Writing the First Draft of Your Non-Fiction Book – it doesn’t have to be a painful experience!

When writing the first draft of your non-fiction book, you may feel as though you’re facing an uphill battle. Not only with the words on the page, but with yourself too. It requires you to dig deep and find a mental toughness you may not have used before.

But it doesn’t need to be a painful experience. With the right approach and the right habits, writing the first draft of your non-fiction book can actually be enjoyable! Read on to find out how. 

Writing the first draft – prepare for battle

When dealing with a toddler, you experience many battles. Yes, with your own sanity, but also with the wilfulness of a small, determined human. My youngest son, Beau, was quite the single-minded tot. 

He did things in his own time, at his own pace, including learning to walk. He quite enjoyed being carried around, thank you very much. Walk? When he could be carried like a king? Absolutely not. Walking was for peasants.

He had a similar attitude towards toilet training, but the less said about that, the better. 

Now, you may be wondering what Beau’s toddler behaviour has to do with you writing the first draft of your non-fiction book. Well let’s just say, it’s because you’ve got a battle ahead of you. Much like the battle I had with Beau to get him to walk and toilet like a regular person.

Now using the word ‘battle’ might sound a little extreme, but this part of the process often tests writers – both new and experienced. You’re battling between analytical mode and creative mode. You’re battling your inner critic. You’re battling against time.

So the more prepared you are, the better. It’s time to get your armour ready… we’re going in.

Make friends with the first draft

Author Terry Pratchett once said, ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ Now, while you’re not writing a novel, this is also true for writing non-fiction. 

Your first draft is you getting to know your book. Imagine it’s someone you’ve just met and been introduced to. You know a little bit about them (your outline), but now you’ve got time to sit down and really get to know them.

You won’t necessarily like all they have to say during your encounters, but gradually you’ll grow attached to them. You’ll look forward to your daily time together. Remind yourself this is a process. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and miraculously be an author. If only …

It’s worth remembering that no one else will see this first draft. No one. Not your editor, not your beta readers, not even your friends. So as you’re writing, remind yourself you’ll get to polish your work before anyone gets to see it. I like to call the first draft my ‘shitty first draft’ (SFD) for that reason – thanks, Anne Lamott for the inspiration.

Maybe there’s something in this about polishing a turd… who knows?

Books you see in the shops aren’t first drafts. They’ve been through so many revisions; they will be nothing like the authors’ first attempts. Don’t compare your first draft to their tenth. It’s incomparable.

Use your outline

Your outline means you’ll never face a blank page. You’ll never sit down and not know what to write. That’s why I recommend you create one. But now you have this wonderful outline, what do you do with it?

Your bullet points take centre stage. Working hard for you and giving you a basic structure. For each chapter, you’ll need to go to each section and flesh out each bullet. Depending on the point you’re making, this will either be a paragraph or a couple of sentences.

Take the bullet point and just write. Imagine you’re saying this out loud if it helps. If you were explaining this point verbally, what would you say? Quite often, I speak the sentences as I’m typing. Especially if it’s something a bit more complex. It also helps you check to see if it sounds right. 

Write first, edit later 

If I could tattoo this on every author I work with, I would. 

Deleting and rewriting sentences as you go along stops your flow. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described flow as ‘a state of complete immersion in an activity.’ You’re in the zone. It’s what you’re aiming for – stopping and starting makes the process harder.

Imagine you have two sides of the writing brain. One side is creative; the other is analytical. When writing your book, you must work using either one or the other. Never both at the same time. In fact, I never re-read any of my first drafts until I’ve finished the whole thing – and it works!

You see, your shitty first draft requires you to be in creative mode. And only in creative mode. You may be tempted (actually, you will be tempted) to go back and look at your work. But whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge. The time will come when you’ll go into full analytical mode to your heart’s content.

Avoid research

It’s natural to feel the need to do your research as you go. You might come to a section and feel a bit lost as you haven’t got the notes you need to fill in the content completely.

Try not to get sucked into research at this point. Get the main body of the book completed and then go back to research what you need. Stopping to complete research also breaks your flow. Moreover, by writing a large percentage of the book, you’ll be a lot clearer on what it is you need to research.

It stops countless hours of research you may never end up using. You may think you need the research to write your book, but if you’re ready to write a book, it’s likely you’ve got the knowledge you need already – at least enough to write the first draft. Any additional research will only enhance it in later drafts.

Stick to your habits

It’s at this point your habit practice will really come to fruition. Planning and outlining is hard, yes, but it’s over quite quickly. Writing your first draft is where you’re in for the long haul. You’ll need to turn up consistently and do the work.

If you haven’t established habits to make this process less challenging, check out this blog post and work out what yours will be. Set your word-count target too. You’ll then develop the consistency you’ll need to get from start to finish.

Let your accountability partner know you’re about to start your shitty first draft too. It’s a great way to kickstart the process. Announce it on social media if you’re so inclined. You’d be amazed at how supportive people are and how much they’ll enjoy cheering you along. Little bursts of encouragement can do the world of good.


Now it’s time to crack on with writing the first draft of your non-fiction book. You know what to expect and how to do it, so it really is down to you. If it helps, imagine me sitting beside you and giving you words of encouragement – I’ll keep the sarcasm to a minimum, I promise.

At all times, keep your outline close by. Refer back to it each time you’ve done a section of your chapter so you don’t veer off course. It’s a handy reminder of what you’re going to include. You’ll be grateful you took the time to complete it.

I really wish you luck with writing your first draft. I’m also excited for you because I know how good it feels to finish. It’s such a rush and one that will stick with you for years to come.

Remember! If you need support with writing your non-fiction book, get in touch and we can work together to bring your idea to life.

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