Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #5
In Post #2, I said a non-fiction writer’s process has four overlapping phases. We’re ready to explore Phase Two:
2. CONSIDER HOW TO APPLY THE INFORMATION COLLECTED: From all the information you collect, what will you use? How can it best be sequenced in your book?
During 2014, I became aware that there were hundreds of reports by researchers who had traveled to East Asia to determine why students there academically outperform American students. I foresaw that if I studied those reports, I could write a book to make the researchers’ findings clear for ordinary folks, people without scholarly backgrounds.
I began reading. After three months I had scratched the surface pretty well. I realized that the researchers had been examining not only East Asian teaching in pre- and primary schools, but also East Asian parenting in homes there.
Short books are more likely to be read, right? So I made a basic decision about applying this mountain of information: not one book, but two. First I’d write about East Asian homes.
I continued reading for several months, learning from dozens of research reports how parents in China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea are guided by the fundamental values of their cultures to raise their children. The details were rich, nuanced, and many.
For non-fiction writers, the question soon becomes how to keep track of the myriad facts that are tumbling in. In my experience, copious note-taking is indispensable. Here’s the goal: When it’s time to start making sequencing decisions, all notes collected need to be available in a format that facilitates decisions about which ones to use and in what order.
O.K., I’m old fashioned. “Note” means a typed-upon, 3-hole-punched sheet of 8½x11 paper that can be snapped into a three-ring binder labeled with a certain category. It can easily be moved into a differently categorized binder. It can be laid out on a table and shifted around with other notes as possible sequences are pondered. Being able to manipulate notes with my own hands is satisfyingly efficient and a highly effective aid to decision-making.
I’ve included a visual aid with this post. Have a look. The examples given of binder titles and subcategories are based on “The Drive to Learn.” Pay attention especially to this: “Each note should deal with only one topic and include the citation.” “One topic” doesn’t mean one fact; it means an interrelated group of facts such as a researcher’s description of an event.
How to distribute information within your book? For the moment, let’s sidestep the topics of chapters in your book’s “body.” Consider other potential locations such as preface, introduction, and postscript (none of which must be included). Information also can be placed in the endnotes. In my books, endnotes are extensive because I want to keep the “body” short and easily readable. Technical stuff goes into the endnotes.
Pondering where within your book various topics will most effectively reside is something you’ll do even when you’re not at your desk. In my case, key sequencing decisions are still being pondered after my book was published! Here’s an example:
How many people actually read prefaces and introductions? My hunch is that some readers glance at them skeptically, wondering, “Do I really need to read this?” That’s why I still worry about “The Drive to Learn.” I placed a pivotal statement in its Preface, on page xiii. It’s pivotal because it drives the sequencing of topics in Chapters 1 through 9. Yes, the statement is repeated — in the Introduction, pages xx-xxi.
Given another chance, I’d probably sequence “The Drive to Learn” differently.