How To Write Non-Fiction

Magazines, websites, books:  There's a huge market out there for non-fiction writers.  Whether you're an experienced fiction writer interested in making a jump from the world of make-believe to the real world or you're looking to break into writing for the first time, there are plenty of things you can do to successfully write non-fiction. Here are a few tips I've been given and am happy to pass along.

  1. Choose your specialty. The old adage "write what you know" is really worth heeding in non-fiction writing. Sure, there are plenty of people who research on the fly and come up with articles about things they've just discovered themselves. But one real key to working in non-fiction is to find a niche, or if you like, several niches, and produce work within that niche. Choosing your specialty requires you to take a few personal inventories. First, in which subjects do you have professional expertise? Many trade markets are always looking for pros to contribute articles. Second, consider your personal experiences:  What expertise and information have they given you? For instance, are you a veteran parent who could contribute to a parenting newsletter? Third, ask what topics interest you so much that you could research them for days? This is important to consider. If you've worked in business all your life, but have no real passion for it, you probably don't want to write about it. A fourth thing to consider is what your writing level is. If you're a professional writer, you may be well-equipped to handle long assignments right off the bat. If you're just getting started as a writer, you may want to brush up on your skills with a class or writing group before you put yourself out there, no matter what your expertise may be. Only you can really gauge what you want to write about and how prepared you are to write it.
  2. Find your idea. Some people get into writing non-fiction because they already have a specific topic about which they want to write. If that's you, great. If not, you will want to spend some time brainstorming for story ideas that fit within your specialty/niche. You may realize you're qualified to write about horses, parenting and landscaping. Spend some time coming up with ideas related to these topics. Try to take those ideas and formulate whole articles. For instance "Article about use of potted plants" could become "Use of potted plants in pool areas." Now, some gardening magazine or other may want just that article. Don't write it yet--but keep it in mind. See if you can come up with a list of potential articles for your various niches.
  3. Find your market. Now that you know what you want to write and have some specific article ideas, it's time to go out and find a market that wants to do business. To an extent, you've made this easy on yourself by picking a niche. This narrows your search. That potted plant idea is not going to be of use to TV Guide or Newsweek, for instance. Instead, you will go to a database of writers' markets, whether it's one online (see link below) or a book like Writers Market (how's that for easy to remember...). So, you go to the database,  look up markets that cater to your niche, and see what kind of work they're looking for. Maybe they want long, feature articles, maybe it's sidebar pieces, maybe it's personal essays. See what they want. Do you have an article that fits the bill? If so,  you next need to check their query and submission policy.  In other words, how do you send them ideas and how do you know they want your article? Do you send them a letter or email with your idea? Do you just send the article? How long does it take for them to respond? You will also want to check things like payment and who keeps the rights to the work, and other fine print details. After all, if your goal is to get paid, you don't want to spend three weeks writing an article for a market that turns out to be non-paying.

  4. Research, Write and Rewrite. We'll apply the best case scenario here and say your query has been accepted and you have been assigned an article. You and the editor are very excited about "Use Of Potted Plants Near Pools" and she has given you all the details: word count, due date, formatting requirements. Now what you must do is, obviously, collect any data you need for the article. If this is a personal piece just explaining your ideas for planters near the pool, you may only need to research where you can tell readers to buy pots, or you may not need to research at all. On other hand, if your article is a feature on how different landscape designers in your area use potted plants around their pools, you'll have to do research such as interviewing the landscaper designers or perhaps looking into different design theories. You'll have to decide for yourself what work to do. But the key to non-fiction is to have your facts straight (and documented as needed). So make sure to do your homework and incorporate the facts into the story. With the research completed (as applicable), your next move is to do the actual writing. Follow all the guidelines given by the editor and make sure to self-edit above and beyond spell-check. If you're looking to get paid and published for writing non-fiction, you want to put forward professional work. That means polishing your article until it shines. Once it's all sparkly, send that puppy in - and if you want, have that next article idea ready for the editor before she even asks for it.
  5. In case of books... When writing non-fiction books, as opposed to articles, the steps are very much the same, except often, you will write the book first and then query markets, agents and publishers to see if they will take the book and run with it. As this is an article about non-fiction writing and not on how to get a book published, I'll leave it at that. But the keys remain:  Know your niche, know your market, brainstorm for ideas, research, write and rewrite.

The world is filled with fascinating stories. True life is often stranger and better than fiction. If you want to write non-fiction, why not go for it? It won't be easy - but writing never is. Enjoy the new worlds you explore and share with your readers.


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