When people learn that I’m a (mainly) non-fiction writer, they sometimes say, ‘I don’t know how you write a book. I wouldn’t know where to start.’
When it comes to non-fiction, you should start with the primary purpose of the book. Why are you writing it?
If it’s a memoir, are you writing it for yourself or for others to read? If it’s a history, what are the main themes you want to stress, i.e. what are the points you want to get across through the story you are telling? If it’s a self-help book, what messages do you want the reader to go away with, or what actions do you want them to take? And so on.
In the introduction to Speechless (Melbourne University Press, 2012) James Button writes:
I wrote this book because I feel an important issue is at stake. Our politics seem thin and barren. Ordinary people are increasingly uncomprehending and disengaged. … But this view, however understandable and widely felt, does not do justice to the many people I met in Canberra who are trying to do good things … On the inside, the stories of politics and government are as fascinating and vital as ever.
Whether or not you agree with his viewpoint, Button’s words go to the heart of any writing: the author’s passion for the subject, passion for the story, passion for the message. What is it that you are passionate about that you want to convey in your book?
Once you have decided on the main purpose of your writing, you need to deal with how best to sequence the material you want to present. If you’re writing a history or biography, it might seem a no-brainer that the events will be in chronological order, but that isn’t always so. You still need to engage the reader, and some information may better serve as background to the main events.
For example, in Jon Krakauer’s book about a disastrous series of accidents and misjudgements on Mount Everest in 1996, Into thin air (Pan Books, 2011), he lets us know in the Preface that twelve people died – we don’t need to wait for the final chapter for that piece of tragic news. He is counting on the reader wanting to know how such appalling loss of life came about. In addition, the first three chapters leap back and forth in time: May 10, 1996; 1852; and March 29, 1996, respectively. In Chapters 2 and 3, Krakauer explains how past events had an impact on the happenings he describes in Chapter 1.
You will also need to decide how to structure your information, e.g. in chapters around key events, by theme, or by topic. If you compare cook books, you will see that culinary authors use a variety of criteria to decide what they will include and how they will group and sequence it. Stephanie Alexander’s classic, The cook’s companion (Penguin, 1997), features recipes based around foods in alphabetical order, beginning with ‘Anchovies’, and ending with ‘Zucchini and squash’, but the opening sections are about ‘Equipment’ and ‘Basics’. The sections in Annabel Langbein’s The free range cook (ABC Books, 2012) on the other hand, start with ‘From the oven’ and conclude with ‘From the orchard’. The authors and publishers not only have a particular purpose in mind for each of those books, but also a particular audience, which is the third issue you need to consider: for whom are you writing?
The answer to that question will help you decide on both the content and sequence for your book.
If you’re writing a self-help book about computers, for instance, what level of expertise do you expect the readers to have to be able to make use of what you tell them? In the early days of home computers, an American professor of adult education, Malcolm Knowles, complained that manufacturers’ manuals were geared towards teaching buyers how a computer works rather than about using it to perform the real-life tasks people bought them for. The point he made is still an important one for non-fiction authors: consider what the end-user is likely to want the information for.
Even in memoir writing, you need to consider what your intended readers might be most interested in. Putting in everything you consider important may be boring to those not so intimately connected with your life events and activities.
Nevertheless, as Simon Nasht says in The last explorer, a biography of Hubert Wilkins, the sum of a person’s life is not measured just by its accomplishments, but by how it is spent. The challenge for an author is to present that life, whether it is their own or someone else’s, with a sense of purpose in the writing, and with the information ordered in a way that makes sense to the reader, while at the same time not overburdening the book with trivia.
Finally, you may want to supplement your text with images, and once again you need to consider what will be helpful to the reader. Can you imagine a cookbook without photographs to help you see what you are aiming for? A map will make clear an explorer’s path, drawings can transform a how-to book, a graph can provide an instant comparison of a bunch of statistics, and carefully selected images can illuminate a biography or memoir.
I’ll be leading a one-day workshop at the Queensland Writers Centre in Brisbane on Saturday May 3 on the topic of ‘Harnessing your research for writing’, and we’ll be working our way through all those elements of a non-fiction book.
It doesn’t matter where the participants are up to in the writing process – whether it’s still an idea in their heads, or whether they’ve assembled some research and have begun writing. At the end of the day, they should go away with a plan of how to put it all together in a way that will be attractive to readers.
This should be the perfect opportunity to kick off the project they’ve always been intending to do.
If you can’t make it to the workshop, I hope the ideas above might stimulate you to begin or continue your own non-fiction writing journey.
What’s your passion and how do you or will you write about it? Whatever sort of writer you are, I’d love to hear from you via the Comments button on this page.