Nonfiction—Biggest Dos and Don’ts

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What to Know Before Submitting to Publishers — Or Self-Publishing

By Lindsay Flanagan

Writing nonfiction can be rather daunting. You’ve got your research all compiled, and your ideas are outlined, but now you need to sit down and write. Where to begin? And once that’s done, there’s the self-editing and the sources to sort out (shudder)! To help at every stage, save you some time, and give you the best chance at getting your work published, we interviewed multiple editors about what makes or breaks nonfiction. Below is our compiled must-know list for dos and don’ts so you can save yourself some heartache and a load of hassle.

Nonfiction Dos and Don’ts—To Be or Not to Be…Published

Do:

  • What’s the number one element of nonfiction to consider if you want to get your nonfiction published? Your angle. The way you approach your subject will can either draw readers in or push them away. For example, the “contrarian thesis” is a technique used to peak readers’ interest and presents a view that is contrary to popular belief or opinion. It is used to make the subject intriguing and also to frame it in a different light. In Mark McCutcheon’s best-selling nonfiction how-to guide, Damn, Why Didn’t I Write That?, he talks about the fact that the top-ten best-selling nonfiction topics have been the same for decades. How is it that we haven’t run out of ways to talk about weight loss? If you’re a savvy author, you’ll start by researching what is already in the market and the sales numbers on books in your genre. Then make your angle (and voice) unique so that you stand out among your competitors. For a hint at how an angle works, consider that it is your hook—what will draw in curious readers who want to see or experience fulfillment of the promise you’re making. Consider the titles of competing books and the back cover blurbs. What is the unique approach to an overdone subject that each book boasts? And how does the target market (women vs. young women vs. working women vs. working mothers, for example) affect how such books go wide or deep with that angle?
  • Speaking of your audience, that brings us to the second most important point: Do you know your audience? Do you know exactly who your book is for? Not everyone in the world is interested in gardening. So are you writing a how-to book for newbie enthusiasts, a philosophical piece for plant-educated policy makers, or compiling a lovely bit of this and that for the well-seasoned gardener looking for the next insider secret? Don’t give too much background on your topic if your audience is likely already knowledgeable on the subject. Conversely, if you are writing to an audience that is not well-versed in the topic, give appropriate amounts of background. Don’t assume readers will know about prior research and standard assumptions about your topic. Use jargon and acronyms if fellow experts comprise your audience; spell things out, as it were, for new learners of the topic. See our other article, “The Nonfiction Market,” to read more about these first two points; in the meantime, check out the other key must-knows that follow:
  • Understand point of view and how it will affect your angle and marketability (and your “voice”), as well as which is most practical and effective for your genre. Your choice to write in first-person or third-person point-of-view depends on your nonfiction genre. Are you writing a memoir, a family history, a how-to based on your experiences vs. one on research you’ve done, a journal article, or a biography? If you choose first-person, you are indicating to the reader that your relationship to the subject is close and personal. Third-person, on the other hand, suggests that you are more of an observer but still an expert on your topic.
  • Use the appropriate style guide. A style guide defines the preferred method of how to follow the mechanics and “rules” of language in a particular industry, as well as how to emphasize, cite, and refer to ideas. These manuals also dictate usage regarding spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and terms specific to a field. You should also ensure you are following the most recent version of the style guide you are using. Don’t mix different style guides; use the one your publisher or genre requires. (Style guide examples include: American Psychological Association (APA), for citing sources in the social sciences; Modern Language Association (MLA), for writing papers and citing sources in liberal arts and humanities; the Chicago Manual of Style (“Chicago” or CMS) for manuscript publication, as well as punctuation, grammar, and usage; and Associated Press (AP) for news writing.)
  • Clearly communicate what new information your piece is presenting, and organize your ideas in a logical and interesting way. (And avoid repetition of ideas and arguments once they have been stated; you should engage a fellow skilled writer or editor to help you decide where to fill in and where to cut.)
  • Remember that lengthy quotes will probably require permission (and quoting poetry always does), so the shorter, the better when it comes to quoted material. (See our article on fair use here.)

Don’t:

  • Fail to cite your sources. Be sure that the ones you use are the most current on your topic. If you are using scientific and medical journals, they should be no more than five years old if you are basing your data and arguments on their claims.
  • Hide information in the hopes that your audience won’t notice that you’ve glossed over some facts in a source that would contradict their conclusions.
  • Rely too much on quoted material rather than presenting your  views and voice. Make your argument, and have one credible source to back you up, but don’t list four or five sources that simply repeat the point you are making.
  • Plagiarize. It is so easy in our online world to copy and paste, but as noted above, DO NOT do this without giving credit to the source. Sometimes writers inadvertently plagiarize (copying down material for research and then forgetting to note where they got the information, or—if the information was already known to the writer—forgetting to rephrase the idea in a unique way). Additionally, avoid relying too heavily on a single source in to avoid repurposing someone else’s intellectual property. (See our article on fair use here.)
  • Misuse ellipses within the quoted material. Check the appropriate style guide for instructions on how to use ellipses. (Yes, these are endlessly annoying!)
  • And don’t, don’t, don’t  take quotes out of context to support a point.

Do This Now

  • Go find five books on your exact topic and skim their introductions and chapter openings to see how their angles differ. What justifies their having been published in a densely populated nonfiction market (that has likely seen your topic again and again)?
  • Determine the audience for which you are writing. Are they experts or novices or somewhere in between?
  • Decide if your book would thrive most through traditional or self-publishing models (and also consider whether you should shoot for a niche or national publisher/market).
  • Study your style guides and make sure you know and have access to the most current edition.
  • Ensure you have a variety of sources that support—and a couple that contradict—your argument (which can make your piece more interesting as you battle ideas with your own fresh take).
  • Test your thesis. Make sure it stands out against the other arguments on your topic, and make sure it stands up against contradictory arguments.
  • If you’re writing a full-length book for a mostly lay audience, read Mark McCutcheon’s Damn, Why Didn’t I Write That?

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L FlanaganLindsay Flanagan received her master of arts in English and creative writing. Lindsay has been with Eschler Editing since December 2014. She writes YA fantasy novels and poetry, and she blogs about books, rock concerts, and the ups and downs of being a mommy on her blog, The Calligrapher’s Ink.

(The following editors contributed dos and don’ts to this article: Angela Eschler, Catherine Langford, Sabine Berlin, Connie Tucker, Kami Hancock, Kathy Gordon, Lisa Mangum, Lindsay Flanagan, Heather Moore, and Michele Preisendorf.)

Your Turn

Thoughts from you, reader? What’s the number-one takeaway you’ll be using from this article?

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Comments

  1. I printed this article along with the other on the nonfiction market and placed them in my source binder for frequent reference. So many steps to remember! Now I’ve got it all down in one place along with my dog-eared copy of Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? Thanks, Lindsay!

  2. Another super helpful article, Lindsay. It’s spot on, wise advice for doing it the right way!

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