Writing non-fiction is less complex than fiction, but can be more time consuming. You don’t have to continuously think about characters or a storyline, but writing non-fiction is factual, and there are many different types of non-fiction books, eg. motivational, historical, educational, etc.
As with my previous article, Writing Fiction, I will address four important factors to remember when writing non-fiction – in no particular order.
Be creative: You may think that ‘being creative’ is a requirement normally associated with fiction writing. This is because ‘creative non-fiction’ has developed over the years, which means your non-fiction book now needs to be written like fiction. For example, if you are writing a scene about moving house, it wouldn’t suffice to write: ‘We moved house’; you would need to write something like:
‘We moved from our three-bedroom house to a four-bedroom Victorian one. When we arrived, the hallway was so long that you could kick a ball without damaging anything, but when I ran into my bedroom, I was disappointed; it was much smaller – more like a square box – and the walls were painted yellow. Yuck! I was wondering how I would fit all my toys and clothes.’
Publishers are looking for creative non-fiction, because they want books that grab the reader’s attention, and for readers to connect well with the book, so that they will tell others about it – like network marketing. Not every non-fiction book needs to be so descriptive; authors of motivational or Bible studies tend to include their own experiences instead, so it still reads like fiction and draws the reader in.
For a motivational book entitled ‘Don’t Settle For Less’, writing: ‘You need to get out of your comfort zone; God has bigger plans for you’ wouldn’t be enough to connect with the reader. The author would have to write about their own experiences:
‘There was a time in my life when I thought being a banker was enough. Why wouldn’t it be? I was earning £70,000 a year plus commission and bonus; I had a nice house, car… Some people would say that I was very blessed, yet inside I was unhappy and dissatisfied.’
Get the idea? Though writing non-fiction is less complex, you still need to be creative with it.
Your aims: Many people tell me they want to write their memoir. The reality is, however, that unless you are a celebrity or have an inspirational story, a mainstream publisher will not be interested in publishing your memoir. This is why I ask, Why do you want to write your story? What do you hope to achieve? What can readers learn from it? Remember, you’re telling the whole world your life story. Are you prepared for that kind of exposure? Before you start your non-fiction book, it is important to clarify the reasons why. What message do you want to give to your audience? This applies to writing any type of non-fiction book, not just memoirs.
Some people write non-fiction just to ‘get things off their chest’, in which case it would be better to write a fiction story. At least with fiction you can have characters and you won’t be exposing anybody per se (or yourself). Publishers and agents are not looking for authors who just want to ‘get something off their chest’. Remember, this is a business; they want serious authors – people who want to make a career from writing.
So, ask yourself: Do you really want to have a career as an author?
Research, research and research: This may seem obvious, but I have read many a non-fiction manuscript where no research was carried out at all, and I am not just talking about memoirs. I am talking about motivational texts, where statistics were needed, and where certain topics were addressed that needed research.
A potential client had written some facts that didn’t seem correct, and when I asked where they had obtained their data, they openly admitted to me that they had written them “off the top of their head”; they had a “busy lifestyle and didn’t have time to find out the information”. There was no way I was going to represent this person, as they were not serious about this as a career.
Yes, research can be very time consuming but it is needed. Research validates your content, and it will also help improve your writing. If fiction authors can conduct research – to ensure they are telling the story correctly – then there is no excuse for non-fiction writers.
Know your topic well: Unfortunately, I have also come across non-fiction manuscripts where the authors clearly didn’t know their topic, and/or were not passionate about it either. In my experience, the best writing comes from having a passion or possessing expert knowledge on a topic.
The only cases where non-fiction authors don’t require expertise is when they are writing a memoir or Bible study. I mention the latter, because one of my clients wrote an inspirational Bible study, without having a theology degree. It was mainly through personal experiences, some research and passion that she was able to produce a bestselling, inspirational book.
Happy non-fiction writing!