How to write a best selling non-fiction book: 3 key elements


Atomic Habits Book

I read Atomic Habits last month.

The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for 3 years.

Before reading the book:

  • I subscribed to James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter.
  • I completed his 30 Days to Better Habits email course (sign up here);
  • I used his blog as research material for creating a 14 Day Break Up with Sugar Challenge (read here); and
  • I listened to a bunch of interviews where James expands on the habit concepts in the book.

But, this isn’t another blog post about creating better habits. If you’re looking for more of those, check out the reading list at the end of this post.

I’m interested in finding out how James wrote such a great book.

It’s clear (sorry!), succinct and packed full of useful tools to help you develop new habits and routines.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve practiced a writing habit. I publish a weekly newsletter and write regular blog, LinkedIn and Twitter posts.

I’ve also co-authored my first book, which became an Amazon best seller.

After going through the book writing process for the first time, I want to write my own book.

I’ve started reading how Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday write their best sellers.

My goal isn’t to write a best seller. My goal is writing the best book that I’m capable of writing.

Which brings me back to Atomic Habits.

Deconstructing cool things

I think you should deconstruct the cool things that you see in life.”
James Clear

When you come across something that you really like, break it down into individual parts.

In Clear’s case, he talks about deconstructing best selling books.

He wanted to write the most comprehensive and useful book ever written on habits.

That was his starting point.

To try and achieve this goal, he researched a bunch of books on habits and other best sellers.

He learned this; finding a single examples of something that makes a book great doesn’t tell you anything. But if you star finding patterns, that’s something to pay attention to.

The patterns Clear found for best sellers revolved around three elements:

  • Book Structure
  • Book Length
  • Book Titles

Book Structure

The table of contents for all best sellers reveals one thing they all have in common.


They have a clear roadmap so you know exactly where you’re headed as a reader.

What you don’t want is to open a book and feel lost or like you’re wasting your time with it.

Most best seller’s a broken into thirds.

For example, in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, the content has three sections:

  1. “Habits of Individuals”
  2. “Habits of Businesses”
  3. “Habits of Societies”

You move up a hierarchy as you read through the book.

Book structure is important because there needs to be a clear path for the reader to follow.

Book Length

Before writing Atomic Habits, Clear was (and still is) a blogger.

Most of the things he wrote were around 1,500 or 2,000 words in length.

When researching best sellers, he looked at their average chapter length.

He noticed that non-fiction books, unlike novels, have really short chapters.

Initially, Clear’s publishing team wanted him write 6,000 or 8,000 word chapters. As a result of his research, he ended up settling with 2-3,000 word chapters.

Novels need to create a story arch. Yet, with non-fiction books you want the reader to get into a rhythm as they read the book.

You want page turners so they churn through the chapters.

Short and succinct chapters help to achieve this.

Book Titles

Clear’s research revealed that the most important element of a best seller is the title.

Titles are tricky because they need to pass a lot of filters. They need to express what the book is actually about.

Clear created a spreadsheet of 150+ titles and looked for patterns.

The most common title format for a best seller is The Blank of Blank.

For example:

  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up;
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck;
  • The Psychology of Money.

The Blank of Blank is a proven format. Take a descriptor as the first blank and match it with the topic of the book in the second blank.

He also noticed that best sellers have some element of contrast in the title. They combine unusual or unexpected descriptors, like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or Atomic Habits.

With Extreme Ownership, the idea is taking ownership and responsibility for your life in an extreme way. It’s your regular idea of taking ownership.

In Clear’s case, “Atomic” has many meanings. It can be tiny or small, meaning habits should be easy to do.

It’s also the fundamental unit in a larger system. Like atoms build into molecules, systems versus goals is a big part of the book.

Atoms are also a source of power.

By combining all three meanings he created an arc for the book:

  • Make changes that are small and easy to do;
  • Layer them on top of each other like a unit in a larger system; and
  • End up with powerful or remarkable results as a byproduct.

A good book title describes the topic in an interesting or compelling way.

That means avoiding commonly used phrases. If Clear had chosen “Good Habits” as a title, his book would be competing with the internet for search results.

An added bonus is choosing a phrase you can own as a book title. One that sticks in the reader’s mind.

Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek is a good example.

Before Ferriss published the book, nobody had used the phrase before.

It was an uncommon title because the phrase wasn’t part of normal conversation.

That allowed Ferriss to own it.

If I am to write the best book that I’m capable of writing, I need to make sure that my book has:

  1. A 3 part structure that is easy to follow;
  2. Chapters under 3,000 words that are easy to digest; and
  3. A title that combines and unexpected descriptor with the topic of the book.


Reading list