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:
- What is the purpose (main message) of the piece?
- What is the medium (communication vehicle)?
- Who is the target audience (ideal reader)?
Here’s an example for an article for a business magazine;
- 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
- What is the medium (communication vehicle)? Four-color, glossy magazine, supported by advertising, subscriptions, and underwriting by the chamber of commerce
- 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.