One Approach to Writing Nonfiction Books

Posted: March 8, 2015 in Writing
Tags: ,

by Chaz Bufe

Over the past three decades, I’ve written three nonfiction books that have sold over 30,000 physical copies in total, compiled/edited a quotations book that’s sold another 10,000 copies, co-authored one book that’s doing well, and co-authored two others that bombed. (You can’t win ’em all.) I’ve also written a science fiction novel (under a pseudonym) that was well reviewed, but bombed; it was much more challenging and took far longer to write than any of the nonfiction books.

Why? Writing nonfiction is easy–all you have to do is work. Facetiousness aside, nonfiction is relatively easy because it’s straightforward. You don’t have to come up with believable characters and dialogue; you don’t have to come up with a plot; you don’t have to come up with an unfamiliar but plausible, internally consistent world (as you do with science fiction, which is why “literary” fiction and the other types of “genre” fiction are easier to write than sci-fi–readers are already familiar with the worlds in which they’re set).

Having said that, writing a nonfiction book can still appear to be a daunting task. If you’re not writing trash, such as new age and “spiritual”  you-create-your-own-reality con jobs, writing nonfiction does require work. But there are ways to make that work go smoothly. There is no magic formula for that, but I’ve found the following steps helpful. (I’d suggest picking whatever you find useful in the following and discarding the rest.)

1) First, ask yourself, “Do I really want to write this book?” If the answer is “no,” if you’re just considering writing the book as a means to make money or, god help you, because “it’s a good thing to do,” abandon the project. If you go ahead with it, you very probably won’t make money–few books sell even moderately well–and you’ll very probably have a miserable time writing it.  (I fell into the do-gooder trap with one of the books I co-authored, had an excruciatingly awful time writing my portion of it, and it bombed.)

2) Before you start writing, research what’s already available. Thanks to the Internet, it’s much easier to do that today than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, just check out what’s available via Amazon, Google Books, and one site you’ve probably never heard of, WorldCat, which is an online catalog of the holdings of 72,000 libraries worldwide. The information on those sites will not only let you see what’s been done in the past and what’s currently available, but the rankings on Amazon and the number of listings on WorldCat will also let you know, at least roughly, how well the already-published books have sold.

3) With that information in hand, decide whether it’d be worth your time to research and write the book you’re thinking of. There are several questions you can ask yourself as you make that decision. First, is there anything else available that’s similar? If not, and you feel called upon to write your book, do it. (This was the case when I wrote  my critical history/analysis of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? and put together The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations). Next, if there are at least superficially similar books available, ask yourself if your proposed book will be different enough to stand out. Also ask yourself how good the existing books are. If your book will stand out and, especially, if the existing books are lousy, start work on your book. (This was the case with my two other books that sold well [for small press titles], An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz and Blues Musicians, and The American Heretic’s Dictionary, a modern version of Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.)

4) With all that out of the way, write a preliminary outline, and make that outline as detailed as possible.

5) Begin research. Depending on your topic, whether you’re writing for a professional or a lay audience, and how familiar you already are with the area you’ll cover, your research can range from minimal to very extensive and time consuming.  (For my most research-intensive book, Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?, I read dozens of books, at least two hundred magazine and journal articles, and interviewed a number of people.)

Another consideration is whether your book will be orthodox or heterodox. If orthodox, fitting in with status quo attitudes and beliefs, you can get away with murder: minimal, sloppy, or nonexistent research. If your book will instead challenge orthodoxy, you’ll need to do extensive, painstaking research. (This was the case with Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? I knew going in that AA apologists would attempt to find any flaws, no matter how tiny, and cite them as reason to dismiss the entire book, so I over-researched it, and made the writing as airtight as possible.)

6) Your research will probably raise questions you haven’t thought of. Research those questions.

7) Revise your outline, again making it as detailed as possible.

8) Research any remaining matters and anything that came up (something probably will) while you were revising your outline.

9) Revise your outline yet again.

10) Begin writing, following your outline. At this point, your outline should be very detailed. (The final outline for AA: Cult or Cure? ran to several thousand words.)

11) Depart from your outline where necessary (and you will find it necessary), and research anything new that comes up in your writing.

12) Finish your writing, and sit back and bask in the glow of a job well done. Your task is at an end, almost.

13) Let the manuscript sit for at least several weeks, steel yourself for self-editing the ms., and begin going through it. In all likelihood, you’ll be appalled: how could I have missed that!?  how could I have written that!?

14) Following your first self-editing pass, if you can stand doing it, let the ms. sit for a few more weeks and then do a second self-edit.

15) Congrats–the book is done. Now all you have to do is get it published.



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