Learning to Love Nonfiction

Recently, I was invited to make a presentation on nonfiction to a large writers’ group. Putting together the PowerPoint was an eye-opener for me. Even though I’ve been writing in this genre for my entire career, I never realized how vast the subject is. How was I going to squeeze it all into ninety minutes without putting the attendees to sleep? The solution: explain nonfiction the way I learned about it—one industry of a time.

My first full-time writing jobs were as the editor of two city magazines (a pretty amazing way to begin a career!) My introduction to nonfiction was writing and editing feature articles on a vast array of topics. medicine, music, construction, education, world trade, notable locations in the city, business, the arts, alcoholism, transportation, engineering, profiles of CEOs, and even transcendental meditation. Those two jobs were the beginning of the best education anyone could ever have. In the seven years I worked there, not only did I learn about all of those subjects, I also developed the critical skills a feature writer needs.

Phase 2 of my writing career was in the corporate world, which was the polar opposite of magazines, even though I was in charge of employee communications and still writing feature articles. My education turned a corner because the first corporation I worked for owned around 120 small companies in 120 different kinds of businesses. Management made some attempt to group them, but even within a single category, there wasn’t much overlap. Within the transportation group, for example, it was hard to find any commonality between the Husky Bus Line in a college town and barges on the Mississippi River.

From this huge international conglomerate, I moved into banking, which was local, because this was way before deregulation and branch banking. Again, I was in charge of employee communications, which included a quarterly magazine, a monthly newsletter, a weekly four-page flyer, and occasionally, a daily press release because big things were happening in the banking industry. When I was hired, the manager asked me if I was also a photographer. I wasn’t, but I said, “Absolutely,” and instantly learned how to operate a manual Nikon camera.

I had only been at the bank for a year and a half when I was recruited by a privately owned training and development firm. My first assignment was another newsletter, this time for customers. It was supposed to be informative and educational, but it was more propaganda and public relations. Working there was akin to going to graduate school. I learned about behavioral models, training programs, communication techniques, marketing, and selling, which was hardly my strong suit. I was there for six and a half years; I left with my head crammed full of knowledge and skills I was not sure I would ever use.

But use them I did, as I plunged into full-time freelancing. I called upon every single thing I had learned in the preceding 20 years and became a generalist, which meant that I would tackle any subject in any medium for any audience. I did this for so many years that, eventually, all of those things came around again. If I wrote for a particular company several times, I would get to know the company, its products, its philosophy, and its audience. Over time, I wrote annual reports, magazine articles, employee magazines, marketing materials, training programs, sales letters, brochures, and more. I wrote for audiences that included the public, suppliers, employees, Wall Street analysts, shareholders, the media, boards of directors, customers, clients, and prospects.

And, as I was doing in all those things, a wonderful opportunity fell in my lap. One of my clients asked me to ghostwrite a book, which of course, was something I had never done.  I plunged in knowing nothing about the subject matter, the CEO, the healthcare industry, the quality movement, or ghostwriting. To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “Can you do this in six months?” they asked me. “Absolutely,” I said, and somehow, I made that deadline. It was indeed the worst of times because I never worked so hard in my life, learning on the fly. It was the best of times because it was the beginning of the next major phase of my working life: becoming a ghostwriter, book coach, and editor. This wasn’t my first book, but it was the one that set me on the path to the publishing world.

If my career sounds like a hodge-podge of unrelated pieces, let me assure you that there was a thread running through every job and every assignment that tied them all together. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but it kept popping up until I couldn’t ignore it. What do magazines, corporations, banks, training companies, and books have in common? They may seem like different worlds, but in order to write for any one of them, I had to ask the same three questions:

  1. What is the purpose (main message) of the piece?
  2. What is the medium (communication vehicle)?
  3. Who is the target audience (ideal reader)?

Here’s an example for an article for a business magazine;

  1. What is the purpose (main message) of the written piece? To promote the economic viability of the St. Louis region and encourage businesses to locate here
  2. What is the medium (communication vehicle)? Four-color, glossy magazine, supported by advertising, subscriptions, and underwriting by the chamber of commerce
  3. Who is the target audience (ideal reader)? Business executives and managers, entrepreneurs, industry leaders considering moving their companies here, advertisers, local businesses community

Nonfiction is an endlessly interesting and varied genre. These questions are the key to nailing every writing assignment, no matter its purpose, its medium, or its audience.




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Book #6-You Are a Writer by Jeff Goines

According to Wikipedia, “Jeff Goins is an American author, blogger, and speaker and is the founder of Tribe Writers, an online community for writers.” According to the About-the-Author page at the end of You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One), Jeff Goines believes that words can change the world. And the world he sets out to change with this little book is that of any writer who is not quite ready to accept that title. You are a writer,” he tells the reader. “You just need to write.” Then, he begins to build a convincing case to prove his point.

Why would it be so difficult for someone to believe that he is indeed a writer? It would seem that if he picked up this book, he wants to be convinced. Actually, I bought this book because I was curious about the author whose name keeps popping up all over the Internet. He has written several books on writing, and his blog has won at least three first-place awards. I could think of several fellow writers who could benefit from this book, which I plan to recommend.

I could have used Jeff’s advice way back when I was having my own doubts about being a real problem writer,  but he wasn’t around to share his wisdom with me then. (I hate to admit it, but he wasn’t even born yet!) As I was reading, I kept thinking how much easier my road would have been if someone had said to me, “You are a writer. You just need to write.” Deep down, I probably sensed that was true, but it took a very long time for the realization to rise to the surface.

Here are some of Jeff’s words of wisdom I wish I had known:

“Embracing your identity as a writer is mostly a mind game. It’s about tricking yourself into becoming who you are … When do you become a writer? When you say you are.”

“Before others will believe what is true about you, you’ll have to believe it yourself.”

“Daily practice builds habits. When you start writing every day, you’ll find your groove. You’ll find yourself with the bank of ideas to write about. You’ll get more comfortable with your voice.”

“To create your best work, you’ll have to make room for it. You have to cut out the excess noise and focus on what really matters: the writing.”

“Everything is practice. Every word you write, any action you take is a chance to get better … Good writers practice. They take time to write, crafting and editing a piece until it is just right. They spend hours and days just revising.”

“Do you really think there isn’t an audience for your content? Trust me; they are out there. You just need to find them.”

“The professional shows up every day, ready to do the work. No magic beans or mystical formulas. Just simple, hard work.”

“Writing is about space. It’s about what’s not said. About showing rather than telling. About making every word count.”

“This isn’t easy, this writing life. It is, however, a noble calling. And like most things worth fighting for, it will require all of you.”

“No guide or set of tools can prepare you for the rejection you will face, the criticism you will endure, or the pain you will experience. Because you will.”

“But if you do love it, Imean really love it, the world needs you far more than you know. We are waiting for your words. Longing to be changed. We need your art – whether you realize it or not.”

“If you are going to succeed as a writer, you are going to have to learn to be smart. To have thick skin. To be more than talented. You’re going to have to be a marketer, and entrepreneur, and a talented salesperson. Because this is a business.”

“When you stop seeking public approval, something interesting happens: people will be deeply attracted to your work … passion is contagious. If you treat people like human beings and write from a place that is deep and true, you’ll find your audience.

“Whenever you want to do in the world, you need influence. You need authority. You need permission.”

“If you have something worth saying, you want people to listen because it matters to them.”

“If you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, you have to be legitimate. You have to have a reason for people to listen. You have to know who you are.”

“There are three important steps to building any platform: 1. Get experience; 2. Demonstrate competence; 3. Generate buzz.”

“To gain momentum, to build a community of friends and fans and patrons, you have to have an image and personality people recognize. And it needs to be distinctly yours.”

“A brand is who you are. But it’s more than that. It’s your truest self. The part people remember.”

“The connection must be meaningful. It must be mutual. It must matter.”

“You are ready. Ready enough, anyway. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet.  You just need to begin. You’ll figure out the rest as you go.”

“There are three must-have relationships that will extend your reach, and each of them is absolutely necessary: the fan is someone who admires and follows your work; a friend is a peer – someone who can relate to the work you do; a patron is an advocate – someone who supports you financially or through lending you his or her influence.”

“A writing career happens iteratively, over time. You don’t need to take a giant leap. You just need to take the next step.”

“Before you write a book, you should write a dozen magazine articles. Maybe more. You should guest post on popular websites and blogs and do radio interviews. You should create a platform and start cultivating your fans and friends and patrons. Now.”

“Content is not king. Relationship is. Start making connections with publishers so when the ideas come, they pay attention to your work.”

“Once you have your foot in the door with a particular editor, it’s much easier to get a second or third piece published.”

“Under promise and over deliver, and you’ll never have to go looking for work again. This means accept feedback gracefully, do great work, and deliver your piece on time.”

“Publishing is about more than having the right ideas; it’s about having the right connections … this is about forming relationships as much as it is about creating content.”

“Every writer has a moment of “arriving.” You end up on top of the world (even if it’s a small world). You do something you never imagined.”

“The true masters of the craft are those who never grow complacent. They are never fully satisfied; they’re always pushing themselves a little further.”

“You will publish books and share your ideas with the world. And the dream will become a reality. Until then, keep working. Keep writing. Keep showing up.”



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Book #5-The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life is a very small book—only 111 pages—that has been in my bookcase for many years. Its author, Annie Dillard, is well known in literary circles. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her 1975 book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and was included in Random House’s survey of the century’s 100 best nonfiction books. Her books have been translated into at least ten languages.

The back cover of The Writing Life is filled with glowing praise, such as this quote from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We may fairly ask that a book about writing be, itself, a work of art. And that is what Dillard offers… Anyone hoping to see inside the process of literary artistry is unlikely to find a more lucid, sensitive or poetic view.” The Cleveland Plain-Dealer described her advice to writers as “encouraging and invigorating.” Read more ›

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Book #4 – Eats, Shoots, & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Whoever could have predicted that a grammar book would become a New York Times bestseller and stay on that esteemed list for twenty-five weeks? Certainly not Lynne Truss, the author, or her mother who suggested that she put a sticker on the front cover: “For the select few.” More amazing still is that it was a bestseller in two countries: first in the United Kingdom where the author lived and worked, and, then, in the United States where readers would have to fight their way through some very British spelling and punctuation. Read more ›

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Book #3-On Writing Well by William Zinsser

What Stephen King is to fiction, William Zinsser is to nonfiction—in other words, the undisputed authority. His seminal book, On Writing Well, has been my personal bible for the thirty years it has been in print. Zinsser was “the real deal”—a journalist, writer, editor, and teacher. He taught at Yale, the New School in New York, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote eighteen books, including On Writing Well, which sold more than 1.5 million copies and should be on every writer’s bookshelf. He died ninety-two, leaving an unfillable hole in the literary world.

On Writing Well is broken into four sections: Writing Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. As in the classroom, in this book, Zinsser’s purpose was to teach “how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts, and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.” Read more ›

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