How do you write non-fiction?

I’m researching and writing a non-fiction book, about preparing yourself to survive climate change. I started writing it because I thought it was an interesting topic, one that hadn’t been covered elsewhere in any depth, and one where I have a bit of expertise (thanks to three years as environment editor at The Conversation). A publisher thought it sounded OK too, and gave me a contract, a small advance and a deadline.

I'm pretty sure this is how you write anything, right?
I’m pretty sure this is how you write anything, right?

Several months in, it’s dawning on me that I have no idea how to write a non-fiction book. I can write a short essay (if writing about reading on the toilet counts). I can write, kind of, a fiction book (you just make it up, right?). And I figured the skills I’d picked up doing both of those would see me through writing 80,000 words of factpinion. But I’m not sure anymore that’s true. I mean, I don’t even really know how much fact should be in this book, and how much opinion. And I don’t know how rigorous the facts should be. Are there rules?

Over the years I’ve read no end of advice on how to write, but it’s always been directed at fiction writing. And some of those things do still apply for non-fiction: sit down regularly at your writing instrument and put words on it, whether you feel like it or not. Don’t be boring. Cut stuff that doesn’t advance the narrative. But that’s about it…

So does anyone have any tips? Y’know, pithy aphorisms that I can stick above my desk to keep me on the straight and narrow? Help!

12 thoughts on “How do you write non-fiction?

  1. Start with a portrayal of the future as you know it will be: the changed coastlines, the capitals moved inland. The disrupted economies, temperatures, scarcity of crops, and fish; the masses of poor made refugees. The wars for water and where they are likely to flare. Introduce a family, an average, loving family as the locus. The books and knowledge they will need to master to give them deep understanding of eco systems, biology. The harsh awareness they will need to master of the effects of climate change on the mass of bacteria within. The solar panels they’ll construct, the harvesting of protein. It will be a challenge, an adventure. You are narrator, guide, and above all, benign spirit of their will to adapt.
    One step at a time, one chapter, until their future lies before them.

  2. holy wow. that’s a gift, charles. All I was going to say, Jane, was, worry about structure after your first draft is done. looking at the structure after you’ve written everything you think you should will reveal the gaps you weren’t aware of and give you ways to fill them in.

  3. I’m a fan of the Gonzo approach, especially in a case like this where you’re meeting and speaking to lots of different people with opinions and varying approaches and lifestyles. You’re the only constant, and something of an avatar for the reader, so it’s good to bring out who you are, what you know and don’t know, as you navigate the issues.

  4. Hmmm. An interesting dilemma. How much fact vs how much opinion? A blend of opinions based on facts, I guess. When I was overwhelmed by the task of writing my first novel, someone told me to just think of it like writing a series of short fiction pieces. Wouldn’t the same apply for non-fic? Isn’t it a series of essays? Maybe start with one topic you know you want to cover and write it as an essay. Then do another. Afterwards, you can add some linking text to tie them altogether.

    Also, maybe look up Joan Didion. She has written/talked a lot about her approach to non-fiction writing and her work has been widely acclaimed.

    Also maybe talk to lee Kofman about creative non-fiction. Do you know her? I can introduce you on twitter if you don’t.

    1. Really, this book should be easy. It’s a handbook. It doesn’t really need much narrative structure. It shouldn’t need my presence. It’s a guide people can dip in and out of. It should be useful, and informative, and not misleading. (Maybe it’s the not misleading that scares me.) It’s not going to be the kind of gripping read Lee (who, yep, I’ve chatted a bit with on twitter though never about this) or Anna Krien might write – it’s a handbook. But still, as Charlotte Wood said in her interview with you, ‘the process of doing it is, most of the time, basically beyond my capacity.’ I probably just need to harden up! And I guess keep in mind the question, ‘would I want to read this?’

  5. Wow!

    I’ve been writing since my early teens – and I’m a lot older than that now!

    But right from the start, that writing took a journalistic direction.

    That direction has been hardened and honed by a lifetime in the newspaper game.

    I have written countless reviews, opinion pieces, features and profiles.

    These days I do my thing – and very satisfyingly so – on a food blog that has become the story of my life.

    What I have never done is write fiction.

    I am in awe of those who do so – both those who try and those who try and succeed.

    I feel totally out of my depth in even thinking about it – not just the technical aspects but also coming up with stories to begin with.

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