Top Ten Tips for Nonfiction Writers
from Julie Wheelwright, programme director, MA Creative Writing
Nonfiction, City University, London
. Make sure that your story can sustain several
chapters and tens of thousands of words. Keep asking yourself: Why would
anyone would want to read this story?
Show rather than tell. With narrative nonfiction writing you
should have plenty of opportunities to develop drama. New writers often
give far too much information too quickly. Borrow from fiction by dropping
hints about the unfolding drama, use foreshadowing, develop timing and by
Develop objectivity towards your writing. It’s very hard when
you’re working intensively and drawing on your imagination to breathe life
into your long-dead characters or your long-ago past, to be objective. But
whether you’re writing memoir or biography, you are creating characters
and you will have to be brutal about what works and what doesn’t.
Do your research. Whether you’re writing biography, history,
travel or memoir you will need to check your facts. There’s nothing that
puts a reader off faster than seeing a factual error in print. The more
research you do, the more authentic your voice becomes. Your hard work
will pay off.
Work towards deadlines. Since writing a narrative piece,
especially if you haven’t yet got a contract, can become an endless
process of further research and more rewriting, give yourself an end
point. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the pages pile up and
finishing what you’ve begun.
Buy a filing cabinet. If you’re doing a big research project you
will need to be very organised about how to take notes and how to file
them. This can also save you hours of time and can be extremely useful for
Let your writing cook for a while. Once you’ve begun to write your
first chapter or chapters, let them sit for a few days. Do something else
before you come back to them and try to edit what you’ve written. You
often need distance to ‘see’ your work clearly.
Develop a habit of writing. After interviewing more than 200
authors I’ve found that writers almost universally agree that writing is
habitual, whatever the genre. Start a journal, write a blog, take notes.
Whatever it is that gets you into the habit of observing the world around
and recording it is an important part of that process.
Write an outline of your book. Structure is incredibly important
so begin with the arc of your story; where does it begin, what are its
peaks and troughs, what’s your conclusion and how are you going to get
Find a reading group, a network of readers or enrol onto an MA course.
Writers are a paradox: they need both isolation and support but at
different stages in the process. The new MA Creative Writing Nonfiction at
City offers both with one-to-one tutoring, a group workshop, guest
speakers and taught courses – everything you need to turn your ideas into
- Story, story, story
More information about Julie Wheelwright’s MA course at City
University in London.
Julie is the author of two books, Amazons and Military Maids
and The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage. She
has also produced several historical docu-dramas for radio and television in
the UK and Canada. Her most recent book, A Stolen Child: The Story of
Esther Wheelwright, will be published by HarperCollins in Canada next
© Julie Wheelwright 2008