Five Tips for Writing Fantastic Non-Fiction
Narrative or creative non-fiction deals in facts but tells them like fictions. Unlike journalism, academic writing or how-to books, narrative or creative non-fiction experiments with writing techniques common to novels. Extended passages of lyric description, vividly drawn characters, a narrative that moves between the individual and universal: the best creative non-fiction combines forensic attention to facts with language to beat the Booker.
So how do you write it?
Choose a topic you adore, are knowledgeable about, and won’t mind being immersed in for many months
Read: the good, the bad and the beautiful
We’re readers before we’re writers, and narrative non-fiction is no exception. Life-writing (biography, autobiography and memoir) often tops best-seller lists; my favourites blend personal narrative with insights into broader topics.
Diana Athill offers mesmerising snapshots from her life alongside tales from the world of twentieth-century publishing. Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk combine personal experiences of depression, addiction and grief with secondary narratives on mental health, the geography of Orkney, and training a bird of prey, respectively.
Whether it’s nature writing, histories or memoir, sample as many as you can - your ear will tune to the voices you love, and quickly pick out those to send to the charity shop.
Pick your subject carefully
Choose a topic you adore, are knowledgeable about, and won’t mind being immersed in for many months. Non-fiction can take a year or more to write, and even when you’re not actively researching or writing, ideas will keep you company in the wee small hours.
There’s no point trying to write about something that doesn’t fascinate you, even if it entrances other people – enthusiasm is infectious and so is apathy. Be aware of the market too: if ten books on alpaca farming have just been published, think carefully about what would make yours stand out from the crowd.
Pen a proposal
The good thing about writing non-fiction rather than fiction is it’s much more common to be paid an advance before you finish a draft manuscript. For this you need a publisher offering a contract, often mediated through an agent. An advance is a payment made in advance of anticipated royalties from the sale of the finished book, and is agreed in a contract between author, agent and publisher. Expect to be paid 25 – 50% of the total on signing the contract, with a further 25% on completing the manuscript and the remainder on publication in hardback, paperback or both.
There’s no point trying to write about something that doesn’t fascinate you, even if it entrances other people
To snare an agent and/or a publisher, you’ll need to tempt them with a detailed proposal and a couple of sample chapters. Your proposal should include a one-paragraph overview, a short market-focussed rationale (where is the market for this book? who might buy it?), a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and a short author biography which includes information about why you are a suitable and informed author. In total, this should be no more than two A4 sides.
You also need to submit at least two sample chapters of your book. These should showcase your best writing to maximum effect: edit and rewrite them until your eyes ache, then ask someone else whose writing you trust to look over them. If you don’t have the luxury of such an acquaintance, read everything out loud slowly to yourself – it’s a great way to iron out silly mistakes.
If your writing can be creative, your facts certainly can’t be. In our so-called ‘a post-truth’ world, people want to trust your words and if they spot an error, inconsistency or omission they will rapidly lose faith with your book. Interrogate your sources and your assumptions. If a statement doesn’t stand up to close examination, it shouldn’t go in. You won’t be able to fact-check every sentence, but you should endeavour to cross-reference as much as you can. Research doesn’t just mean burning the midnight oil in the library stacks. Wherever you can, put your feet in places that your audience can’t, so that you can accurately recreate it for them on the page. If you’re writing about food, get cooking. A particular place? Visit it. A now-closed local business? Museums and archives are a great source of local information.
Research and associated travel can be expensive. Creative Scotland offer grants to writers through their Open Project Funding stream, and the Society of Authors have a range of awards for Works in Progress (with deadlines in April and September), including for nonfiction. The Royal Society of Literature also offers its prestigious RSL Jerwood Awards for Non-Fiction for writers who have received their first publishing contract: prizes range from £5,000 to £10,000.
If your writing can be creative, your facts certainly can’t be
Tweet, post, chat
Social media is a hugely useful tool for the non-fiction writer. It can help you find an agent or publisher: I signed to Jenny Brown Associates following XpoNorth’s Tweet Your Pitch competition this January, using its specific #xpoN hashtag for non-fiction. It also enables you to communicate directly with people who can help with your research. Thanks to Twitter and Instagram I’ve been invited to farms in Cumbria, crofts in the Hebrides, and yarn factories in Yorkshire – just make sure you don’t spend too many hours down the social media rabbit hole…
For writing tips for all forms and genres, check out our five things series.