7 Tips for Non-Fiction Writers

There are thousands of blogs out there with thousands of posts filled with advice about how to write fiction. Plotting, character development, world building, timelines – heck, I’ve even read blog posts on how to give a character an accent. It seems like there’s no end to the detailed and (one would hope) informed nuggets of writerly wisdom.

But what about those of us who don’t write fiction? Our writing universe is, in many ways, vastly different than the world of fiction writers. Much of what we struggle with and many of the problems we face are unique to our genre. So where are our nuggets of wisdom? Where are our helpful hints and sage suggestions? Advise from those who’ve done what we do seems to be a little thinner on the ground. So in the interest of filling in a bit of the void, here are a few tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe they’ll help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1. Do your research. This might seem obvious, but it’s not. If you choose to write nonfiction, it’s often because you already know something about the subject. As a result, nonfiction writers often have a lot to say that requires no research whatsoever. But go out and take a look anyway. See what’s out there relating to your topic. You might be surprised at the insights you can gain that will help to inspire, focus, or even broaden your topic of discussion.

That being said, you don’t want to fall into the research black hole (the one where you get so absorbed in your topic that you emerge 6 months later with stacks of data and not a single word written). So pace yourself and remember that you don’t need to complete all the research before you start to write. You’ll be better equipped to go looking for specific information once you hone down the specific needs of your book.

2. Find a way to add interest. Remember that it never hurts to find a structure and a voice that will make your topic surprising or engaging for your audience. Yes your topic is probably widely fascinating all on its own, and your readers will pick up your book because they’re interested in what you have to say. But if you think back to some of the best nonfiction you’ve ever read you’ll probably realize that what made it special was the fact that it gave you more than you’d anticipated.

Please understand, this isn’t about tricks and gimmicks. It’s about finding ways to add layers of meaning, depth, or texture to your perspective. If you’re writing about large social issues, can you create a structure that makes it more personal? If you’re telling someone’s story, can you place it in a larger historical context? Can you ground you abstract ideas into something concrete and practical? Do you want to fill your how-to manual with silly or embarrassing anecdotes? Remember that non-fiction shouldn’t equal dull!

3. Build a structure. I’ve written entire blog posts about the importance of creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing before you start to write. You can read them here and here. Remember that unless you’re telling a chronological story (in fact, even IF you’re telling a chronological story), you are going to have to make decisions on how to order and organize your material. Every book needs a narrative flow, a pattern that the reader can follow as the book progresses.  Deciding how you’re going to address that for YOUR book is something you should do before you start writing.

This is essentially the nonfiction version of world building. Yes, you can make these things up as you go along, but chances are good that the end result will feel like … well, like you made it up as you went along. Decide on your book’s world now. What are the rules of this book? What patterns exist in the writing? What overarching themes are you addressing? Grounding yourself in these things at the beginning will give you a solid foundation that you can build on.

4. Plan ahead!  When I was in college writing research papers, I would write all of the data that I wanted to use (stats, quotes, etc) on individual index cards. Then I would structure my paper around my data. I’d decide ahead of time which references I was going to use in each section, and I’d clump my cards together accordingly. That not only helped me include all of my relevant data in each section, but it also instantly alerted me to the places where I needed to go back to do more research (See #1 above).

Now I’m not saying you have to use index cards, or even that you should write around your data – by all means do what works for you. But you do need a game plan. Maybe you’ll use some awesome computer software to track these thing (I don’t – but I’ve heard there’s great stuff out there). Or maybe you’ll use color coded post-its on a huge cork board over your desk (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think). But the point is that you have to do something. After all, you are writing a full-length book, which means you have a lot more to keep track of then I did back in college. Besides, if you’ve already done your research (see #1) and created a viable structure (see #3), it should be relatively easy at this stage to take what you want to say and fit it into the appropriate slots. Doing this before you start to write will tell you a) whether the structure you’ve chosen is working for you and b) where you have too much or too little to say.

5. Own your artistic voice. This tip isn’t necessarily exclusive to nonfiction writers, but it is especially important for us to remember. Your book may not be a work of fiction, but it is still a creative endeavor. You are an artist who uses a keyboard to paint a picture of the world for your readers. Don’t be afraid of embracing that title.

So many nonfiction writers, even those who’ve written successfully in other venues, seem to have trouble keeping their creativity flowing once they sit down to tackle a book. It’s almost as if the weight of the thousands of words ahead of them somehow muffle their natural voices. But the buttoned up formality of a voice that isn’t yours will never produce great writing. So make a point to own your voice. Write with confidence. Write from a place of truth. Write what you know – and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

6. Don’t be afraid to keep it short. You’re not writing a novel. You are not required to produce 75-100 thousand words in order for your book to be consider a satisfying length. Some non-fiction books are long by necessity, and that’s fine. But if you finish what you have to say in 40 thousand words, don’t be afraid to stop. There’s no reason for you to feel the need to pad out your manuscript with useless fluff or unnecessary extras. You are better off keeping your work short, focused, and to the point. Remember – what makes a book good is powerful writing. That’s what’s going to satisfy your audience.

7. Engage your audience. Non-fiction writers have a distinct advantage over fiction writers when it comes to audience-interaction. Because your potential readers are normally specifically interested in your topic, and because you are talking about something real (what with it being nonfiction and all…) you have the unique opportunity to build your brand by interacting directly with your readers ABOUT the topic of your book.

So make sure that you take advantage of this opportunity. Get out there and find your readers, and once you find them, engage with them in a meaningful and intelligent way! Build your website, of course. Get yourself on twitter or facebook or whatever you want to get onto – and then USE that platform to talk about what you know. Share excerpts from the book, insights that didn’t make it in, research that you didn’t use, or knowledge of related subjects. Don’t let your nonfiction status go to waste. You have the opportunity of a lifetime to find readers, to retain them, and to keep them constantly coming back for more!

What about you? What tips or tricks have helped you with your non-fiction writing? Leave me a comment and let me know!


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