Write Non Fiction

Nonfiction writing includes many different types of creative work, including essays, memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. But nonfiction also includes different types of instructive/informational writing, such as academic textbooks, self-help books, and travel/reference books. If you're interested in writing nonfiction, you'll want to decide on a type of nonfiction that you're most interested in and read as much as you can by popular authors in that field. Once you've gotten the hang of the genre, you'll be ready to write your own compelling work of nonfiction.


Crafting a Personal Essay

  1. Brainstorm ideas for your essay. Unlike writing a memoir about a specific time and place in your life, an essay is not restricted by any limiting factors. An essay works best when it is somewhat specific, but it can ultimately be about anything you want. There are some general guidelines that can help strengthen your essay, though, and as you brainstorm ideas you may want to think about the elements of a strong essay.[1]
    • Think about things that you care about or are passionate about. Make a list of 10 subjects, then decide which subject you will have the most to say about (and/or the subject with which you have the most personal experience).
    • Don't resist a topic because it will be difficult or require research. If you're passionate about that subject and you think you have a lot to say about it, then go for it.
    • Be flexible. You may decide to change your mind, or you may find that some items on your list relate to one another (and could potentially be woven together).
  2. Narrow down your topic. Once you have a general subject that you're interested in, you'll need to narrow it down to its core elements. In other words, you can't write an essay about a broad concept you're curious about or interested in; you'll need to work out the nuts and bolts of what that topic means to you. Think about why you're interested in that topic, how it relates to your life, and what your authority is on that subject (you don't need to be a scholar, but you should have enough personal experience to talk confidently about that subject).[2]
    • Since you're writing a personal essay, it's important that the topic you choose has some direct, personal significance in your life.
    • Be as specific as possible when choosing your topic. Narrow it down to a memory, an occasion, etc.
    • For example, instead of writing about loss, you might choose to write about a specific kind of loss (like death), then choose one specific event (like the death of a parent or friend) as your starting point.
    • The various elements of your essay should all be related somehow, and you'll need to make that relationship clear to the reader to avoid confusion.
    • You can always expand your topic to include other related concepts/events, or to become a larger meditation on the larger subject that your event touches on, but it's best to begin with one single topic idea and go from there.
  3. Try writing in different forms. There are many different ways to construct a personal essay. No form is necessarily right or wrong; it's largely a matter of personal aesthetics and preference. Try out a few different forms and see what fits your essay the best.[2]
    • One common form for writing personal essays is to begin with a very specific image, instant, or memory (zoomed in, to put it in film terms) and gradually expand outward to address the larger subject.
    • Another common form employs the exact opposite: starting very broad, then zooming in on the specific memory, event, etc. This can be a bit tricky, though, as a broad topic can easily lose the interest of your readers early on in the essay.
    • One form that's been gaining popularity over the last few years is the lyric or hybrid essay. This combines poetry and essay elements, essentially creating a long-form nonfiction poem.
    • Try writing your essay in one form, and if it doesn't feel right you can experiment with a different form.
  4. Write your first draft. As you compose your first draft, be aware of the voice and tone that your essay takes. The voice should be your natural voice - in other words, don't try to imitate another author. The tone should reflect the content of the essay. So, for example, in an essay about death and grieving, you don't want to write in a happy, bubbly tone.
    • Don't worry about typos (unless they'll be impossible to decipher) while you write your first draft. You can fix these minor errors in the editing and revision stage.
    • Make sure you're using visceral details - what many writing teachers refer to as showing, not telling. For example, instead of saying outright that you were frustrated, describe the way you narrowed your eyes and furrowed your brow at someone.
    • Think about whether the form you're using is working for the essay at hand. If it's not working, try something different, as the overall form will be more difficult to work with during revision.
    • Consider whether or not you adequately address every aspect of your subject. As you complete your first draft, you should also think about whether or not you've left anything unresolved and make any necessary corrections.
  5. Incorporate sensory details. Sensory details are the bread and butter of any narrative piece of writing. Just because you're writing a nonfiction essay or book, it doesn't mean you can't get creative. Think about how your favorite fiction authors portray a scene and try to apply those same skills to nonfiction.[3]
    • Try to incorporate all five senses. You won't be able to make the reader see, hear, smell, taste, or touch the things you have, but if you craft your piece of writing skillfully, the reader should feel like he/she has experienced them first hand.
    • Build your images in a linear, narrative way. In other words, don't fill every tangent with long-winded descriptive passages - save that for the main "story" thread of your book or essay.
    • Make sure your details are relevant. If you're just throwing in details to make the essay or book "pretty," it's probably just a distraction.

Writing a Creative Nonfiction Book

  1. Decide on your subject matter. Unlike an essay, which can either stick to one single topic or expand into other related topics, a nonfiction book should be focused on one specific subject. That subject may be some particular aspect of your life (with a specific time and place), or it may be about other people/places that interest you. It doesn't necessarily have to be your story like a personal essay. It's up to you to decide what subject matter you find most meaningful, and find interesting ways to talk about that subject.[4]
    • Think about the things that you find most captivating.
    • Unlike a personal essay, you do not have to be the main subject of a nonfiction book (though you can be!).
    • As you consider your subject matter, remember that you'll need to be able to write a whole book about that subject. Think about whether you'd be able to say that much about a subject before you commit to it.
  2. Choose a format. There are a few different ways to write a nonfiction book. Which format you choose depends largely on the subject matter. Before you start writing your book, it's best to think about what format would work best for the type of book you're imagining for yourself. Some examples include:[5]
    • A memoir (from the French word for "memory/reminiscence") is a detailed retelling of some part of your life. Unlike an autobiography, which can cover a whole life, a memoir is usually rooted in a specific theme, event, or time and place in your life.[6]
    • A travelogue discusses a place and its people, culture, and/or food. It tends to be very heavily based upon the author's experience and therefore is a subjective personal account (unlike a travel guide, which seeks to objectively convey information without any personal experience).[7]
    • Nature and environmental writing should revolve around a personal experience with nature. The writing should ultimately promote some degree of awareness of current environmental issues and should ideally foster a sense of wonder, adventure, and advocacy in readers.[8]
    • A biography is a retelling of someone else's life, and it may cover a specific time period (like a memoir of someone else's life) or that person's entire life. Biographies can be captivating narrative reenactments of a person's life, and can really bring the subject's story to life.[5]
    • If you have a series of related personal essays, you can organize them into a book-length essay collection.
  3. Outline your book. Once you've narrowed down your topic and chosen a format, you'll want to outline the project. Some writers find it helpful to narrow down what each individual chapter will cover during the outlining phase. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but you may find it helpful. At the very least you should have a simple structure (even a list) that lays out what you would like to include in your book. This way you won't forget about those aspects when you're immersed in the actual writing of the book.[4]
    • Think about where you could best begin your book, and what the logical conclusion of that story should be. If writing a biography, for example, the book might end with a retelling of the subject's death.
    • If you're writing a memoir, the book should adequately frame the chosen time and place in your life. It's up to you to decide where the logical conclusion of that part of your life should be, and how to tell it best.
    • If you're writing a travelogue, you'll need to include details about yourself, as well as where, when, why, and how you traveled. You should make yourself easy to relate to for readers and write in a way that brings your experience to life on the page.[7]
    • When writing about nature or the environment, you'll need to show a genuine engagement with nature (ideally through some form of outdoor activity), balance nature facts with your subjective thoughts and feelings, and show a level of curiosity that makes everyday objects in nature seem new and exciting.[9]
  4. Conduct the necessary research. Every nonfiction book requires some research, whether that entails actual encyclopedic research or simple interviews with others.[4] Even if you're writing a memoir, you'll want to ask other people about their memories of that time/place/event so you can cross-check your own memories.
    • If you're writing a biography, you will most likely need a lot of factual information. This may require reading through textbooks and other biographies, or even visits to a museum or historical society.
    • If you're writing a memoir, talk to other people who knew you during that time (ideally a close relative, friend, or someone who was with you as you experienced that part of your life). You'd be amazed at how many details you've forgotten, misremembered, or completely fabricated.
    • A travelogue should draw heavily upon your notes and journals from the trip, but you'll also need to conduct research on the subjects you write about. For example, you'll want to learn as much as possible about the culture and people of that region, the food most frequently associated with that culture, etc.
    • A nature or environmental project should involve researching the names and descriptions of the plants, animals, and geographic areas you describe. You may also want to research how ecosystems work together in complex and unique ways in the areas you write about.
  5. Treat each chapter like a work of fiction. Treating the book like a work of fiction does not mean fictionalizing the story. Rather, it means employing the skills and tools that fiction writers use.[3]
    • Create scenes within your essay or book, the same way a fiction writer would portray a scene in a short story or novel.
    • Think of the people in your nonfiction essay/book as characters. Are they fully developed on the page, and do readers get a good sense of their overall personalities?
    • Write strong dialogue. No one can remember the exact, word-for-word transcript of every conversation they've ever had, but your recollection of conversations should be as truthful as possible and written in a way that's easy to follow.
  6. Stick to a writing schedule. Writing schedules are invaluable to every writer, but they're pretty much a necessity when you're writing a book-length project. Consider your designated writing time an extension of your job - you'll need to show up and do your work, no matter how you feel or what other distractions may present themselves.[4]
    • Make sure you work in a quiet place where you won't be distracted or disturbed.
    • You can measure your writing time temporally (by how many hours have passed), or by word or page count.
    • Be consistent with your schedule. It doesn't necessarily have to be every day, but it should be the same days and the same times, week in and week out.
  7. Produce your first draft. Remember that no one's first draft is perfect, and that includes now-famous authors. The well-polished works of nonfiction you love so much were re-written and revised many times until everything fit perfectly into place. Be patient and don't get discouraged.
    • Focus on larger issues as you hammer out your first draft. You can correct line-level issues during the revision/editing process.
    • Make sure everything is tied up by the end of the book. Don't leave anything unresolved, and make sure the reader will have a sense of closure and completion by the end of your book.

Composing Other Types of Nonfiction

  1. Write an informational book. Informational books are somewhat similar to how-to books. However, instead of providing step-by-step guidance, an informational book might simply cover a subject thoroughly enough that the average reader could walk away having learned something.[5]
    • If you're going to write an informational book, you'll need to know a lot about that subject. Most informational books are written by experts in that field.
    • If you're not an expert, that's okay. You'll just need to make up for it with exceptional and extensive research.
    • Informational writing should provide readers with clear definitions of terms, detailed descriptions of what something is and how it works, and information on how to engage with that object (using it, finding it, etc.).[10]
    • Make sure you'll be able to write a whole book on the subject you've chosen. Again, you don't need to know everything about that subject, but it should be something that can be written about at length if you want to fill a whole book.
  2. Put together an academic book. An academic book is usually written with the intent of being used as a scholarly textbook. This means that any academic book you write will need to be fact checked, proofread, and cover every aspect of that subject. Extensive and exhausting research should also go into any book that will be used for academic purposes.[5]
    • Think about the intended audience/readership for your book. You'd write a much shorter and easier to read book on history for elementary school or middle school students than you would for a graduate course, for example.
    • Academic texts should be written formally, avoiding any slang or colloquialisms. Academic writing should also include complex language that is technical and specialized when necessary.[11]
    • You'll need to make connections clear to the reader so that seemingly disparate concepts are explicitly related and clarified.
    • Remember that your textbook will be influencing the minds of countless students. Having any errors, omissions, or personal bias on the subject could affect those students' educational potential.
    • An example of an academic book would be a history or biology book.
  3. Compose an instructive book. There are several different types of instructive nonfiction books. Two of the most common include how-to guides and cookbooks. Though very different in subject matter, both books must deliver complex information in simple, step-by-step instructions for readers of every possible background.[5]
    • Writing an instructive book will require a good deal of research as well, but it will be research that will help you relay steps in a project (rather than research that will create the definitive book of World History, for example).
    • An instructive book should break down the basic concepts of a project, define any unique terms, and give readers a thorough, step-by-step guide on how to complete that project.
    • Do your research, talk to experts, and take extensive notes. Then, when the time comes, you'll be able to break down those notes (informed by the research you've done) into a simple how-to guide.
    • An example of an instructional book might be a hunting guide, written for someone who's never been hunting before. The book will need to explain the ins and outs of hunting, from its most basic concepts to the most complex ways of preparing the meat, for example.

Revising and Editing Your Work

  1. Set your work aside for a while before revising/editing. Whenever you need to edit or revise any piece of writing, it's best to let it sit in a drawer or on your desktop for a short while first. Jumping right into the editing and/or revision stage can make it much more difficult to polish your piece of writing into a masterpiece, in part because you're still very attached to the work you've done and the details are still very clear in your head (meaning you're not approaching it like a reader would).[12]
    • Give yourself anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after finishing the project before you attempt to revise/edit your work.
    • If you try to edit/revise right away, you'll be less likely to notice issues within the writing (typos/errors, as well as things that aren't clear or don't make sense), and you'll have a harder time cutting things that aren't necessary.
  2. Read your draft out loud. Your brain is hardwired to connect patterns without even thinking about whether anything is missing. It's why you're able to read short notes upside down, for example, without having to turn the page right-side up. The same is true of typos and missing words in a sentence: you are so familiar with the concept you're writing about (and subsequently reading about) that you might not even notice that you left out some vital part.[13]
    • Read your draft slowly out loud to yourself.
    • Take your time and circle, highlight, or otherwise mark anything that is incorrect or incomplete. Don't make revisions as you read, though, or you could lose your place many times.
    • As you read, make sure you're only reading what you've written on the page, word for word.
    • In addition to typos and incomplete thoughts, look for any sentences that trip you up or confuse you as you read aloud. These sentences should also be marked for revision.
    • Once you've gotten through the whole thing (or a good chunk of it, like an entire chapter), go through and make the necessary changes.
  3. Make sure everything is resolved by the end. Resolving things doesn't mean that all the problems you or others experienced throughout the book are suddenly gone. By resolving things in your book, you should be making sure that all loose ends are tied up, so to speak. Nothing should be confusing or unfulfilled for the reader, and the reader should finish the last page of your essay or book and know that the nonfiction story you've told is complete.
    • This is another aspect of why approaching the work after a short intermission will give you the best results. You may not realize that something hasn't been resolved because you've connected all the dots in your head (which a reader obviously can't do).
  4. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to read through your manuscript. Having someone else's eyes looking over your work is a great way to catch errors and omissions in your writing. As you write an essay or a book of nonfiction, you probably have a clear picture in your head of what your project is going to cover, as well as what the final product will look like. This is good for keeping you on track, but it can also color your reading of the final product.
    • If something hasn't been fully explained or resolved, you're less likely to notice it than an outside reader. Your mind will fill in the gaps precisely because you were the author and you know what you meant to say.
    • Ask your friend to help you proofread your manuscript for typos, errors, and other line-level problems.
    • Let your friend know that you want honest, critical assessment (not just praise).
  5. Find areas that need expansion and/or clarification. As you revise your essay or book, you'll most likely find sections that are not as complete as they could or should be. As you wrote your manuscript, that section no doubt made sense to you, in part because your mind was able to fill in the gaps and connect the subject to other larger ideas that weren't explicitly written. A reader will not have those gaps filled in, though, and will require some further explanation and elaboration.[13]
    • If anything was rushed through or not fully explored, revisit that section and think about ways to flesh out the subject so it's more comprehensive.
    • Rearrange certain sections to see if they can complement one another. A sparsely-written section may end up being much fuller and more complete by being rearranged near another section.
  6. Cut anything that's not necessary. As you revise and edit your writing, you'll need to make some tough choices on what stays and what goes. You will likely be very fond of your own writing, so this part of the process can be difficult - which is why it's so important to set aside your writing before you attempt to edit or revise a manuscript you've completed.[14]
    • Use clear, concise language. Cut out any flowery prose that distracts from the rest of your book or essay.
    • No matter how fond you are of the way a sentence sounds, if it is not necessary or relevant, it shouldn't make the final cut.

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