learn a lot about people, their intentions and their underlying messages. By listening to their questions about your topic area you know what parts of your topic you most need to cover.
A good listener is an active listener. Trial lawyers use active listening when they connect pieces of seemingly unrelated testimony to formulate questions and lure a witness into a damming admission. I’m not suggesting that you become devious but listening actively can help you better understand others and more importantly be able to target your writing to the exact solution the reader needs.
As an active listener, be attentive to what the speaker doesn’t say. It’s as important as being attentive to what he does say. Look for non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and posture to get the full gist of what the speaker is telling you.
2. Stimulate people to give you helpful answers
A successful hunter must point his weapon at the target before he pulls the trigger. The extent to which he can get the prey in his sights and keep it there is the extent to which he will hit his intended target.
Likewise, to become a successful nonfiction author, you must give people the answers and solutions to their problems, concerns and pain. To do that, you must find out what these are.
Ask questions that help you understand the needs of your readers, your audience or your social media fans.
You can ask an open-ended question like
What do you struggle with most in trying to [lose weight, write your book, save money or whatever is your topic]?
Or you can give a list of options
a. how to get started
b. sticking to a schedule
c. dealing with distractions
If you decide to give options, it’s important to give an “Other” option so they can add what you couldn’t anticipate.
When you are in a live conversation with the potential reader, follow-up questions can be very telling. For example, if someone indicates that he struggles with getting started on a diet, what do he means specifically: finding a program that works, working with a program she owns but deciding how to fit it into her life, is she between a liquid diet or one that involves food, or fear of feeling deprived or having to spend extra money on special foods. Knowing specifically which of these concerns the reader will help you address your writing directly to those needs.
3. Learn to do some basic keyword research
In a popular tourist town a number of shops were open for business along a busy street. It was a hot summer day and shoppers stopped by one store inquiring if the store sold ice cream. They sold a variety of other cool products, but no ice cream.
One passerby after another entered the store inquiring if they sold ice cream, but the store owner kept turning them away. He began to even get annoyed that folks wanted to buy what he didn’t sell.
The store next door to the first one, however, began to realize that ice cream was what people were seeking on that hot summer day. So he sent one of his workers on an errand to the grocery store to stock up on ice cream, cones and an ice cream scoop. When the worker returned, the clever storekeeper put a sign in his window “We Sell Ice Cream,” and capitalized on the demand. He soon sold out.
Since the advent of the Internet, understanding what people are searching for has been very helpful to marketers. It enables them to understand the motivations of the consumer and thereby better plan, create and position products.
Learning what people are searching for when they visit the Internet puts you on sounder footing with reaching your readers than writing on a random topic or niche.
Although keyword research is part of a more intricate process called Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you can learn some basics to better target your writing.
Every time someone types a word or phrase into Google, YouTube or any other place on the Internet, that phrase is stored. SEO experts can retrieve the stored data and plot what people are searching for in great detail. When they share this information with their clients, it takes the guesswork out of figuring out exactly what people are seeking and therefore most likely to buy.
On a simple level, you can benefit from this technology by noting what Google suggests to you as soon as you type in the main word of your topic. Those suggested terms tell you what other people have already searched.
When I typed “How to…” in Google search box, the following suggestions appeared
· How to tie a tie
· How to love lyrics
· How to lose weight fast
If I wanted to write a how-to article or book, these could begin to point me toward what seems popular. Keep in mind that these could be different on different days.
You can get more specific indicators when you use free keyword tools from providers such as Wordtracker, Google Adwords or Keyword Discovery. They will give you more detailed information about what people are searching for in specific niches and help you decide which keywords to use in the body, title and description of your work.
Of course, the clearer idea you have of the topic you want to cover, the more specific will be the terms you search.
There are many other actions to becoming a successful nonfiction writer, but following these three steps will start you on the right road to publication and profits from your work.