Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #7

In Post #2, I posited that there are four overlapping phases of writing non-fiction. We’re ready now for the third.

3. DECIDE ON OR REFINE THE MAIN POINTS YOU WANT TO MAKE: Achieve clarity with yourself about your purpose in writing a book before you finish writing it!

Did that sentence surprise you? Did you expect it to end “…before you BEGIN writing it”?

My experience convinces me that it’s perfectly fine to begin working on a non-fiction book with no more than a general sense of purpose. A detailed sense of purpose is OK, too, and it’s probably preferable for certain projects. But clarity before beginning is not essential.

Consider my halting progress toward clarity as the author of, “The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today.” As a scholar in the fields of anthropology and education, I knew research had established that Americans tend strongly to attribute a child’s good, or poor, academic performance to their inborn intelligence. Americans are aware that how much a child studies can affect performance, but that isn’t their go-to explanation. What that child inherited at birth explains more than their effort.

It turns out that in much of the rest of the world, a child’s academic performance is attributed much more to their own effort than to “how many smarts” they happened to acquire at birth.

By what path did this unusual belief come to characterize Americans? To discover the answer to that question was the general sense of purpose that animated my quest.

Each time I investigated what seemed the likely origin of our belief the in determining power of inherited intelligence, I found that I was mistaken; it had originated earlier. For example, I felt sure that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the cause of it all, but the more I learned about him, the more I recognized that his views reflected earlier perspectives. Only after I had probed all the way back to Plato and Aristotle did I discover the origin!

My research also revealed other fascinating explanations for Americans’ typical mindset regarding children’s capacity to learn — especially girls’! Each discovery was unexpected.

Based on my experience with “The Aptitude Myth” and other book projects, I’d like to share three realizations with you:

A. FORGET OUTLINES. I never outline a chapter before I start to write it. Sure, I know in broad terms what the chapter needs to discuss. For the chapter I’m drafting about Navajo child-rearing, I have hundreds of notes about details that could be included, and I know I’ll discuss the setting of Navajo life before I narrow down to child-rearing. Good enough!

My creative intuition is never more engaged than when I’m fashioning the sentences and paragraphs of a chapter. Why voluntarily confine my mind in a straightjacket? If I’m worried that I might forget something, I simply jot down the key topics on the back of an envelope.

B. FINE-TUNE YOUR PURPOSE AT THE END. Whether it’s a chapter or the entire book, the time to clarify its raison d’etre is when you’re done drafting it. Yes, the question of purpose was in your mind while you were creatively drafting it, and you allowed yourself the flexibility to redirect, amplify, or restrict its purpose. Now that its drafted, you can gauge its impact, finalize its purpose, and ensure that readers will grasp its purpose as clearly as you do.

C. SAVOR THE PROCESS. For me, writing non-fiction that tackles social issues is fulfilling. I begin with curiosity, I control the process, I end with answers, and I contribute to human betterment.

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