Many of the same fiction writing tips and tricks apply to nonfiction, from avoiding passive voice to eliminating clichés. However, a great advantage of nonfiction writing is that even if you experience writer's block, you can always take that time to do more research and dig into the facts of your topic. Nonfiction writing (especially good writing) is considered a skill that requires patience, persistence, and a forceful narrative voice to do well.
Part 1 of 3: Prepare to Write
Step 1. Understand the gender
Nonfiction writing is literature that is based on facts. Nonfiction writers can focus on topics like biographies, business, cooking, health and fitness, pets, crafts, home decor, travel, religions, art, history, etc. The list of possible topics to write on could be endless.
- Unlike fiction, which is literature created from the imagination, non-fiction is structured around real events, moments, practices, and approaches to a topic.
- Biographies are a type of non-fiction writing that acts as a record of events that is based on intimate knowledge and personal observation. So if you're writing a bio, you probably need to do a little research about your memories of a particular event or moment. However, most biographers do less research than other nonfiction writers, since the basis of their story is personal memory.
Step 2. Read several good nonfiction examples
Many well-written and engaging nonfiction books end up being a bestseller and make the best-of-the-year lists. Various themes, such as the war in the Middle East, 21st century scientific developments, and institutional racism in the American judicial system, have represented popular non-fiction themes. Of course, writing about food, home decor, and travel are also topics of interest. You can take a look at the following non-fiction books:
- The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert, who writes about science for other highly respected publications, looks at the history of life on earth and concludes that we are experiencing the sixth mass death, thanks to changes imposed on the planet by humans. A fascinating non-fiction look at humanity's influence on nature and science.
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. This book by Stevenson focuses on the trial of a black man convicted of murdering a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. In an informative but unsentimental tone, Stevenson presents a new way of thinking about the death penalty and examines the biases of capital punishment in the United States.
- Sous-Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Gibney. A restaurant kitchen has been the scene of many popular nonfiction writings. Gibney's book takes a look at the selfish and empowered chefs and the young savages who serve under his command, the chef's helpers. Gibney uses sharp prose and solid technical details to bring the reader the sights, smells, tastes, and confrontations in one shift in the kitchen.
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed's nonfiction story about his journey through suffering, addiction and loneliness on the Pacific Massif Trail is a great example of combining a personal story or autobiographical style writing with real details and scenes.
- DIY Ideas: Projects and Tips for Every Room by Kathy Barnes. This nonfiction book on home décor from Better Homes and Gardens magazine focuses on DIY projects. Contains over 200 fun and accessible home improvement projects with clear instructions and beautiful photos.
Step 3. Analyze the examples
After you've read several nonfiction books, think about how the writer uses objective evidence and approaches the subject in an interesting way. You can ask questions like the following:
- What makes the writer's approach to your topic unique or attractive?
- How does the writer use factual information in his narrative?
- How does the writer organize the information in his book? Do you use section breaks, parts, or a table of contents?
- How does the writer cite the sources in the narrative?
- As a reader, what was the most shocking scene in the book? Which scene was the least effective for you?
Step 4. Determine the topic or subject
You probably already have a topic in mind, or maybe you're not sure how to narrow down your wide range of interests. However, it is important that you focus on the subject and the perspective that you are going to adopt about it. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I passionate about or interested in? If you write a book about a topic that interests you, you will make the investigation more resounding and you will dedicate yourself to telling the story with much more forcefulness.
- What does a story represent that only I can tell? Or what makes my opinion about a topic unique? For example, you may be interested in baking or same-sex unions. However, you must determine what makes your opinion unique about these issues. To prepare cakes, you may need to focus on developing a specific technique or a particular dough (such as croissants). To address a current issue (such as same-sex unions), you may be better off focusing on a particular section of the United States (such as the Bible belt) to see how this issue affects these communities.
- Who could read this book? It is important that you identify the target audience for your book and its market. You must have a large enough target audience for the book to justify its writing. For example, a nonfiction book about the evolution of croissants might be of interest to other pastry chefs, food critics, and readers interested in baking. Plus, it can appeal to history buffs who enjoy reviewing the history of food from a unique perspective.
Step 5. Come up with ideas
Take some time to let your creative juices flow. Grab a blank sheet of paper and a pen, or open a new document on your computer.
- There are many ways to brainstorm, such as a mind map (boxes around the main idea that are then lined up with other related words or phrases).
- You can also create a list of possible unique perspectives on the main idea. For example, a dietary history of the croissant, its political implications, or the different types that exist in Europe.
Step 6. Create an outline or table of contents
One of the easiest ways to organize your thoughts is to create an outline or table of contents for your book. A more detailed outline will also help you focus your research on certain aspects of the topic.
- Write a bulleted list, with the main topic and then subtopics or headings below it. For example, to write a book on croissants, the main title might be Croissants, and the subtopics might cover the origin, history, development, establishment of basic croissants, and their current variations.
- You can also make a chart of the topics and subtopics, and then add a sub-subtopic below them. Try to broaden the idea as much as possible and write anything (even if it feels a bit off the field) that you think might be a possible subtopic of the main topic.
Step 7. Determine how much research is needed on the topic
Good nonfiction is based on months (if not years) of research. In addition to internet research, you will likely need to go to libraries, archives and registry offices, newspapers, and even microfilm.
- In addition, you need to look for subject matter experts and "event witnesses," which mean people who can share first-person testimonies about an event. Next, you need to keep track of the leads and interviewees, transcribe the interviews, and read a lot of material.
- For each topic and subtopic in the table of contents, there is brainstorming about possible research you might need. For example, for the origin or history of croissants, you may want to speak to historians who specialize in research on French food or French food culture.
- Ask yourself the following questions: What do I not know about this topic? Who is the best person to talk about this topic? What kind of documentation can I consult about this topic?
Step 8. Write a list of research tasks
Review the plan or table of contents in detail. Take all the research items you listed and put them on a to-do list.
- Write a list of URLs, books, and articles that you need to find and read.
- Make a list of the places you will likely need to visit (for example, a French bakery).
- Write a list of experts or witnesses you need to interview.
Part 2 of 3: Research the Book
Step 1. Begin with the most important research items
This is a good tactic if you are working under a deadline and cannot afford to invest years of research. Sort your research task list from most important to most enjoyable.
Step 2. Schedule interviews with experts or witnesses in advance
You should do this first to give interviewees time to respond to your requests. You must be receptive when scheduling an interview and be specific about possible times for the interview.
- If you are having difficulty getting potential interviewees to contact you about the timing of the interview, don't be afraid to be persistent. You may need to contact them again with a reminder email, especially if they have busy schedules or receive a lot of emails every day.
- You can also think about talking to people who are easier to access like a family friend who could give you an expert opinion or a person who works in a lower position who can still give you relevant information. Often times, establishing a relationship with someone who works with a person you are trying to interview can also help you get in touch with the subject of the interview.
Step 3. Conduct the interviews
You must exercise good listening skills during the interview. The goal of the interview is to learn more about the person or get more information about them, so don't interrupt them as they speak or try to show how much you know.
- Prepare a list of questions for the interviewee. However, don't feel obligated to comply with the list of questions. The person may provide you with information that you weren't prepared for or maybe you weren't looking for, so be open to moments when the interview takes a different direction.
- If you do not understand a comment from the interviewee, you should ask for clarification. If the person starts to go off on a tangent, you can refocus the topic you are investigating.
- If you are interviewing someone in person, you should use a digital recorder with a background noise blocker. If you are conducting extensive interviews with one person, you can hire a transcription service to transcribe the interviews and save yourself some time.
- If you are interviewing someone over the internet or via Skype, you can download recording applications to record the conversation. You can then rewatch the video and transcribe it, or submit it to a transcription service.
Step 4. Go to the public library
Make the research librarian at your local library your new best friend. Before computers, librarians acted like roving databases and, in many ways, still are.
Most librarians can point you to a specific shelf that applies to your topic or a particular research book that you might find helpful. 90% of research is done through libraries' full-text databases, so you can take advantage of this free source of information
Step 5. Look for university and specialized libraries
Most universities have a large central library and several special collection libraries. Although you may have to pay a fee to access certain books or databases on the internet, university libraries are an excellent resource for academic and scientific topics.
Step 6. Review government documents and records
Public government records and documents can be excellent sources of research. Many of these documents are freely accessible and can provide objective information essential to a particular topic.
Step 7. Take advantage of the information on the internet
One of the best ways to conduct research online is to use search engines effectively.
- Type multiple keywords into search engines to find useful sources of information on the internet. Search engines like Google and Yahoo are good places to start. You can also try meta search engines like Dogpile and MetaCrawler, which tend to search for lesser-known and specialized web pages. You should be aware of the downsides of metasearch engines, as they usually only allow keyword searches and pull paid content, full of ads.
- Try to search beyond the first page of your search. Some of the best sources are likely to be found starting on page 5 of your search.
- Next, you should confirm that the sources are reputable by looking at the "About Us" section of the web page and verifying that the web page URL ends in ".edu", ".gov" or ".org".
Step 8. Gather your research in one place
Use a virtual folder on Google Drive to keep all your research documents in one easy-to-find place. Open a Word file to place your notes.
You can also use sticky notes on paper documents to jot down important information. You should keep one or more physical folders to store other important documents (such as photos, newspaper clippings, and handwritten notes)
Part 3 of 3: Write the book
Step 1. Analyze your research
Take some time to review your notes, your interview transcripts, and any other documentation that you have collected. Determine if your perspective on the topic is supported by your research, or if your research sheds a different light on your original perspective.
For example, you may have thought that a book about the evolution of the crescent was a unique idea, but in the course of your research, you may come across books on pastry, which include croissants. Think about how your book is going to differ from what is already available today. So your book on the evolution of the crescent might be unique in that it looks at how the crescent-shaped loaves of the Middle Ages became the French and Austrian croissants we enjoy today
Step 2. Determine a writing schedule
This item will help you determine how long it will take to write a draft of the book. If you are working with a deadline, you can make your schedule tighter than if you had the luxury of more time to write.
- If you are writing a nonfiction book from an autobiographical perspective, you may need to do less research to integrate it into the book. Instead, you're going to spend a lot of time writing about a process you created, your own life story, or your area of expertise.
- A nonfiction book that is research-based will take longer to write, as you will need to study, evaluate, and summarize your documentation. You should also draw on information from interviews with experts and witnesses.
- Try organizing your schedule around word or page counts. So if you normally write around 750 words per hour, you need to take this detail into account in your schedule. If you think you can actually only write two pages per hour, you should use this detail as an estimate in your schedule.
- Determine how long it will take you on average to compose a given number of words, or number of pages, per day. If you are working toward an end word count goal (say, 50,000 words or 200 pages), you need to focus on how many hours per week it will take you to reach this goal.
- You must reserve more hours than you think you might need due to "unforeseen circumstances." You likely have slow days, research you weren't planning to examine in more detail, or an interviewee that you need to follow up with in some detail.
- Set weekly deadlines. You can perform a word count, page count, or completion of a certain section. However, you must set weekly deadlines and stick to them.
Step 3. Create an outline of the plot
Even though you're writing nonfiction, following the principles of plot development can help you shape your book. In addition, it can make it easier for you to organize your research materials in an attractive and interesting way for the reader. The plot of a story is what happens and the order in which it happens. For there to be a story, something has to move or change. Something or someone must move from point A to point B due to a physical event, a decision, a change in a relationship, or a change in a character. The plot outline should include the following:
- The goal of the story. The plot of any story is a sequence of events that revolve around an attempt to solve a problem or achieve a goal. The goal of the story is what your protagonist (which could be you if you are writing an autobiography) wants to achieve or the problem he is trying to solve.
- The consequences. Ask yourself the following: What disaster can happen if the goal is not reached? What is the fear of the protagonist if he does not reach the goal or does not manage to solve the problem? The consequence is the negative situation or event that will result if the objective is not reached. The combination of objectives and consequences generates the main dramatic tension in the plot. This is what makes the plot make sense.
- The requirements. These are the ones that must be met to achieve the goal. Think of them as a checklist of one or more events. As the requirements are met in the course of the novel, the reader will feel that the characters (or if you are writing a biography, the first-person narrator) are getting closer to reaching the goal. The requirements generate a sense of anticipation in the mind of the reader, as they expect the protagonist to be successful.
Step 4. Write the manuscript
Take your research, writing schedule, and plot outline to start writing. You should find a quiet and secluded place at home or a study. Disconnect the internet, put your phone away, and tell everyone to leave you alone to limit your distractions.
- Some writers avoid reviewing the manuscript as they write so as not to get stuck in a certain section or part and deviate from the writing schedule. However, each writer has their own writing and rewriting process.
- If you get stuck, you should review your research. You can use this time without writing to follow up on a research idea or review a section of it that may be useful later in your book.
Step 5. Avoid the passive voice
If you use the passive voice, your writing will end up feeling endless and boring. Look for signs of a passive voice by circling the words "is," "has," and other passive verbs such as "begun," "had," "resembled," and "appeared" in the manuscript.
Conduct a grammar check (or use an app like Hemingway) to count the number of passive sentences in your manuscript. Set a maximum goal of 2-4%
Step 6. Stick to informal language, unless the use of formal terms is absolutely necessary
Instead of "use" you can simply put "use". Focus on simple language, with words of one or two syllables. The only time you should go for higher-level language is if you are using scientific terms or describing a technical process. Even then, you should be targeting the average reader.
It can help you determine the ideal reader's reading level for your book. You can determine your reading level based on the grade level of your ideal reader. If you consider bilingual readers, you should aim for a 6th or 7th grade reading level. If you are writing for a higher education audience, you can write at an 8th or 9th grade level. You can use the Hemingway app to determine the reading level of your draft or other reading level tools on the internet
Step 7. Keep first person use to a minimum
Unless you write a bio, your audience will respond better to the process, event, or topic you are trying to describe if you write in the third person. Therefore, try to eliminate all possible first-person sentences.
Step 8. Show the facts and don't tell them
You can hook the reader by showing them a specific process or scene, rather than telling them directly. For example, a scene showing the process of making a croissant, with details about how the baker prepares and kneads it on the table, will be more interesting than saying to the reader, "This is how the dough is made."
You should also avoid adverbs in writing, as they tend to weaken the sentence. For example, a sentence such as: “When the baker saw that the dough was rising too fast, he opened the oven door”, shows the urgency of the scene without having to use adverbs like “suddenly” or “quickly”
Step 9. Read the manuscript out loud
Find some friends, colleagues, or a writing group who have sympathetic ears, and read some sections of your manuscript out loud to them. Good writing engages readers as listeners, with details and descriptions that create visceral imagery and a strong narrative.
Don't try to impress your listeners or create a "reading voice." You just have to read naturally and slowly. You should look for a reaction in your listeners when you finish reading. Note if some sections were confusing or unclear to your listeners
Step 10. Review the manuscript
Before submitting your book to any publisher, you must edit the manuscript. You may want to hire a professional proofreader to do a good review of the book for common mistakes.
- Don't be afraid to cut at least 20% of the material. You may be able to get rid of certain sections that take too long and cause the reader to tune out. Don't be shy about cutting out sections of chapters or pages that may represent dead weight.
- See if each scene in the book uses the power of the senses. Are you engaging at least one of the reader's senses in each scene? The power of improvement through the senses (taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing) is a trick that both fiction and non-fiction writers can use to keep the reader interested.
- Check the timeline of the book. Does it explain the entire process or procedure of the topic? Do you explore your perspective to the fullest? For example, a book about croissants should explain the preparation process from start to finish.
- The level of sentences. Check the transitions between the paragraphs, are they homogeneous or uneven? Look for excessive adverbs or terms and replace them so that sentences don't start to seem redundant.