That inventor was 16 year-old Hanson Gregory, who became the youngest sea captain from Maine.The Washington Post interviewed him, then retired, on March 26, 1916. My first manuscript had a child questioning the captain, with his fellow mariners adding facts and humor to the story. It became historical fiction, and I imagined wacky illustrations by David Catrow.
I continued to dig. As I unearthed more facts, I realized my first approach was too cavalier. True, Hanson Gregory impulsively created the doughnut while serving on-board as a 16 year-old cook’s assistant. He later married but left his wife and children for months while commanding fast sailing ships. His cargo was dangerous; it caught fire when wet! Gregory even earned a medal from the Queen of Spain for saving the lives of her sailors. In the next version, I revealed Gregory’s life in a chronology that involved sidebars about the lime trade, tall ships and sea disasters, on-board cooking, and more. I got caught up in the period and the book became unwieldy.
A new tack was needed. Census records, death certificates, newspaper archives, letters, and public libraries revealed emotions and tragedies long forgotten. Four of Gregory’s nieces and nephews, all under age five, were killed by yellow fever in the same week. Two of the captain’s young children disappeared from census records and his grandchildren all died tragically. Finally, Captain Gregory was driven from the sea by the dominance of steam-power. I felt bound to bring this man back to life. But how to write about so much determination in the face of towering grief? What about the doughnut? This version was too bleak.
Next I uncovered a strong connection between this 19th century sea captain and modern day Dunkin’ Donuts. What about a book that developed that relationship? And what about the connection with the doughnut girls of World War I? Several attempts to write that version of events fizzled out when the emotional depth was lost.
After six months and 22 rewrites, my 200 pages of research were whittled to 1,071 words about this sea captain and his amazing career. That version did not sell.
I wrote yet another selection of facts with just 716 words, centered on Gregory’s invention of the doughnut. For all the rest, I had to choose just five short author notes. This version sold.
One burden of writing nonfiction is choosing what goes in the work (and gets read), and what remains in one’s research. Captain Gregory outlived most of his family and his story died with him. I grieved as I let the life I had discovered slip back into the soup of history.
Your charge, as you research and write, will be which facts to reveal. And which to leave out. In so doing, you may not change history, but you could alter your readers’ perception of the events.
This is why research is a blessing, and a burden. Choose your facts carefully.
Although it may not seem like it from the looks of my office, but I’m obsessed with Marie Kondo, her books, and her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Condo.
While reading her book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, it occurred to me that her rules for tidying could also be the perfect rules for revisions.
The revision process is not about decluttering your story or making it look nice and neat for editors. Instead, it is about revising in a way that will spark joy when reading your final draft.
1. Commit yourself to the revision process.
Writing is revising and rewriting. And revising again. And again. Keep in mind the words of a pro: “I love revision. Where else can spilled milk be turned into ice cream?” – Katherine Paterson.
2. Imagine your ideal manuscript.
Paste your draft into a dummy. (If you’ve never made a dummy – take 8 sheets of paper, stack them landscape style and fold them in half. Staple along the fold.) Does your manuscript fit? Too much information? Too little? Your dummy will guide you as you make revisions.
3. Finish discarding first.
Go through your manuscript line by line. If it sparks joy (moves your story forward) keep it. If not, discard. This way, you’re not wasting time revising materials that could eventually be cut.
4. Revise by category.
Does your first page grab the reader? Do you have a satisfying ending? Will this keep your reader engaged from beginning to end?
Have someone read your story aloud. Is your writing sparkling? Did your reader get stuck or stumble?
5. Ask yourself if it sparks joy.
“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner. This is the hardest part - hanging on to those elements you love. They may have special meaning but will probably have your agent or editor rolling their eyes.
Remember, you’re not choosing what to discard, but what to keep. And, you only want to keep the good stuff that makes you and your manuscript shine – with joy.
As nonfiction writers, we like to get the skinny on any given subject. Most of us are curious by nature. So we enjoy the process. And we like to share the stuff we’ve found. But sometimes we get bogged down along the way. That’s when an actual deadline can help us reach the finish line.
Whether your deadline is one given to you by an editor or one you impose on yourself, you can use it to help you get to your writing goal.
Start by putting your deadline on your calendar. (I use a large desk calendar for this purpose.) Put in all other important dates, including non-writing related events. Be realistic. Put in doctor visits or other appointments. And give yourself permission to attend that concert or spend the day on an outing with your family. But be sure to put as much of it as you can on your calendar from the get-go.
Now look at the days you have left. Note which days are writing days. Now think about how you might break your project into parts. Set a deadline for each part of the project. Meeting each mini deadline will move you closer and closer to finishing your project. Try to give yourself a few days at the end for your project to “stew” in your mind before you have to turn it in. Those days will be a gift if a family emergency or something else arises to demand your attention.
Plotting out your writing days in this manner, with mini deadlines along the way, will help you plan out your project. It will also take away some of the anxiety associated with having a big project due if you know you are on schedule. It allows you to finish the part you have planned for that day and gives you the freedom to stop or continue if you are on schedule.
For added visual reminder, you can create a sticky-note list on a wall near your desk. Write one mini deadline on each note. Date them if you desire. As you meet each goal, take down the corresponding sticky-note and throw it away. Each time you throw away a note, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. And the shrinking list reminds you that you are on your way to completing your project.
And before you know it: Presto! Your deadline becomes your finish line!
Choose a fun narrator.
Instead of just presenting information in the typical manner, let your subject take over and share their own story!
One Proud Penny – Randy Siegel
PENNY proudly explains how it’s made and offers lots of fun details about money – in his own voice.
Gross is good.
Dig deep for the most fascinating, gross, unusual, weird and amazing facts. Your readers will thank you for it!
Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History – Lois Miner Huey
This book contains lots of fun historical facts and doesn’t shy away from the gross stuff!
Add a fun sidebar.
Even if your subject is fairly serious, if you do find a fun fact or light-hearted example, put it in a side bar. This can be a breath of fresh air or some comic relief.
Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog – Adrienne Sylver
Its sidebars are full of extra facts and anecdotes relating to the humble hot dog. Really stretch and think outside the box to come up with tidbits that will surprise and delight readers.
New angle or twist.
Look for a unique way to present your information. Turn your topic upside down and inside out and shake it all about! Love geography? Want to introduce readers to the Arctic? Instead of presenting facts and figures, make the reader feel as if they are there.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be…A Polar Explorer – Jen Green
This series focuses on the nasty and negative aspects of jobs, lifestyles, and places throughout history. Written in second person, it helps the reader get up close and personal with the subject.
Language, puns, inside jokes.
Use words and phrases that match your topic. And remember that kids LOVE puns and fun word-play!
I Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are – Bridget Heos
Get it? BUZZ? Cracks me up every time!
No matter how serious you are, or how serious your subject is, a touch of humor can coax a smile, and maybe a giggle out of your reader. Go forth and be funny!
Over the years I've experimented with writing personal essays, articles, folktales, picture books, rhyme, biography, how-to's, inspirational pieces, historical fiction, contemporary novels, book-length nonfiction, and academic papers. As I experimented, I noticed things about myself:
Recognizing my writing strengths helped me figure out that nonfiction is my niche. Knowing my strengths makes it easier to decide which projects to pursue — projects that will keep me happy through the (sometimes years-long) process of working on them.
What are your writing strengths? How can you use your strengths to bring you joy in your writing?
For more thoughts on this topic, check out these two blog posts:
Amy Benson Brown, "The Importance of Recognizing Your Strengths as a Writer"
Colleen M. Story, "The One Thing Writers Miss When Trying to Improve"
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.