Writing Non-Fiction

Whenever I thought about writing, I always assumed that writing non-fiction would be faster and easier than writing fiction. With fiction, I need a plot. I need a beginning, a middle and an ending. I need an interesting storyline and I need well-developed and compelling characters to keep the reader’s attention. Non-fiction, I thought, is easy. I just research the topic, follow the basic Ws that they teach you about good report writing, and meet the target age level.

Having now written both non-fiction books and edutainment web-content, I’ve learned that non-fiction writing isn’t easier-it’s simply a different animal.

The first stage of writing non-fiction is outlining. I receive guidlines of how many chapters the book should have, an approximate word count, required extra features, and the desired reading-level from the publisher, but the rest is up to me. With this in mind, I start the research process, and as I’ve discovered, if you don’t budget your time properly, it can swallow you up. For my first assignment, I ran to my local public library and signed out at least a half dozen books on my topic. This wasn’t as helpful as I’d anticipated. Many of the books had older pub dates and were out-of-date, were too biased or didn’t contain as much relevant information as I’d hoped. In some cases, there were no books at all available on a topic, and I ended up finding more helpful and up-to-date information online. The books I did find were an interesting read and gave me some jumping off points, but the web is a valuable source of information.

I also spent a lot of time learning what were and weren’t acceptable sources on the web. Obviously, Wikipedia isn’t a credible source for citation, but in some cases, it did help me to get some ideas of where to direct my research, and of what points I might cover. How-it-works pages and other general interest sites were also helpful, but still not acceptable sources. In the case of writing about a person, if I read something on a general interest site, I googled the specific point and looked for another source to back it up. There can be a lot of conflicting information when it comes to people and historical events, and it’s important to be sure that you’ve got it as right as possible.

Another challenge with my first outline was learning what level of detail was necessary. Without intending to, I practically wrote the entire manuscript in my first outline, when all the publisher really needed was a brief statement of what would be in the chapter. (Oops!) I learned that a few brief points were plenty, and I could fill in the details later once I had editor approval on the outline. I also learned another important lesson- My outline isn’t written-in-stone. I naturally assumed that once I got approval on the outline, I had to stick to the exact content and order that I’d proposed. Also not true. I didn’t have license to drastically deviate from what we’d already agreed on, but you never know where research will take you, or how that basic outline will look to you once you flush out details. In my most recent manuscript, I ended up moving several points into different chapters than I’d originally proposed, because it turned out they made better sense somewhere else.

Once the outline was done and I was good to go, I encountered a new challenge- finding enough unique information to actually write what I’d proposed. My last outline was relatively easy to bullet-point, but then hard to write because many of my sources didn’t expand enough on the topic. This was where doing a Google News search on my topic turned out to be really helpful. I found a host of recent news articles to expand on my points, and I was able to get the information I needed. In this case, my manuscript did change slightly from the original because I discovered that while some points seemed unique when I was creating bullet points, they were really part of the same argument (the book is a pro-con format). This taught me that until the last edit is completed, you’re never done researching. The time I spent doing the initial research was helpful, but there is always more information required. I also realized that with web research, sometimes it’s easier to just write as you go.

In the case of my most recent books, sidebars and “Did You Know” fact-boxes were part of the requirements, and these were the hardest to write. The sidebars had to contain information related to but not contained in the main text, and the did-you-know boxes had to contain an interesting fact or statistic also not covered in the main text. Again, this is an area where a Google news search is extremely helpful as it really helps to uncover some of the more antecdotal information.

Finally,I learned to think like a reader and consider a)what about this topic will the reader find interesting, b)what questions might they have about what I’ve written, and c)will they understand what I’ve written. As the person doing the research and the writing, the information makes sense to me, but I have to remember that my job is to educate the audience, and they don’t necessarily know any more about the topic than I did when I started. My editors have really been amazing about asking some of the questions I hadn’t considered, but I like to think I’m getting better at answering them on my own.

While writing non-fiction is defintiely challenging and a lot of work, if you are the kind of person who has the patience to do through research and find interesting ways to convey your findings to a wide audience, it can be a very rewarding experience.

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