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Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction


Writing non-fiction

Writing a non-fiction book is a very different project to writing a novel; the motivation, purpose, style and approach are quote distinct. ‘Non-fiction', of course, covers a wide range of genres and formats; however, there are some principles that apply across the board. In this article I will explore some of the basic requirements in writing a non-fiction book.

The reasons for writing a non-fiction book fall into four broad categories: to inform or educate (think history or science); to persuade or criticise (politics, religion or theories); to provide personal testimony (memoirs and autobiographies); and to explain a technique or method (manuals and how-to books). These rather various categories have one important thing in common; they all rely on real-world material - facts, evidence, authority, or lived experience.

If you are thinking about writing a non-fiction book, the chances are that you have uncovered a story that you feel needs to be told to a wider audience; or you have identified a knowledge gap (why isn't there a book about this?). Both are good places to start from, and both lead directly to the next stage in the process: initial research.

The initial research you carry out is in part market research. You want to know if any books have been published recently on the topic, and if so how they were received; that is, you want to know if there is a gap in the market that your book will fill. If you have a burning desire to write about something (perhaps your own lived experience) you may feel that you can skip this; but for most writers, researching the market is a key stage in the process.

Once you have reassured yourself that there is a place for your book idea, you can move on to the next stage: researching the topic or subject. You probably have a basic idea for the shape and form of the book; researching the subject area is an excellent way to test your core idea and develop it in light of the evidence you have found. In addition, your subject research will help you to find an original approach, an angle, which will set your book apart from others in the market.
The importance of thorough research cannot be overstated; if you don't put enough effort into it, there is every chance you will end up repeating what has already been said, or offering ideas and evidence that have been superseded by recent developments. On the other hand, if you take your research seriously, you will reap the rewards. Original, well thought out writing on almost any topic will usually find an audience.

One other thing you should think about: if you are going to reference, or quote from, other books and publications to support your own work, you can identify useful quotes, and check the correct attributions for them now; collect these quotes and references in a separate document, ideally with headings that correspond to the chapters in the book. This will be a valuable resource when you get to the writing process.If your basic idea has survived the research process (sadly, not every idea does so) it is time to plan your book. There are various techniques for doing this but, broadly, they all follow a similar pattern. First, you need to state your main idea, coherently and articulately, so that you can work from it and refer to it as you continue your project.

Next, you need to map the implications of your idea. Some writers use mind maps to do this; others make lists of the main points. Whichever method you opt for, the aim is to produce a workable plan for the book; at this stage, you should be able to envision the completed book as a series of chapters dealing with the main points in order.
Once you have a satisfactory map or list, you need to look at each element of it and decide what material you need to cover in each chapter or section. At this stage it is useful to remember that, in a planning process of this nature, what you cut is as important as what you add. Now is the time to remove irrelevant or unnecessary material; you want to pare down your map so that the most important features of the book take centre stage.

It is also a good idea to write and develop an outline of the book. This should start from your statement of the core idea and grow into a working synopsis or summary, a constant reminder to you of the main arc of the book. If the outline and the detailed map are at odds, you may need to amend one or the other. This is an excellent way to balance the broader aims of your book with the more detailed material in your writing plan.

You should consider your title, even at this early stage. Non-fiction books often have two-part titles: A short, catchy main title (usually no more than three or four words); and a sub-title that encapsulates the theme of the book. Like the outline, the working title is a good way to check that you are on course - and on topic - as you write.

You should think about your word count too; that may seem counter intuitive when you haven't actually started writing but it is worth doing. While ‘How long is a book?' is, on the face of it, as good as asking ‘how long is a piece of string', there are conventions for some non-fiction books. Manuals, self-help, professional development and medical advice books tend to be fairly short - typically around 40,000 words. For all other genres, go with the piece of string.

And now you are ready to write! Mercifully, the principles of good writing are the same whatever you are writing: put the reader front and centre and keep them there; remember that the reader knows nothing until you tell them. If you abide by these principles, you are heading in the right direction.

If you have any queries or suggestions for our new series, Ask the Editor, please email us.

When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

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