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The Guide to Non-Fiction

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A Guide to Writing Non-Fiction
By Ben Franks, Editor of Pie Magazine

Welcome. This is an extensive guide to 'Writing Non-Fiction'. By the end of this guide, you'll be acquainted with the basic skills of writing good, well-rounded Non-Fiction.

For specialist enquiry, message me.

What is Non-Fiction?

To begin, let’s get the term out of the way. Non-Fiction is defined by rule of opposition to ‘fiction’, essentially, as ‘fact’. However, there is much leeway in this definition. Non-Fiction is also heavily determined by opinion. A biographer, for example, puts as much of his personality into his work as he does the personality of whose life he is writing. The essential difference between Non-Fiction and Fiction then lies in the presentation; if a text presents itself as fact or topic of fact, then it is—by decree—Non-Fiction.

Why is Non-Fiction Writing Important?

Non-Fiction is a medium we see in our lives every single day. Non-Fiction brings us our news in the morning; it brings us personalities through opinion; it informs us of persons, places, theory; it is the bed for all debates to lie on; it breathes statistics into argument; it is a way we converse with one another, communicate; and it is how we present ourselves to the world. Non-Fiction writing is a skill invaluable to a career in writing—even if you’re pursuing the world of Fiction; one still needs a CV, a press release, and the ability to write a letter, and so forth.

Types of Non-Fiction

There are five umbrella terms* for writing Non-Fiction, these include:

1. Presenting Yourself:
This includes: CV writing, profile and portfolio, formal letter writing, press releases and social networking.

2. The Art of Opinion:
This includes: Column writing, blogs, complaint letters, persuasive writing, and reviewing of all kinds.

3. Academic:
This includes: Essay writing, quiz-creation, numerical referencing and research.

4. Creating an Image:
This includes: Editing, layouts, header-writing, slogan-writing, advertising, formatting and photo-journalism.

5. In the News:
This includes: Event commentary, statistical analysis, general article writing and creation of debate.

*These are the ones I shall cover, see Pt. VII Summary for other types.

The scapegoat of these is ‘life-writing’. The reason being that biographies and autobiographies often blend the realms of Non-Fiction with Fiction; although to market a book as a biography one needs sufficient evidence, it is still true that fact in this particular genre is ‘grey’.

Top Tips before you start

There are a few things one should know before that apply broadly to Non-Fiction writing (with only a few exceptions).

  • Your name is important, be proud of it--this is what you use to forge contacts, gain a reputation and become a personality.*
  • Non-Fiction needs fact - don't underestimate fact. Even in the most opinionated, exaggerated review you still need base it on fact. You cannot say, for example, an actor starred in a film he didn't star in.
  • Listen to your readers - You write anything, you're writing to be read. Audience is vital, so make sure you're tailoring your piece.
  • Enjoy what you do - enjoy all of it; from writing a letter to a potential employer to a news article on a G7 Summit, you should believe in your writing and be passionate.
  • Embrace your personality - the best non-fic writers have character, style and personality. Embrace it.
  • Always, always proof read - in the literary world you sell on story, but in all things non-fic you sell to your editor, employer or audience on presentation. Make sure you don't fall down on the spelling/grammar hurdles.
  • Do your research - no employer likes an applicant who knows nothing of their company, just like no reader likes to read news from someone who knows nothing of it.
* Ghost writers, who write biographies for celebrities and other personalities, are paid to keep their identity secret. Reputation in this industry is built through an agent.

Part I
Article Writing

The Pitch

As a writer, you’ll want to stand out, so finding the right article to pitch is more important than ever. Editors will always ask you to pitch an article before you write it or before they publish it. It is like pitching a business idea to investors.

Choosing your article
There’s one key thing to choosing your article, something more vital than any other tip anyone will give you, and that key thing is passion. If you’re looking to write about something, you need to want to write about it—if you don’t, then why should I, as your editor, read it? More importantly, why would your readers want to read it?

Writing your pitch: the key content
There are a few things you should be looking out to include when you write your pitch, here are the main points:
  • What you want to write about. Be simple; what are you intending to write?
  • Next you should briefly explain why you chose to pick this subject. What do you enjoy about film writing, for example? Or perhaps something in the film angered you?
  • Let me know the audience you’re aiming to address.
  • Why do you believe it would benefit the product/magazine/paper?
  • Finally, include the first paragraph of your article. This is a preview of what the rest will be like and is handy in the decision making.

Tailor Your Piece

Each publication has its own angle. If it doesn't, then it will have a particular style or specialism, a restriction of categories, or perhaps simply a word limit. Make sure when you're writing you adhere to the expectations of what you're writing it for.

Key as well is, of course, your audience. When writing you should always be aware of who is going to be reading your work. This is vital. You want those readers to keep coming back to read your work again, so you need to make an impression. More over, you don't want to start scaring readers off or disappointing them.

Always Research

As I mentioned earlier, research is what brings life to the article. If you've pitched right, you'll be writing on something you're passionate about--so research should be fun, not strenuous. If you're finding it a pain, you're writing about the wrong stuff. A good article is always backed by fact and, if opinionated, is inclusive of opinions of others too, creating a healthy debate.

The Feature VS In-Depth VS The Article

These are the three big daddies of general article writing. In brief:

The Feature will be the headline kind of story. This is often what sells the product or publication. These will be the most heavily researched pieces, either to entertain or to inform. They'll try and appeal to as general an audience as possible as a feature aims to create new readers as well as keep the loyal ones.

The In-Depth pieces are often specialist. There are usually as long, if not longer, than the Feature articles, but these will be tailored to an audience who the writer has assumed has the knowledge to understand more specific themes. These usually apply to tech reviews, game, film or other media deconstruction reviews, news investigation summaries, financial statistical analysis, and many other types.

The Article then, is something different. Usually smaller, around 400-1000 words long, the article aims to fill and entertain or inform. Articles will fulfil the audience and angle prescribed by the product or magazine; for example, in a newspaper, an article not a feature would usually fill a quarter or half page spread. They're to the point and refrain from going into too much detail.

Commentary VS Columns

The opinionated article (minus the review, which has its own section later) and its shadow: the commentary and column.

The Commentary is whereby a writer will report on an event and attempt to remove their personality from the article. This is to offer the reader bare fact; a detail of events, if you like. It is an update.

The Column made its rise in the late 20th Century and has become prominent with online blogging in later years. This is where personalities voice their opinions on live events or topical subjects. They are usually surprisingly well-researched but contain humour and often exaggeration. Creating a column is a thing which takes time and, for the most part, columnists often require ready-established readerships before they get the job--that is why a lot of them are ex-TV personalities, politicians and comedians.

Part II
Job Opportunity: Presenting to an Employer

In today's economic climate, it is not surprising finding a job is becoming a harder task. However, there are ways your Non-Fiction writing abilities can help you stand out from the crowd. In this section, I'll be talking you through creating a CV and a Cover Letter when applying for job vacancies.

Rule: Tailor, tailor, tailor. As with article writing, it is important you do your research. Always look into a company before applying. This will benefit you in deciding a job path as well as it will aid in your application.

Writing the Cover Letter

Firstly, click here to be acquainted with how a formal cover letter should look.
NB: If it is your first time writing, always sign 'Yours Faithfully'.

Top Tips:
  • Begin by informing them of your purpose. For example, 'I am writing to you to apply for the vacancy of "Sales Assistant" at your Hometown Branch, which I saw advertised on Please find my CV attached.'
  • Next, inform them of why you were attracted to the vacancy and sneak in experience if you have any (no longer than 3-5 lines). For example, 'I wish to join Groceries4u because, having already worked in retail, I know I am passionate about selling and customer service. Your Hometown store has always prided itself on customer service, so I was instantly attracted to the vacancy.'
  • Now inform them you can meet their availability. For example, 'Although I am still in full-time education, my course allows much flexibility. Therefore I will be fully able to fill the 15-hours per week, as advertised, during week nights or weekends of your preference.'
  • Finally, close with a thank you for their time. For example, 'Thank you for taking the time to read this application and the attached CV. I look forward to your reply and will make myself ready for interview at your convenience.'
  • Always sign 'Yours Faithfully', and make sure to sign the letter with your name by hand too--this is always an added bonus. You should print your name below your signature in the same typography as the body of the text.

Writing a CV

NB: CV is known as a 'resume' in the States. Layout is familiar, I have included a resume guide as a link below also.

Writing a Curriculum Vitae is a very personal thing. The most important thing you can ensure is that it is clearly laid out, the appropriate contact details are available and that the document is balanced in experience and education, with more weight towards experience as you get older. I have included the following guides to help you in writing a CV:

CV and Profile - A Guide by Kent University, UK
Get Career Updates from The Guardian on CV/Letter writing
A very simple CV template
Rockport's Extensive Guide to Resume Writing

Part III

Editing is vital in all writing works, but it can also be a career choice. There have been hundreds of openings for jobs in copy-editing as the service industries continue to grow in the West and all over the world. There has also been a growth in the need for editing in media, editing for business press releases, and editing for marketing and advertisement. Editing is not just proof-reading.

If you're an editor, or aspiring to be one, then the 'delete' button will become one of your best friends. Editing is about knowing how to say something in less words than everyone else. It's about communicating.

Like with all communication, audience is paramount. If you receive an article on the latest game for example, it may be incredibly well-written but there might be one paragraph that's incredibly technical and specialist--does this suit your magazine or newspaper? If not, out it goes. It's your task to tailor the piece to fit the product.

An editor in this day and age is also given power over content. It is the job of the writer or journalist to pitch to an editor and thus the editor's responsibility to decide what he/she commissions for publishing/writing. The editor thus employs the magazine or product's direction, meaning the role of the editor is becoming, slowly, much more like the role of a Managing Director or Business Director--the spearhead, the leader, the mentor.

Here is a guide to further enhance knowledge of pursuing a career path in editing.

Part IV
Rules of Thumb

Sources and Libel
  • Generally, this is the responsibility of your editor, but if you don't have one research the custom of source protection and libel until you're 110% comfortable with it.
  • Never knowingly accuse someone without a hard pool of evidence.
  • Be wary of upsetting or offending persons (for example, a news feature on the death of someone should be respectful in tone and manner).
  • Keep your sources safe; they're your investment.
  • Never obtain information illegally.

Foul language
  • General rule is to avoid any use of crude or possibly offensive language; it often only devalues your piece.
  • Use of foul language for humour purposes, however, is some times encouraged. Remember, tailor your piece! A column may allow language to push the line, but a political news commentary wouldn't--and a complaints letter certainly does not benefit from foul language.
  • Most importantly, be tasteful.

  • Don't go statistic heavy. Generally no more than 1-2 statistics per paragraph is rule.
  • Start off with the statistics that hook your reader. Stats which are for detail should be woven into your writing as the article progresses.
  • Diagrams supporting stats should only be used if appropriate to the product. For example, The Guardian will avoid, mostly, graph imagery; however, something such as The Financial Times would enjoy pie charts and such like. Tailor your piece!

Part V
The Review

The review is one of the greatest and most popular genres of Non-Fiction. Many people aspire to go and do the things they love and write about them. Want to travel? Why not pay for it by reviewing the hotels you stay in? Luxury! Want to eat food and drink fine wine? Review the food and wine and eat and drink till dawn for free! Want to watch live music, visit the silver screen, or perhaps just go see the Super Bowl? Review it and get your tickets cheap as chips.

Yet the review is incredibly hard to get into because it demands a readership who have respect for your opinion. Therefore, once more, research is 110% essential to the success of a reviewer. No-one trusts the opinion of someone who knows nothing, unless they're a very good liar--and humans aren't good liars.

When reviewing something you should do it as often as you possibly can. You should become cultured in your art, so to speak. This is vital in practising your skill and developing style. It is when you have your own style you begin to stand-out and gather readership. Once you have readership, respect your audience and tailor your piece; it is the readership you create and make loyal that will be the key to your success.

Reviewing Literature - A Guide
Reviewing Movies - A Guide

Part VI
Creating Profile

Invest in Yourself
If you want people to believe in you, you need to invest and believe in yourself too. Therefore whenever you set up an account for something, as you all have for YWS, or when you go about creating a profile or biography for a magazine crew, or when you create a CV, remember to put time into it. Offer up all that you can; what kind of person you are should light up the page. There should be evidence you're passionate about being able to achieve.

Get on the Social Networks
  • Set up a Facebook page | it is important to design this appropriately and keep it active and up-to-date.
  • Set up a Twitter account | Twitter is one of the best ways to share your work and publicise updates, and follow other writers.
  • Get a LinkedIn account | although aimed at businesses, this provides a great place for establishing networking and connections to forge a career of opportunities.
  • Get an profile page online | If you make one of these quick, easy and simple pages, you'll go up in search engine rankings when you're name is searched. You can also share links.

Set up a Blog
Blogs are the modern media; the modern voice. If you have a blog you have the opportunity to create a self-made readership. You can join Guardian Students free and get an exclusive 'How to Blog' eBook as a reward.

For a blog, I would heavily recommend you use WordPress. It's free. Although it takes longer to get used to than Google Blogger or Tumblr, the community on WordPress is huge and growing. There's also vast numbers of PlugIns, Themes and Optional Purchasable Extras.

Part VII

You've made it to the end of the guide--congratulations! Hopefully now you feel more enlightened and confident with writing Non-Fiction.

The key, as with anything, is practice. You'll also find huge numbers of resources online to aid you in this subject, so by all means do your research.

And remember, not all Non-Fiction is covered here. There's other types such as instructional writing, pamphlet writing, writing for stand-up, documentary-scripting, and much, much more. It's a big old world out there, so make the most of it.

Here's the link to my Creative Hub, where I post all my latest downloadable resources and guides for writers of all levels. In time, there will be guides available for each genre of Non-Fiction.

Happy writing.

You can't blame the writer for what the characters say.
— Truman Capote