Writing Nonfiction Books

The most recent stage of my nonfiction writing life took me to the world of books. Actually, there was some overlap among all of these stages. Writing for business certainly involved magazine writing, and beginning to write books overlapped with business writing. None of these parts of my career had a tidy beginning and ending; they all meshed, having some aspects in common and some that were unique to their genre. At this point, I have written twenty-five nonfiction books of my own and helped even more authors to write their books. Read more ›

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Writing Nonfiction for the Business World

The second phase of my business-writing life focused on writing for and about all aspects of the business world. I had no idea when I began how complex the subject was going to be. I honestly thought that, since I had been writing about businesses for so many years, this would be a fairly easy transition. I was wrong. As a feature writer and magazine journalist I had been looking at this world as an objective outsider, but as an employee, that perspective no longer worked. Now, I was on the inside looking out, and my job was to present the company’s story in the best possible light. Objectivity was no longer the point. Fairness was, of course, as was the ability to demonstrate how the company’s products and services would meet the needs of its target market. Read more ›

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Writing Nonfiction for Magazines

For me, magazines were the training ground for learning to write nonfiction. Feature articles convey a lot of information but in a less structured way than straight news. But there is more to writing for magazines then understanding the basics of feature articles. What follows are eleven types of articles that are appropriate for magazines.

  1. Feature articles focus on events or people, giving the reader a chance to more fully understand some interesting dimension of that subject. windows into the human experience, giving more detail and description than a hard news story, which typically relies on the style of writing.
  2. Personality profiles describe a person’s life and achievements in a narrative form. Based on interviews with the subject and others who provide background and context, profiles paint an in-depth look at the subject’s life, including early history, important events, accomplishments, quirks, character, and strengths.
  3. News is written by a strict formula. The most important facts appear in the first paragraph and answer these questions: who, what, when, where, and how? The rest of the article fleshes out those answers with the least important at the end of the article. News stories were measured by the inch; when they didn’t fit in the space allowed, editors would cut from the bottom without sacrificing the meat of the article.
  4. Q&A articles are the easiest type of article to write. They are based on interviews. The writer creates a set of questions that are designed to elicit information in a logical sequence. The person being interviewed answers the questions. With the exception of the lead and the conclusion, there is no narrative, analysis, or story line. The strength of the article depends on how well the questions are constructed and how interesting and complete the answers are.
  5. Opinion piece/op-ed, short for “opposite the editorial page” or “opinion editorial,” is a written piece of prose that expresses the opinion of an author and published by a newspaper or magazine. Op-eds are different from both editorials (opinion pieces submitted by editorial board members) and letters to the editor (opinion pieces submitted by readers).
  6. Reviews of books, movies, and restaurants are written by people who are or consider themselves to be experts in the field about which they are writing. It helps to have some academic and practical experience in the subject. A critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about or has only negative things to say will lose credibility very quickly.
  7. Essays are short to medium-length pieces about a personal experience or an opinion. Typically, an essay focuses on one subject and reflects the author’s point of view.
  8. How-To’sareprescriptive pieces that contain steps, ways, or tips that help the reader do something specific. They provide the solution to a problem or the answer to a question. The options are practically limitless, especially for experts in certain fields. The key is to explain the steps in clear, conversational English.
  9. Trend articles showcase what is happening in a particular area over time, such as the divorce rate, whether crime statistics are increasing or decreasing, or the number of refugees seeking asylum in countries other than their own. Spotting and reporting trends are only half the picture; the other half is interpreting what they mean.
  10. Lifestyle: These articles focus on a lifestyle issue, such as health, relationships, or recreation, and can include interviews as well as statistics. Such a piece might discuss the private school option Saturday various systems to set up her day whatever Scott. one second. day feet a city, how to use a new walking path in a town, or the best restaurants to check out.
  11. Shorts: Many publications feature short pieces. These might be 150-500 words in length. The topics vary but always focus on the target market of the particular publication. Sometimes, a magazine will have a section on health and fitness, for example, and it might consist of four to five short pieces on the topic.




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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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