By Wendy Hinote Lanier
In the world of writing, there are a multitude of short courses, books, and blog posts about writing fiction. They talk about plot, character development, story arcs, point of view, setting, and so on. And all of those things are important for writing a good work of fiction.
But nonfiction projects don’t always work that way. Sometimes nonfiction writers use fiction techniques in their writing, but that part comes later in the process.
As part of a recent discussion, the Ninjas talked a bit about how we approach new projects. We thought it might be fun to compare notes in a format that you (our readers) can share with us. In this way, we can all learn from each other.
For me, the first step is almost always to log in to my CiteFast account and create a new bibliography. (Yes, I know CiteFast had a problem a few months ago. They were maliciously hacked, and I lost over 30 bibliographies! In the future I will be saving my bibliographies in other places as well. Lesson learned—the hard way.) CiteFast stays open on my computer any time I am looking for articles and information. And the moment I decide a source is worth using, I use this resource to create a bibliographic entry. This is a step that saves me time and heartache later.
My next step is usually to do an internet search on my chosen subject. At this point I’m looking for information, websites, articles, and anything else that helps me better understand my topic. As a nonfiction writer who sometimes does work for hire, not all my topics are of my own choosing. Sometimes when I start a project, I don’t know ANYTHING about it, so I literally have to start with a definition. Other times I may have an idea about where I’m headed, but I’m going to need a lot more information before I am ready to start writing.
As I begin reading articles and collecting information in earnest, I usually create a document folder on my computer to serve as a catch all for drafts, contracts, and anything else related to that specific project. I also create a literal folder (going old school here) in which to put printed articles, rough drafts, and other documents I may collect. I do this because I still like to print out and mark up web posts and articles I find helpful. Depending on the size of the project (article vs picture book vs middle grade), one folder can sometimes turn into several or even an entire box.
I know some of the Ninjas use OneNote in this phase of nonfiction writing, and it’s something I keep meaning to add to my arsenal. But, true confession time, I still haven’t made the leap.
After a reasonably thorough search of the internet, my next steps are usually to find books and sources other than online. A trip to the library may be in order. Or it might be that a field trip to see my topic up close and personal and speak with someone who is an expert may be just the ticket. This part of the process can be lots of fun. Not to mention tax deductible.
But at some point, the collection of information has to stop. Those research trails can turn into rabbit trails that never end if I’m not careful. So there has to be a point where I stop to assess what I have and begin thinking about how I want to use it. It’s here I usually develop a rough outline. It looks nothing like the one my seventh-grade English teacher taught me to write. (My apologies to Mary Ann Carrier.) At this stage it is more like a list of all the things I want to include. Or, if the project is work for hire, the outline is determined by the guidelines. What I think should be included doesn’t matter.
Once my outline is created, I start looking for holes. What needs further explanation? I formulate questions based on the information I’ve gathered and set out to find the answers. Once I’ve found them, I can adjust my outline accordingly.
Now, finally, it’s time to start writing. But before I begin, I have to make an important decision. What type of nonfiction will this project be? Will it be traditional, browsable, narrative, expository, or active? Then, I have to decide what kind of voice I want to use. Am I going for something humorous or is this piece more serious? (Do I have a choice? If it’s work for hire the answer is no. They pay me to follow the guidelines.)
For me, this part of the process sometimes means walking away for a while and letting a project simmer in the back of my mind a bit. Once I’ve made this decision, I have to decide if it works. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. But, after much deliberation and usually several false starts, a rough draft is finally completed!
It would be great if, given all the work and effort that’s gone into a project up to this point, a rough draft was near perfect. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case. This is the stage where a good critique group is so very important. Every piece I write is shared with the Ninjas or my in-house editor (my retired professor husband). Their feedback is critical. Based on that feedback I make edits and corrections. And, as I’ve learned over the years, the editing doesn’t stop until the project is actually published.
I wish I could tell you all my projects have been published. But the truth is I have boxes of folders in which there are multiple projects in various stages of development. Some are complete but unpublished. Others are in the outline stage. I even have an entire box just for ideas that contains notes scribbled on napkins, pages torn from notepads, and articles ripped out of magazines. (Sometimes I look at those notes and think, “That’s dumb. What was I thinking??”)
The approach I’ve described here doesn’t apply to ALL my writing. Not all my projects are nonfiction. Some are informational fiction. (With my background as a teacher, I want every book I write to be useful for learning as well as fun.) But this does, in general, describe my process for nonfiction. I wish it worked as neatly and progressed in as orderly a fashion as it seems to in this post. But it does work. The key is perseverance.
So, what about you? What’s your process?
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.