Do you want to write a nonfiction book?
If you managed to write a nonfiction book, you’d reap a nice crop of rewards. You would be considered an expert; people would listen to what you have to say; maybe you’d even get rich in the process. If the only thing holding you back is the lack of a college degree, read on to see if you have a legitimate concern.
I used to dream of getting up every morning, writing until noon, taking a nap, and then reworking what I had written until dinner time. I imagined having a she-shed out back, sort of like the shed Roald Dahl had outside his home, where I could work at a small white desk with cabbage roses peeking at me through the window as I worked.
For most writers, reality is less glamorous. It’s a sad fact that most people who write, even full-time, do not make a lot of money. Many have to do additional work to earn their food and shelter. But the drive to create and the love of words and learning spur many of us on, despite the hard work and the risks.
How about you? The details of your dreams most likely differ from mine. But if you even occasionally ask yourself, “do I have what it takes to be a writer?” There is another question that may have crossed your mind: “Do I have to have a college degree to do it?”
College degrees have always been time-consuming endeavors and over the last few years, the cost in time, as well as the associated loans with interest, have become a weight that increasing numbers of people forgo, whether reluctantly or not. So the answer to that question can be crucial.
Fiction versus nonfiction
If you’re not sure about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, check out my post “Fiction Versus Nonfiction.” It will fill you in on the sometimes confusing distinctions. But this post focuses on nonfiction books.
There’s a ton of information out there on writing and publishing novels. The market for genre fiction, especially for sci-fi and fantasy, is huge. Generally, you can publish a successful fiction book without a college degree. Not even the lack of a high school diploma will preclude someone from publishing fiction. As humans, most of us inherited powerful imaginations. And if the mechanics of writing are a challenge, a good editor can help.
But what if you are interested in nonfiction? Don’t you need to be trained in journalism to write nonfiction? Is a biology degree required to write about plants? Or maybe you’re wondering if anyone would take your book seriously if you don’t have a college degree.
Do nonfiction books require a college degree?
Because nonfiction books are primarily intended to educate the reader, do you need a college degree to write one? Two answers to that question are equally true: “no” and “it depends.”
The short answer is no. No, you do not need a college degree of any sort to write a great nonfiction book. If you have a good grasp on grammar and writing conventions, if you have a good grasp of the subject through research and/or experience, and if you are willing to work crazy-hard, then it’s doable.
But can you write any sort of nonfiction book you want without a college degree, no matter the type of book or the topic? That answer is different.
It really depends on the type of writing you want to do. The types of nonfiction books you can publish vary widely. Some are covered in more detail below. But if you want to write books for college libraries on a topic in which you do not even have a bachelor degree, your chances of success are slightly above zero percent unless you have some really good connections to help you out. With this market, even having Jeff Bezos for a godfather would be unlikely to matter.
But if you want to write trade books, your chances of success are much higher. Trade books are books published for a general market. While they may be found on the shelves of university libraries, they’re much more likely to be found on the shelves of public libraries. Since they are not published for experts, the vocabulary and background knowledge needed to understand them are lower.
Examples of successful nonfiction authors without college degrees
- Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings),
- Truman Capote (In Cold Blood),
- Richard Wright (Black Boy),
- Ernest Hemingway (A Moveable Feast),
- H. L. Mencken (The American Language)
None of these twentieth-century writers of nonfiction books graduated from college. But with the exceptions of In Cold Blood and The American Language,they are all memoirs.
So some kinds of nonfiction books, like memoirs, are perfectly well-suited to any author with excellent writing talent or skill but there are other types that are not.
Types of nonfiction books to write
For this post, I’ve divided the nonfiction books into two main categories: those intended for specialized audiences and those for general audiences. While it is possible for someone without a degree to publish the former, it’s less likely the work will be taken seriously or given the attention it may deserve. But in the second category, for general audiences, a person’s educational background is less of an issue.
Specialized nonfiction books
The most common broad categories of nonfiction books are included here. But it’s not an exhaustive list.
Academic and scholarly books
These books are published primarily for a college-educated audience. Often they are written by professors who have earned doctorate degrees to be read by other professors who also hold PhDs. Obviously, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to publish for this market without a PhD, let alone without a bachelor’s degree. These books are generally published by academic presses connected with universities (like the Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, and Princeton University Press). It does not matter if you have read every book ever published in your language on your topic. Without a degree, you will be unlikely to publish successfully in this market.
Obviously, textbooks are written for students and their writers must be experts in the field. And while it’s possible to be an expert on a specific topic without a degree (a person who managed to climb K2 with only one leg would be an expert on monopedal mountain climbing, for example) but they may not have the academic recognition needed to write for a specifically academic audience. The subject in which they are uniquely knowledgeable, by itself, would not qualify them to write a textbook on, say, economics.
It is possible to become a technical writer without a degree. But the degree would definitely help. Technical writing is considered a specific skill with defined techniques and qualities. Short of a degree, the only way you would likely be able to develop this skill would be to apprentice to a technical writer or publisher to learn it. After a time in training, you could possibly write technical books on subjects like how to operate software or repair a refrigerator. Some publishers or employers may require a degree or certificate from any technical writers they hire, but there is no standard requirement that I am aware of.
Trade or General Nonfiction Books
General nonfiction, or trade nonfiction, can be on any topic under the sun. A degree is not required to write them. Having said that, a degree can help. The piece of paper is not what matters, it’s the practice of critical analysis on all types of writing that can make the difference.
Can you teach yourself how to tell good information from bad and analyze the strengths and weaknesses in arguments? Yes. While it can be time-consuming and complicated to learn these skills, it’s possible. Blog posts will be coming with more information on teaching yourself these skills.
I’ve seen blogs and videos proclaiming that anyone can write a book on any topic. Strictly speaking, this is true. If you plan to self-publish, you can do a few hours’ worth of research on any topic you chose and throw out a short book on it. You might even make money. But unless the book you produce is very good, you may be doing both your reputation and your reader’s faith in books a disservice.
You absolutely can write a great nonfiction book without a college degree. But, unless your topic is super-simple, this comes with one important caveat: you must be willing to put in a lot of thought and a lot of work.
What are some types of books you can write without a degree?
Graphic nonfiction books
Graphic nonfiction is a great option if you have drawing ability or if you could team up with someone who does. There are history and philosophy books written in graphic format and there are how-to books written the same way. These can be engaging and appeal to a wide audience.
Psychology books make up the majority of self-help books. But any type of book that helps other people deal with a problem or teaches them how to make something could be broadly considered self-help as well. So are “how to do it better” books. Examples would be books on how to fish on the cheap, or how to catch fish using your secret tips.
Books on how to overcome specific problems may do well. Maybe you figured out how to live peacefully with deer and a great tomato patch. This could turn into a book on humanely dealing with garden pests. Cookbooks can do well. Maybe you’re a whiz in the kitchen and everyone wants to eat your unique sandwiches, if you could figure out an appealing way to format and illustrate it, it could become a cult classic. Or maybe you’ve discovered the secret to making durable furniture out of wine corks, you might find a good market for a book like that among the wine set.
Most memoirs are written by people who were raised under challenging circumstances. An example is Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes. People also love to read about people who miraculously survived horrific events or overcame great challenges. Many people enjoy humor. Roald Dahl’s Boy is one of my favorite memoirs because I laughed all the way through it. So try your hand at genre if you think you have a compelling story to tell.
Books on specific subjects
Any subject you know a lot about might make a good book topic. If your dad owned a bike shop, for example, and you’ve spent most of your spare time working on the bikes and taking bike trips, then a book on biking might be a great topic to write on.
Are you obsessed with a narrow subject? Maybe you’ve always been completely fascinated by ceramics. You’ve spent years studying them, collecting them, and you’ve examined them in travels all over the world. Even though you do not have any sort of art degree, you know more about ceramics than most people. Your book on ceramics might be more interesting to the average reader than one written by an expert.
Here’s what I mean by a niche. You have always been fascinated by Greek cooking but living in Minnesota, it was a challenge to become the expert Greek cook that you are today. You could write a book about how you achieved your goal. You might go into information about favorite restaurants, cookbooks, and videos. Spend time covering how to get the best prices on the freshest ingredients or tell how you came to grow your own. Maybe you could do some research by taking a trip to Greece. Anything you are passionate about and have experience with, will likely make a really good book.
If you feel you could write a nonfiction book but you have no idea how to get started, I suggest beginning with three things: reading, research, and writing.
You will need to read the classics in the field you want to write about. To find these, start by typing in something like “recommended books on mountain biking” in a search engine. Go to a library or bookstore and see what they have on the topic. Flip to the “Recommended Reading” or Bibliography in the back of those books. If you’re not sure of a topic, check out my blog posts under the Recommended Nonfiction category.
I suggest finding the top books on the topic you are thinking of writing about and borrowing them from your library or buying them used to save money. For the Greek cooking book above, you might want to read through The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by the Recipe Club of St. Paul’s Orthodox Cathedral.
You are going to need to read, a lot. You will also need to read books on writing. I’d recommend starting with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
When you read the books gathered above, you must take notes on what you read. I’ll do a post on taking notes in the future. You can also watch youtube videos or read blogs on how to do research.
But it is essential that you keep up with which books, articles, or videos you get ideas from and the page numbers on which you find those ideas. Do not skip over this. Plagiarism is real. So are lawsuits.
While there is no need to follow perfect academic standards in your research, universities have honed the process over the centuries. I love this simple step-by-step method from the Georgetown University Library. It can get you started and then you can explore other methods as well. I like Ryan Holiday’s method for taking notes. I was taught a similar method in the eleventh grade and it served me well through graduate school. Here’s an explanation from Ryan himself.
Practice. Just start. Write the idea for your book in a page or two. See if it makes sense to others.
Start on a specific chapter; start on an introduction; or start with one recipe and a description of where the idea for it came from. Just start writing. And read about writing. Polish, polish, polish what you write.
If you’re really serious about it, there are free classes online, and there are classes you can pay for. I recommended two books above (Zinsser and Pinker) and would like to add Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Many other books on nonfiction writing are available as well.
Blogs on writing are ubiquitous. One that has a dizzying amount of helpful links to get you started is Writers and Editors by Pat McNees. You’re welcome! Another fantastic blog that I could not live without is by Jane Friedman. Jane specializes in the business end of writing independently and she really knows her stuff.
Still think you might like to write a nonfiction book?
If you’ve read this far and you didn’t say, “Nah” and go play a video game, there is hope. Did you feel stirrings of excitement at the thought of all that effort? Then you may have what it takes to write a nonfiction book. Explore, think, experiment. Check back here occasionally, because I’m writing my first nonfiction book myself.
As I work on my book, I will pass what I learn on to you. Together we can make our dreams a reality.
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