Writing Nonfiction

Eight preparatory steps necessary to successfully write a nonfiction book.

  1. Choose your topic.

The first thing you want to do as you prepare to write a nonfiction book is choose a topic for your project carefully. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it really isn’t.

  1. Create a Content Plan

Create an outline or a table of contents for you book. This ends up looking like a table of contents—actually a rather detailed table of contents with chapter titles and subheading titles. You might prefer to just create a simple outline or a bulleted list.

Whatever your method of choice, create something that looks like the structure of a book—a table of contents. And know what content will fill that structure as you create your manuscript. That’s your map.

Then, when you sit down to write each day, you know exactly what to write. In fact, the more detailed you make this plan, the more quickly and easily you will write your book. You will spend little time staring at your computer screen wondering what to write or what comes next. You will know. It will be right there in your writing plan. You’ll just follow the map—your table of contents—to your destination.

  1. Determine What Research You Need

You might think you can write your book “off the top of your head” because you are the expert on the topic. Inevitably, though, you will discover a need to search for something—a URL, a quote, the title of a book. These things can slow down your process. This is where preparation can help keep your fingers on the keyboard typing rather than perusing the Internet.

For each item in your plan—or your detailed table of contents, brainstorm the possible research you need and make note of it.

As you write, if you discover you need more research or interviews, don’t stop writing. Instead, create brackets in your manuscript that say [research here] and highlight them in yellow. Later, do a search for the term “research,” and fill in the gaps.

  1. Create a To-Do List

Look over your content plan. Take all the research items you listed and put them on a to-do list.

Make a list of URLs, books and articles to find. Look for anything you need to do. For instance, does your research require that you visit a certain location? If so, put “Visit XX” on the to do list.

Don’t forget to put interviews on this list. You want to conduct your interviews now.

  1. Gather and Organize Your Materials

Gather as much of your research and other necessary material as you can prior to the end of October. Purchase the books, copy the articles into Evernote.com, copy and past the URLs into a Word doc, or drag them into Scrivener’s research folder, for instance. Get your interviews transcribed as well—and read through them with a highlighter, marking the quotes you think you want to use.

If you are writing memoir, you might want to gather photos, journals and other memorabilia. If you are repurposing blog posts, or reusing any other previously published or written material, you want to put all of this in one place—an online folder, a Scrivener file or a Word file.

Generally, get as much of what you need to write your book in an easily accessible format and location so you aren’t searching for it when you should be writing. Use piles, boxes, hanging folders, computer folders, cloud storage…whatever works best for you.

  1. Determine How Much Time You Need

Each nonfiction book is different and requires a different amount of time to write. A research based book takes longer to write, for example, because you have to study, evaluate and determine your opinion of the studies. You have to read the interviews you conducted, choose appropriate quotes and then work those quotes into your manuscript.

If, on the other hand, you write from your own experiences, this take less time. With the exception of drawing on anecdotes, an occasional quote or bit of information from a book, the material all comes from your head. You need only sit down and write about a process you created, your own life story or your area of expertise.

  1. Create a Writing Schedule

Last, create a writing schedule. You now know how much time you need to write your book. Now find those hours in your calendar and block them off. Make those hours sacred.

  1. Put a Back-Up System in Place.

Yes…this is my last tip, because you just never know what happens. Your computer crashes or dies. You accidentally delete your whole manuscript. Your child dumps milk all over your keyboard.

You want a back up of your project. Always save it to your computer’s drive and onto a thumb drive or, better yet, into the cloud, for safe keeping! Make these plans in advance as well. You can use Evernote.com, Dropbox.com or Google Drive, for example.

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“To Be” or not “To Be”

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. Identify−Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time”
  2. Substitute−Sometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. Convert−Students can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.”
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. Combine−Look at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”


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Using the BISAC Subject Codes

What does BISAC stand for?

BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications.

What are BISAC subject codes?

The BISAC Subject Heading List (BSHL for short) is an industry-approved list of subject descriptors (or headings), each of which is represented by a nine-character alphanumeric code. The list has 50 major sections, such as Computers, Fiction, History, and True Crime. Within each major section, a number of detailed descriptors represent subtopics that the BISAC Subject Heading Committee has deemed most appropriate for the major topic.

Developed to standardize the electronic transfer of subject information, the codes can be used for transmitting information between trading partners, as search terms in the major bibliographic databases, as access points for database searching, and as shelving guides

What are the benefits of using BISAC Subject Headings?

The headings give you a standardized way to tell retailers and the general book trade about the primary and secondary store sections where a title will fit best–and, hopefully, sell best. In addition, they help retailers get your titles on the shelf more quickly, and they provide an electronically compatible method for describing the content of a book.

Who uses the BISAC Subject Headings?

Many of the major businesses in the North American book industry, including Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Booksense, Bowker, Indigo, Ingram, and most major publishers use the BSHL (BISAC Subject Heading List) in a variety of ways. Several of these users require publishers who submit data to them to include the BISAC Subject Headings.

How do I get the BISAC Subject Heading List?

You can order it at http://bisg.org/page/PurchaseBISAC

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Why My Manuscript Was Rejected

Here are some of the common reasons the editor didn’t make it through the first chapter:

1. Generic beginnings: Stories that opened with the date or the weather didn’t really inspire interest. According to Harmsworth, you are only allowed to start with the weather if you’re writing a book about meteorologists. Otherwise, pick something more creative.

2. Slow beginnings: Some manuscripts started with too much pedestrian detail (characters washing dishes, etc) or unnecessary background information.

3. Trying too hard: Sometimes it seemed like a writer was using big words or flowery prose in an attempt to sound more sophisticated. In several cases, the writer used big words incorrectly. Awkward or forced imagery was also a turnoff. At one point, the panelists raised their hands when a character’s eyes were described as “little lubricated balls moving back and forth.”

4. TMI (Too Much Information): Overly detailed description of bodily functions or medical examinations had the panelists begging for mercy.

5. Clichés: “The buildings were ramrod straight.” “The morning air was raw.” “Character X blossomed into Y.” “A young woman looks into the mirror and tells us what she sees.” Clichés are hard to avoid, but when you revise, go through and try to remove them.

6. Loss of Focus: Some manuscripts didn’t have a clear narrative and hopped disjointedly from one theme to the next.

7. Unrealistic internal narrative: Make sure a character’s internal narrative—what the character is thinking or feeling—matches up with reality.  For example, you wouldn’t want a long eloquent narration of what getting strangled feels like—the character would be too busy gasping for breath and passing out. Also, avoid having the character think about things just for the sake of letting the reader know about them.

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Who or Whom?

The confusion between “who” and “whom” is one of the most common problems writers face.

“Who” is used as the subject of a verb or complement of a linking verb. It’s a nominative pronoun.

“Whom” is used as the object of the verb or the object of a preposition. It’s an objective pronoun.

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Advice for aspiring writers:

“Read, read, and read some more! Make sure you read a wide variety of stories: fantasy stories teach you about making up completely new worlds, crime-solving stories teach you about handling a complicated plot, stories with lots of characters teach you how to describe relationships. Also, write as many stories as you can, even if no one else reads them. And remember that the best inspiration comes from what’s around you.” —Erin Hunter


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Answers to Questions About Semicolons


Here are three questions readers posed about use of prepositions and our responses.

  1. This sentence showcases my burning semicolon question: “That’s a great trick; best I’ve seen in ages.” I know the second clause in it contains no subject (or noun), at least explicitly. I’m therefore wondering whether this sentence can take a semicolon — perhaps because the subject in the second clause is implied — or instead deserves an em dash because there’s no second subject at all.

The sentence, as you wrote it, is correct — as you mention, the subject is implicit — but the formality of the semicolon is at odds with the informality of the omission of the subject, so I’d opt for a breezy em dash instead.

  1. In the following sentence, should semicolons separate the three business segments?: “Its businesses are divided into three segments: Domestic Retail, Bakeries and Foodservice, and International.”

No, that’s a simple list with three simple elements. Even the addition of brief detail would not require semicolons, because the segments and their descriptions can be clearly delineated: “Domestic Retail, which includes merchandising through stores, Bakeries and Foodservice, which involves direct sales, and International, which deals with nondomestic buyers.” But when it would be obtrusive to repeat a structure such as “which (verb)” that clearly organizes the elements, use semicolons: “We invited our friends Jan and Dean; Fred and Wilma, the couple next door; and my brothers Greg, Peter, and Bobby and their wives.”

  1. So, a comma in place of a semicolon is wrong? I once read a book on crafting sentences that mentioned that a semicolon is never accepted in American fiction and that a comma can always do the work. I’ve been going by this standard, and I like the economy and simplicity of the comma compared to the clumsy, Britishy semicolon. Do you think I’m wrong?

A semicolon does seem intrusively formal for transcribing speech — whether within dialogue in fiction or when quoting a speaker — but replacing it with a period is erroneous, and the book’s advice is unfortunate. I recommend using an em dash or starting a new sentence instead.

from DailyWritingTips.com

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