Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #2

Let’s first consider the processes a writer uses to create a non-fiction work.

Hold on! Does “create” really belong in that sentence? If this blog were about writing fiction, no one would question “create” in that sentence. Already we’re encountering a fundamental difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. It’s about different meanings of “create,” which means that something unique is caused to exist as the result of someone’s thought or imagination.

If IMAGINATION causes the unique thing, the implication is that it’s formed out of something wholly internal to the person who caused it, like God creating something out of nothing. Perhaps this whiff of divinity helps draw many people’s fascination with fiction and the writers of fiction.

I’m confident that writers of fiction, to some extent, draw their raw material from sources external to themselves, from the characteristics of real people, places, and events with which they’re familiar. Their mental effort goes into imaginatively, selectively, using those external things to make up a unique story, many features of which are not experience-based.

If THOUGHT causes the unique thing, there’s not necessarily an implication that its formation is God-like. The whiff of divinity is gone, but the created thing still can be unique even though it’s formed out of pre-existing things. This describes the creativity of non-fiction writers.

Writers of non-fiction draw ALL their raw material from sources external to themselves. The whole point is, or ought to be, to keep their free-flowing imaginations and biases out of the process. Their mental effort involves selectivity among pre-existing things but not imagination. The story that results might very well be unique, and all of its features are experience-based.

Let’s turn now to the processes of the non-fiction writer. My decades of writing lead me to propose four phases. (I’m skipping the prior step of deciding what to write about).

First, locate and collect myriad accurate information about the topic at hand; this is one’s raw material. Depending on the topic and how long ago and far away the relevant events occurred, this phase can be huge, and can overlap with the phases listed below. It might also be necessary to somehow verify the accuracy of items of information collected.

Second, decide how all that information will be applied. This involves selectivity in the sense of including and equally of excluding, for one quickly amasses more facts than can be used in a book of reasonable length. Also involved is deciding on the sequence in which the facts will be presented. These decisions do not all need to be made before the writing begins.

Third, decide on or refine the main points that you want to make. Of course, wanting to forcefully make a particular point might well have been the motive for the entire project. My experience illustrates that one can begin with a general sense of purpose, to be refined as one gathers and applies found information. Again, this need not all occur at the beginning.

Fourth and last, carry out the actual writing of the piece. By “writing” I’m including initial drafting, sending drafts to colleagues for comment, re-drafting, submitting to editing, finalizing and, let’s not forget, giving appropriate credit to all sources of your information via both endnotes and a bibliography. (Just between you and me, I really miss footnotes!)

We will revisit each of these phases beginning in my next entry. The thought I’d like to leave you with is this: Do not think of the above four steps as needing to occur sequentially. The only thing that’s certain is that all four need to end simultaneously!

Educator, independent scholar. I write books for Americans with insights re how parents & teachers in other societies deal with young children & their learning.