Episode 112 – How Do You Know If Your Nonfiction Book Is “Good”?

By Beth Brombosz, PhD

Jul 25

Are you worried that your nonfiction book isn’t any good? You’re not alone! One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How do I know if my book is any good?” I know that there’s a lot of fear that your book will be judged and that people won’t like it, especially if you’re self-publishing. But, luckily there are ways to make sure that readers really will like the book you’re putting out into the world.

In this episode, I’ll tell you what to look for to make sure your book really is good. I’m sharing my best tips based on what I see as a professional copy editor, which I hope will help you avoid the most common writing mistakes I see nonfiction authors make. (These tips also happen to cover some of the most common suggestions I make to my developmental and copy editing clients.) And, I’ll tell you how to get the feedback you need to make sure your book really IS good. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to writing a book your readers will absolutely love.

How Do You Know If Your Nonfiction Book Is "Good"?

DOES YOUR BOOK SOLVE A REAL PROBLEM YOUR AUDIENCE IS HAVING?

Writing a great book starts during the planning process. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many authors make the mistake of writing a book they think is needed instead of writing a book that’s actually needed. This is one of the easiest ways to write a book that flops, but fortunately, it’s also an easy problem to fix.

Say, for example, people in your audience say they don’t have time to cook. Naturally, you write a book to teach them how to make meals in 20 minutes or less. But, your book doesn’t do as well as you hoped because your audience is actually struggling to create a meal plan, something you didn’t address in your book. They think they don’t have time to cook because they spend so much time figuring out what they want to eat. Help them come up with a meal plan full of quick meals and you’re hitting the bullseye of solving their problem.

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What do you do to make sure you’re addressing the right problem in your book? Talk to your audience. Get on the phone with them if possible. Keep asking, “Is there more?” or “What else?” You’ll often find that your audience has a surface problem that they think needs solving, but to get to that solution, they need help that goes deeper. For example, they might need to change their mindset before they can make big changes in their lives. Or, they may need to learn a new skill they had no idea was necessary to get to their goal.

Either way, you need to know the problems they’re having in depth if you want to write a book that’s really going to help them. But, here’s a bonus: all of that digging will also help you build your business. You’re going to have a deeper, better understanding of your audience, which you can use to create products, programs, or services to meet those needs. Win-win.

If you need more help planning your book, check out these podcast episodes:

You’ll get a deep dive into the steps you should take to create a solid plan and outline for your book.

ARE YOU STAYING ON TOPIC?

Let’s say you’ve written your great plan or outline for a book your audience really wants. You’ve started the writing process, but every time you sit down to write, you think of a new topic that you should write about. Going back to our previous example, as you’re writing your book about meal planning with quick meals, you think that your readers should really have better knife skills to make vegetable prep easier. And, they would probably benefit from learning about how to select produce. So, you add that into your outline, too.

If you find yourself doing this, I want you to stop. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a nonfiction writer is going on tangents and including unnecessary information in your book. It’s distracting and sometimes even frustrating for the reader. Those tangents can make your reader forget what your original point or message was. It distracts the reader from the primary purpose of your book, and overall can leave them feeling confused at best and angry that they wasted time reading your book at worst.

So, what’s the cure? First, you need to remember the purpose of your book. What do you want your reader to learn to do or understand when they’re done with your book? What’s the transformation you want your reader to have? If you don’t know the main point of your book, it’s almost impossible to stay on topic because you don’t truly understand where your reader needs to go.

Once you know your book’s purpose, make sure your writing stays true to that purpose. For every chapter, section, story, or example, ask yourself, “Is this helping my reader get to the transformation at the end of the book?” If you’ve wandered away from that purpose, it’s time to do some heavy editing and delete that content from your book. (Don’t totally freak out—you can always repurpose that content as a blog post, email to your list, or other piece of content on a different platform.)

IS YOUR READER GETTING WINS?

To write a good book, you need to stay focused on your book’s purpose. Why are you writing your book? How is it going to help your reader? Why would your reader pick up your book to begin with? For some books, the answer is simply that the reader wants to be entertained. But most of you listening want to teach your reader something. You want to help them improve their lives in some way. So, the purpose of your book is to get your reader to that endpoint where they’ve achieved some transformation through reading your book and applying what they’ve learned.

Then, you need to evaluate whether your book manuscript is actually getting readers to where they need to be. Have you been meandering with your topic? Are you giving your reader more information than they need to understand and apply what you’re teaching? Is the path you’re leading your reader on the best and shortest path to get them to the transformation at the end of the book? Or, could you choose a more direct path?

Let’s walk through an example. You’re writing a book focusing on mindset for new business owners and entrepreneurs who struggle with impostor syndrome. Your book takes readers from a place where they’re filled with doubt and overwhelm to a place where they’re confident in their skills and business. You walk your reader through a path, first convincing them that mindset is the biggest thing holding them back from success, then helping them identify where they’re having problems with mindset, and finally you teach them how to find the right entrepreneurial mindset.

When you’re writing your book manuscript, you need to show your reader that they’re making progress with their mindset. It could be as simple as having them keep a journal as they read the book so they can compare how they felt in Chapter 1 to how they’re now feeling in Chapter 6. If you want the book to really have a big impact, you’ll help them start to see some wins in their business. For example, part way through the book, you help them write a pitch to a new client or to be interviewed on a podcast.

Remind them that this new action isn’t something they would have done before they picked up your book; their newfound success is a direct result of what they’ve learned from you. So, when they get booked on the podcast or they land that new client, they’ll have you to thank. That’s a big win, and that builds a huge amount of trust between you and your reader. Those wins are what builds superfans, and they get your book rave reviews, too.

IS YOUR WRITING CLEAR?

You can have a great idea for a book, but if your writing is really difficult to understand, it’s going to be tough to create a good book. But, you don’t have to have a degree in creative or technical writing to write a good book. You just need to make sure you’re communicating clearly to your reader.

The tips you’ve already heard will definitely help you clarify your writing. Making sure you’re staying on topic and helping your reader actually get somewhere will vastly improve your book’s manuscript. It can also help to be very explicit about why you’re covering each topic in your book. “I’m teaching you X so you’ll be able to Y.” If they understand why what they’re reading is important, they’re more likely to keep reading.

There are also ways to improve your writing overall to make it clearer and easier to read. For example, use plain, non-technical language whenever possible. Most of you listening will want to write your book in a conversational tone. (Your tone should reflect what the reader expects and needs to digest the information in your book.) That means you’ll be writing like you would speak, for the most part. A conversational writing voice is a lot easier for most readers to follow than something that’s more formal, technical, and academic. (If your audience is academics, obviously you’ll want your writing voice to reflect that.)

Here are some more quick tips for making your writing easier to read:

  1. Use shorter sentences. I’m not saying that you can’t have any long sentences. (In fact, varying sentence length can make your writing more interesting to read.) But, longer sentences are often harder for people to read. If you have an entire paragraph of long, complicated sentences, it’s going to be difficult for your reader to make it through that paragraph and really digest what you’re saying. Most of you aren’t writing books for academics, so keep your sentences on the shorter side so your reader doesn’t have to work so hard to understand what you’re saying.
  2. Use shorter paragraphs. Like shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs are also easier or most people to read. Shorter paragraphs also help readers feel like they’re making progress through your book faster. Nothing makes a reader put a book down faster than spending a good chunk of time reading and feeling like they’re still in the same place in the book. If they’re moving through paragraphs relatively quickly, they feel like they’re getting closer to the end of the book. That means they’re getting closer to the transformation waiting at the end of the book. So, help your reader feel like they’re making progress by trimming down the average length of your paragraphs.
  3. Use examples. Sometimes, our brains have a hard time processing general ideas. But, our brains really love stories. That’s where having a great example comes in. When you can use a specific example to illustrate the point you’re making, it’s often easier for your reader to understand. For example (see what I did there?), if you’re teaching your reader how to train a puppy, you might include an example of how you trained a Golden Retriever to heel and how you went through the same process with a Siberian Husky. The process may have been slightly different due to the dogs’ personalities, but your readers will learn a lot from those differences.

GETTING FEEDBACK ON YOUR BOOK MANUSCRIPT

One of the best ways to make sure you have a “good” book is to get feedback on your manuscript. We get so involved with our own writing that it’s difficult to view our work objectively. You need an outside perspective to help you make sure your book is filling its purpose for your reader. For example, even though I serve as an editor for many of my clients, I always have someone else look over my own books. I’m too close to my own work and can easily miss mistakes that an outsider will catch.

So, how do you get help looking over your book? Here are some of the best ways to get feedback on your book manuscript:

Hire an Editor

I’m starting with hiring an editor because a trained editor is going to give you the highest-quality feedback. As editors, we learn what to look for in a manuscript, and we’ve trained ourselves to think critically to make sure we give you the best feedback possible. We’re also familiar with copy editing standards, so we can ensure your book meets grammar, punctuation, and formatting standards.

If you’re hiring an editor, try to find one who specializes in your niche. For example, I primarily edit health and wellness books (including some cookbooks), and I also specialize in editing manuscripts focusing on medical content. I’m able to apply all of my experience writing and editing scientific content to the work I do, which helps me catch a lot of issues that an editor without my background might miss, like how ‘bacterium’ is singular and ‘bacteria’ is plural.

It’s particularly important to find an editor in the right niche if you’re looking for help with developmental editing (looking at the higher-level content in your book and how to present that content). A developmental editor who knows your niche well is going to provide better feedback than an editor who specializes in a different niche. Or, if you’re in a highly technical niche, having an editor in that niche will help make sure that your book conforms to the standards of that are expected.

At minimum, I recommend looking for an editor who has some experience in your field. They don’t necessarily have to have an exclusive specialty in your niche, but they should at least have a general knowledge of the niche so they can provide effective feedback. For example, an editor who almost exclusively works with books about finance may have a hard time providing good feedback on a book about arts and crafts. But, they could probably give good feedback on a book about business, especially if they’ve spent a good amount of time growing their own business and reading books to help their own business grow and expand.

Choose your editor carefully and your book manuscript is really going to benefit.

Get Beta Readers

Beta readers can be incredibly helpful, too. They won’t be trained as editors, so they’re more likely to miss more technical mistakes, but they’ll be able to give you great overall feedback about your book.

I recommend finding beta readers who closely resemble your ideal reader for your book. They’ll give you the best feedback. You may want to give them a list of specific questions to think about as they read your book, like, “Does my book make sense?” and “Did I do a good job of explaining how to do XYZ?” Those questions help your beta reader understand what kind of feedback you’re looking for, which will ultimately help them give you higher-quality feedback.

Side note: if a beta reader really likes your book, you might also consider asking them to write a quick review for you. You can use that review to help promote your book, and you can even include it on the back cover of your book or in the front matter to help entice readers to buy your book. Those testimonials and reviews really help persuade potential readers to buy your book!

Have a Friend Proofread Your Manuscript

If you don’t have a budget for an editor and you can’t get any beta readers, then next best thing is to have someone else read over your manuscript. It’s better to have a friend or family member read over your manuscript than to completely skip over having a second set of eyes look it over.

Like with beta readers, I’d give your friend or family member a list of questions to think about as they’re reading. It will help them think about your book more critically, instead of just giving you generalized, pleasant feedback like, “I thought it was great!” If possible, choose a friend who’s a straight shooter, since they’re more likely to give you honest feedback. It’s not helpful to get feedback from someone who’s too nice to be critical of your work—that’s not going to help you write a better book.

IS YOUR BOOK “GOOD”?

I hope that this episode has given you some tools to improve the quality of your book manuscript. And, I hope you feel a little more empowered to write a book that really is “good.” I know putting your work out into the world is scary, but if you follow the tips I’ve given you here, I think you’re going to give your readers a book that genuinely helps improve their lives. If you’re able to get them that transformation and make a positive change, you’ve absolutely written a good book.

If you need help with developmental editing or copy editing, check out my copy editing services here. I’d be honored to help you improve your manuscript so you can deliver a truly life-changing book to your readers.

That’s it for this episode! Thanks for listening, and until next time, happy writing.

How Do You Know If Your Nonfiction Book Is "Good"?

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