While people have been telling stories and delivering speeches for thousands of years, the history of nonfiction book writing is fairly brief. Still, over the last 500 years or so, patterns have begun to emerge, tried and true ways of writing nonfiction books, depending on the author's goals.

Nonfiction encompasses a variety of kinds of books, from travel guides to business books to how to approach creative writing or historical nonfiction. Each nonfiction category approaches information differently. By studying and applying the lessons of these structures, you can write a better nonfiction book in much less time. 

Need a step-by-step process for planning and writing your book? Check out my comprehensive article on how to write a book.

In this post, I'm going to share the seven main types of nonfiction books. We'll also talk about how each of these types of nonfiction writing is usually structured. 

Which type of nonfiction book are you writing?

1. How-to Books and Self-Help

How-to and self-help books guide people to solve a particular problem or achieve a particular goal in their lives. This is an extremely popular category of nonfiction book. 

Most how-to and self-help books will have chapters that flow through the following pattern:

  1. Problem OR Promise. What problem is your reader experiencing? Or what promise do you offer if they apply what you're going to talk about in this book?
  2. Story. The story either illustrates the problem and/or promise, or it acts as a solution story for how the solution to the readers' problem was discovered.
  3. Principle. Finally, a universal principle or process is shared that will solve the readers' problem.

Here are some other features found in How-To and Self-Help books:

  • Introduction focuses on the problem or promise, solution story, and principles or steps will be covered in book
  • Chapters focus on 5-12 principles or steps
  • May have caveats/objections/applications section
  • Conclusion focuses on exhortation and/or a promise

Examples of a Self-Help Book:

  • The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
  • Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey

2. Investigative

Investigative nonfiction books are trying to understand what is really going on in the world and in people's lives. They may share some universal principles or solve people's problems, but the primary aim is to better understand one aspect of the world. Sometimes they cover controversial topics or aim at cultural criticism, but in the end, they all begin with curiosity about something. 

True crime or forensic psychology books follow this structure, but it's also used by writers like Chip and Dan Heath and Malcolm Gladwell.

Investigative books will have chapters that flow through the following pattern:

  1. Story. The story brings up an attention grabbing or misunderstood subject for investigation.
  2. Investigation or Analysis. Next, the author delves into what's really going on with this subject.
  3. Principle or Result. Finally, a universal principle or the result of the investigation is shared. Sometimes, this result may be applicable to the readers' lives or work.

Here are some other patterns found in investigative books:

  • Introduction focuses on the topic of investigation, who the book is for, and what principles will be covered
  • Chapters organized by questions
  • Often includes principles but not steps
  • Conclude with “here’s what have we learned”

Examples of Investigative Books:

  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

3. Reference

Reference books collect definitions, terms, and practices for a specific field. Examples of reference books include dictionaries, recipe books, craft books, and even many writing guides.

Reference books will have chapters that flow through the following pattern:

  1. Define. Define the term or focus for the chapter, e.g adobo street tacos or nonfiction book types.
  2. Expand. Give context on that term, either through a story, illustration, history, or some other way.
  3. Process, Steps, or Tips, if applicable. What steps, process, or tips will help the reader better understand the subject or reproduce its results.
  4. Examples. Share examples, if applicable.

Examples of Reference books:

  • The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
  • The Write Structure by Joe Bunting (that's me!)
  • Wikipedia

4. Inspirational/“How to” Memoir

Inspirational or “How-to Memoir” is a book type similar to how-to/self-help but with a greater emphasis on narrative and story telling and exhortation. They can rely on personal experience or collect other true stories to explore their themes. 

Most inspirational books will have chapters that flow through the following pattern:

  1. Story. The story either illustrates the problem and/or promise, or it acts as a solution story for how the solution to the readers' problem was discovered.
  2. Problem. What problem is your reader experiencing? Or what promise do you offer if they apply what you're going to talk about in this book?
  3. Exhortation. The exhortation not only solves the readers problem but exhorts them to go solve it.

Examples of Inspirational books include:

  • Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins
  • Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis
  • Most religious books

5. Riff

The riff is a type of book usually by an expert in a field that may combine pieces from each of the above book types in varied patterns and lengths.

For example, On Writing is everything Stephen King thinks about the craft of writing. Or New Seeds of Contemplation is everything Thomas Merton knows about prayer and God.

It may combine stories, exhortation, problems, and principles, but does it in a varied pattern and with chapters of various lengths.

6. Biography

Autobiography is a particular style of narrative book that often combines personal stories and historical context to tell the story of one person's life from their own perspective. It's the author's take on their own life. 

Examples of autobiography include:

Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry

Educated by Tara Westover

Biography is the story of one person's (or entity's) life, centered around real events which may or may not include historical events. It must be true, and it usually contains the complete life story, from birth until death (or the person's life thus far, in case they are still alive). Biography will be written by someone other than the person who the book is about. 

In all but rare occurrences, biographies are written about notable people and celebrities, which differs from memoir (see below).

Biography is usually organized chronologically, following a person from their key early experiences to death (or current time period if still alive). 

Examples of biography include:

The Grimkés: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family by Kerri K. Greenidge

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

7. Academic

Academic books are informational books designed to give specialized knowledge on a tightly defined topic. The structure will vary based on the field of study, but academic books can include textbooks, field manuals, and other reference books. The main difference in this category is the target audience: academic books are typically written by and for experts and for students studying in a particular field. 

Not included here: Memoir

Memoir is a specific style of nonfiction writing that is based on the writers' own life but much narrower in focus than autobiography. Thus, memoir has much more in common with the novel than most nonfiction books, and most writers will benefit more from learning about the types of story here than nonfiction book types.

However, some memoirs are more instructional and inspirational focused, and if so, these writers will find the Inspirational book type most useful.

These are seven of the most common types of nonfiction books, and hopefully you identified the one that best aligns with your project. Looking through a few books in your genre or category can always help you with both structure and content. 

Which nonfiction book type are you writing? Let us know in the comments below.

PRACTICE

For today's practice, choose the type of nonfiction book that most interests you from the list above or that best describes your current project. If there is a pattern to the chapters listed, set your timer for 15 minutes and write out the strongest story or principle that guides your book. When finished, share in the Pro Practice Workshop and leave feedback for a few other writers. 

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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