Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 18. Writing the Nonfiction Book
The Complete Writer
This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.
The Nonfiction Book
“Writing a Nonfiction Book”? I could write an entire book on the subject—as many others have, to ill effect.
Go to Amazon and search this string:
how to write a nonfiction book
Stay away from the ones that purport to teach you how to write a book in thirty days. There’s even one that claims you can write a book in twenty-one days! Avoid.
Make your way past the obvious frauds (sure, you can compile a book in a month: if your copy is already written) to texts that look like they make sense. There aren’t many.
Anything by William Zinsser is good. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is not a how-to but should not be missed. Stephen King’s On Writing is useful. Otherwise, well . . . My best advice is to learn by trial and error. Sit down, write the book, read it with a jaundiced eye, rewrite it, repeat.
You can apply most of the principles described in chapters 12 through 17 about writing feature articles, at least to chapters if not to the entire book-length document.
Of course, the nonfiction book is much more than just a long feature article. For that reason you need to think it through and map it out before beginning
First task is to consider who will read your book and why. What do you have to offer readers, and what might interest them most? This is where you need to lay your emphasis.
Consider who these readers are: What’s their reason for picking up your book? What is their reading level? In what context might they read your book—that is, would they read it on the job as something that will help them with their work? Or as a guide for a hobby, or as self-help to deal with a personal challenge? Are they looking for inspiration or facts or . . . what?
These and related issues will determine the content of your book, the kind of language you use to convey your content, and the book’s organization and slant.
Decide what information your readers need to know, and focus on that. Omit ephemeral material or, if you must, put it in an appendix.
Then organize carefully. It’s best to write an outline upfront, before you begin to write. True, some people don’t like to work this way, but with a book-length manuscript, it’s really not an option. You can always change the organization before your final draft. But at the outset, you need to know where you’re going.
Research carefully. Double-check your facts. Don’t assume it’s right just because you’ve known it half your life. The Internet puts the biggest library in human history on your desk, and Google gives you humanity’s most versatile indexing system. Use them.
Cite sources for everything that’s not common knowledge. Be careful to avoid accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work—all words taken from some other source should be put in quotation marks and cited; any ideas that are not your own should be acknowledged.
If you decide to write a book based on your blog, bear in mind that blog posts are not book chapters. Much of the material in this book comes from posts on various blogs, but to make them fit, I’ve had to rewrite extensively. The language of book publishing, by and large, is not bloggish. Create a convincing voice and style for the book, and use it throughout.
Organizing your research
Research for a nonfiction book can be extensive. For a book in progress on DCIS and low-level noninvasive breast cancer, I have three huge three-ring binders filled with articles and notes. The information in those binders is organized and indexed on hundreds of index cards.
To get a grip on that much information, I use a fairly simple system:
- Print out all source material, including interview transcripts, articles downloaded from the Internet, web pages, and everything else. Use three-hole punched paper, or get a paper punch and punch holes in the printouts.
- Organize the printouts roughly by topic, trying to get the material in the order of the planned chapters, as best as possible.
- Place the printouts in one or more binders.
- Number the pages.
- Reread the material from beginning to end, noting keywords relevant to the book’s planned content and organization in the printouts’ margins.
- Get a large stack of notecards.
- Go through the printouts again, from beginning to end. Enter each keyword on a notecard with a note about what is said concerning the topic. Also enter the page number on the notecard.
- Organize the notecards by the book outline’s sections and, within those, by keywords.
Now you can use the notecards to guide you through your research material to write and organize your book’s content.
Budget time for the job
This is not something you’re going to accomplish in a month or (as one cheesy book on Amazon proclaims) a day. It will take weeks and probably months to write a book. Occasionally a writer spends years on a book. So don’t expect to toss it off in a short time.is not something you’re going to accomplish in a month or (as one cheesy book on Amazon proclaims) a day. It will take weeks and probably months to write a book. Occasionally a writer spends years on a book. So don’t expect to toss it off in a short time.
The most efficient way to work on a book is to schedule a set time and number of hours per day or per week for the project.
Don’t let other people or distractions interfere with that schedule. The only way you can get the job done is to do it. If you’re not doing it, you will never finish the book.
If your family’s demands interfere to the extent that you can’t break free the time needed for the project, hire a babysitter for the little ones and take yourself, your laptop, and your research materials to a coffee house or a library. Many people find they work best when they’re away from home, even if “away” is at a park or a restaurant.
By the same token, however, don’t overdo it. Limit the amount of time and attention you dedicate to the project to your scheduled work times. Otherwise, the thing will expand to fill all corners of your life, and you will be come a very dull boy or girl. As you make time for your writing, also make time for your family, your social life, and some physical activity. Time spent away from writing is psychologically as effective for your work as time spent on the writing.
Keep publishability in mind
As you’re writing the book, don’t forget that you have to peddle it to a publisher and you have to peddle it to readers.
Bear in mind who your readers will be and how your book will differ from and improve on others on your subject. As you’re writing, keep thinking about what will engage your readers’ interest and reading skills. Never lose sight of your market.
Get someone else to read it
Consider feedback from the sort of people who might be your readers to be a non-negotiable part of the process. Your book is not finished until someone else has read it, told you what they think of it, and suggested what might make it better. It’s not finished until you take that advice into account and revise accordingly.
Hire or “volunteer” a beta reader, as described in chapters 7 and 9. Give this person some specific tasks to think about: don’t just hand over the manuscript and ask “whaddaya think?” Most people are afraid to hurt your feelings and so will answer “it’s fine! I love it!” This is not helpful.
Chapter 9 offers some strategies to help elicit useful feedback. Reassure your reader that your heart will not be broken if there’s something she or he doesn’t like, and that in fact, being straight with you will help you write the best book you can. Having made this promise, behave yourself professionally if the response contains some negative or disappointing commentary.
Hire a professional editor
Beta readers usually know nothing about the exigencies of publishing a book-length manuscript. You need professional editing help to prepare the manuscript for submission to an agent or for self-publication.
Many universities maintain lists of editors for graduate students completing dissertations and for faculty members who must publish or perish. Call the graduate college at your nearest university or, failing that, the English department or the university’s press office for referrals to experienced editors. There also are professional groups of editorial specialists, such as the Council of Science Editors; often they maintain lists of members looking for freelance work.
You can contact The Copyeditor’s Desk (http://thecopyeditorsdesk.com) through the contact page at the website, or through the P&S Press contact page. We may be able to help with your manuscript, or refer you to someone with expertise in your subject matter.