Tag Archives: writing a technical book

Starting to Write a Nonfiction Book

At last I got around to starting the introduction for the upcoming book on the various predicaments of women who are presented with a breast diagnosis, whether it’s DCIS or actual cancer.

This is something I realized I could write about several months ago, between the personal experience that recently culminated in a double mastectomy and the reams of research material I collected as I struggled to understand what was happening to me and to maintain some degree of control.

A lot of material has accrued during the nine months or so the little drama occupied the center stage of my life. This morning I went over to FedEx to collect the printouts of the umpty-jillion scientific studies, journalistic articles, nonprofit organizations’ public information, miscellaneous web pages, and files full of my own notes. The pile is huge:

P1030429Two extra-large three-ring binders, packed as full as they’ll go with printouts.

So… What do you do when you write a nonfiction book? How do you go about it? This is my third, not counting the ones for self-publication. And from experience I’d say the pattern is pretty much the same from opus to opus.

Step 1. Obviously, gather information. Gather a LOT of it.

2. Come up with a strategy to manage notes and printouts in a way that works for you. Personally, I build smaller projects — articles and blog posts — with material that’s found online and stays online. But for a larger project, or for something I take seriously and think will pay well, I print everything out on three-hole-punched paper and stash it in binders.

3. Organize the material. This step was much simplified by the computer and the flash drive. Thanks to the Mac’s “Finder” function — same as a PC’s file manager — I was able to sort all the stuff into numbered, titled folders and subfolders.

The result was a rough, informal outline of the book’s contents. When the FedEx guy printed out the files in the order in which I’d placed them on my flash drive, all the material came out to match the outline. Each of those pink sheets in the binders is a divider put in by the photocopier dude, demarcating the articles and giving me handy sheets on which to make notes and paste markers. So it’ll be relatively easy to find the material I need for this chapter or that section, because all of it appears in the order in which I’ll probably use it.

In the binders, I marked the material for each roughly planned chapter with a divider page and a home-made tab:


Click on the image for a better picture.

So. This is a good start. Next…

4. Number the pages from 1 to however many it takes.

5. Sit down and read the stuff from beginning to end. Mark it up with underscore or highlighter showing the most important points you want to make. Enter key words along the margins, and note any items you regard as especially useful or important.

7. Obtain several packages of index cards. With these at hand, go through the research material again. As you go, take notes on the index cards. On each card, enter a note to each important point. At the top left of the card, write the keyword that points to this point on the page. At the top right of the card, write the page number.

NotecardExample8. When you have sifted through all the pages and prepared note cards indicating where-what-is in the pile of data, organize your note cards by keywords. You will now have piles of note cards that bring together the information by keyword. This makes it fairly easy to organize and manipulate the vast amount of disparate data you’ve accumulated.

9. Compare these labeled piles with your outline. Adjust your outline (by now you’ll have new ideas) as desired. Now, using a large table top or the floor, arrange the piles by topic, in the order in which you plan to address each topic.

10. Stack the piles into one tower and set it next to your keyboard. Place your binder or file folders of printed notes on your desktop. Turn on your word processor.

Now you’re ready to write. All you have to do is go through the note cards, turn to the printout pages marked on the cards, and translate your notes and article printouts into narrative.

If it’s a formally researched book, as this one will probably be, open a Word file or get another pile of index cards and write out the correct citation for each source, in Chicago style (unless your publisher specifies some other manual).

Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah. That’s because it is a lot of work. I figure if I can break free two or three hours a day, I should be done by the end of 2015. But I do expect to have the introduction, a chapter, and a prospectus on the float within a month or two.

I wrote Math Magic for Scott Flansburg in a little under six months. We actually had a year to write it, but for personal reasons I had dawdled on getting started until we were less than six months from the deadline. We made the deadline — just — but only because I sat down and wrote eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week, until the MS was finished.

What with the teaching and the editorial enterprise, I’m certainly not going to have eight hours a day to spend on my own stuff. Two will be pushing it. However, if I can wrest a decent advance from someone — which may happen, given my track record — I should be able to belay some of the teaching or farm out the editorial work, and that will accelerate production of this book.

Should be interesting to see how it goes!