On Writing Non-Fiction

27 May

by Vanessa Di Gregorio


Non-fiction: some people can’t stand to read it, and others refuse to read anything but it. For some writers, it is too academic and stuffy; while others find it more thrilling to write than fiction. It really all depends on taste. But as Cristina mentioned yesterday, non-fiction isn’t “dry” or “boring”.

Think of it. How many non-fiction books have you read this year? If your answer is none, I suggest the next time you go to the book store, wander away from the fiction section for a moment; you’ll find that the majority of the book store is filled with tons of non-fiction to choose from. Maybe you can look at some memoirs. Like history? Grab a book about your favourite time period and place – maybe Ancient Greece, or Mesopotamia, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Perhaps you love art, or Disney movies; or both! There are plenty of “Art of…” books (such as The Art of Up! or The Art of The Princess and the Frog). Maybe you’re planning a wedding and need some advice, or are looking for some new cupcake recipes. The point is, there is something for everyone; which is a reason why so many people often choose non-fiction books for gifts. There are so many genres and topics covered in non-fiction!

So, have any of you ever considered writing non-fiction? I know for the longest time I never even thought of it. To be honest, I began picturing non-fiction as being incredibly academic (which it isn’t, unless you’re specifically writing academic non-fiction) or difficult to write. But I have always enjoyed reading non-fiction. I have always found myself browsing the History or Memoir/Biography or Art or Science sections of the book store. So why hadn’t I thought of writing it?

There seems to be some sort of stigma against non-fiction, especially when it comes to writers. Reading it is one thing, but writing it? Many people just can’t imagine it. So, to help you all find the non-fiction writer lurking in you, I thought I’d give you some basics on writing non-fiction.

It’s All About Love

First – think of something you love. Something that fascinates you and that you are knowledgeable about (and even if you’re not knowledgeable yet, think of something you’d love to learn more about). Are you vegan, and love cooking? And do you love kids? Well, maybe you can write about cooking vegan food for kids. Completely and totally intrigued by real-life pirates? Well, perhaps you could write about some of the most famous (or perhaps the least famous!) ones. I, for one, absolutely adore children’s books. So when it came to thinking up a non-fiction idea, I knew I would write something for children; something that there is always a market for. And something that I love learning more about.

Who’s Your Audience?

Now that you’ve decided that a book on, say, DIY Interior Design is what you want to write, figure out who your main audience is. Are you writing this for children, or for adults? Who would buy this book?

The Book Proposal

Once you’ve figured out what you want to write about, you can go about writing a book proposal. The great thing about these? They help you map out what you’re writing (and with non-fiction, it is much easier to outline than fiction). And with non-fiction, you can almost always get a book deal (or an agent) off of a book proposal! You don’t have to write an entire book to get a deal! So, let’s go through some of the major pieces of information you’ll need for it.

1. Overview:
The overview is your pitch – it tells the editor in brief what your book is all about. Don’t be overly long-winded here; try to keep it as concise as possible. Imagine you are writing the back cover blurb of your book. You’ll have plenty of time to go into detail about your book in a bit, so just try to hook your reader (ie. the editor). You are trying to advertise your book, and say quite simply why this is something people would want to read. What is the one thing that makes it stand out from all the others? Perhaps you’re looking at history in a graphic novel format, or writing a biography that will be illustrated like a comic strip. Whatever your new angle is, be sure to work it!

2. Marketing
The publisher will want to know whether there is a market for the book; so go and do some research. Are there other books out there like this? Have they done well? Or is there absolutely nothing yet on your topic, but something that you are certain people would want to read? Make a strong case, whichever you choose. Comparative and competitive titles are always a good idea to include. Try listing the top three, and mention how your book is similar, yet different. And be sure to know your market (and your target audience) well. Some great things to include are statistics on the size of the market. For example, if you’re writing about eating disorders, you could look at North American statistics; how many young women feel the need to lose weight? On average, how young are girls when they develop eating disorders? You’ll be amazed at some of the information you can find.

3. Author Bio
This is a very important part of your proposal. Do you have a platform? If you’re writing a cheese book, and are a cheese expert, be sure to mention it. When you’re writing your author bio, include any and all information that makes you sound able to sell the book to a significant number of people. How are you an expert on this subject, and what kind of platform do you have? You need to sell yourself as well as the book idea.

4. Chapter Summaries
Along with chapter summaries, be sure to include a table of contents (especially if your book will most likely have one). It is the easiest way to give an editor an overview of the book. Your chapter summaries will be breakdowns of each chapter, so be sure to organize them in a logical way. The editor will be looking to see what information you’re planning on writing, and how you’ll go about writing it. The editor will start getting a sense of what your writing style is like. Perhaps you’ll be looking at Victorian England with a newspaper layout, with titles such as, “THE RIPPER HAS DONE IT AGAIN!” and “HEALTH ISSUES IN THE SLUMS”. You can be as serious or as quirky and funny as you want. Just remember: you need to still convey factual information.

5. Sample Chapters
Your sample chapters should include at least two to three sample chapters. They don’t have to be the first two to three chapters; whatever you’ve written that seems the best and most intriguing should go here. The writing style and tone of the entire book will be reflected in these sample chapters, so be sure to write it the way you’d want it to be published (no pressure, right?). This is your time to shine, and finally show exactly what your book will be like. It’s a reflection of your work, so be sure to polish it up as much as possible. Will your book include images? If so, include them; even if they aren’t the visuals that will end up in the published version. Visuals are a great way to keep someone’s attention, and show that you’ve done your research. Will the book be illustrated? If your vision is that it will be, mention it. If you have fun side bars and margin notes, mention them!

There are other things you can add to your proposal. One thing to remember is that there is no clear-cut outline for writing proposals, so long as you include all the information you need. Don’t make it blah and boring; add some personality to it! After all, you want people to enjoy reading it (as well as your finished book).

So, are any of you aspiring non-fiction writers? While I know that I probably haven’t swayed all of you to join the non-fiction side, I hope that some of you have (or will at least consider it for the future). With so many topics and genres, there is no way you’d find yourself unable to write about something you love.


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.


15 Responses to “On Writing Non-Fiction”

  1. Jennifer May 27, 2010 at 2:57 AM #

    Fantastic article! That’s so interesting how you can sell them on proposal. My dad is one of those “only reads non-fiction” types (I honestly wonder if he’d change his ways if I ever get published).

    Personally, I am dying to know what about your non-fiction children’s series is. Please, tell us!

    • Vanessa May 27, 2010 at 9:14 AM #


      I actually had the pleasure of helping write a proposal at the literary agency I previously interned at, and was absolutely ecstatic when we got a book deal out of it! I really didn’t realize until I interned there that for non-fiction, all you really needed was a great voice and a great topic, and that you really didn’t need to have it all written yet! Which is great, because there is nothing more depressing than spending countless hours on something to only be told it won’t work.

      As for my children’s non-fiction series… Well, it’s about famous excavations sites around the world. Each book in the series focuses on a different excavation site and it’s buried “treasures”. So for example, one book is about L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which is the site of a Viking villiage; so the book would have maps and images of the site, as well as a history of the Viking people and their time period, and the treasures found there (and what their significance is). There are tons of adult books that focus on specific excavation sites, but not for children! And history is not only a huge part of a child’s curriculum in school, but something that is super fascinating (especially for boys!). I have about 7 books in total planned out so far, each focusing on a different country and excavation site.

  2. Kat Zhang May 27, 2010 at 8:28 AM #

    Great, detailed information, Vanessa! I’ve never really considered writing nonfiction before, but that’s mostly because I don’t feel like I have any platform. However, if I do get any ideas, I’ll know how to go about getting an agent!

    • Vanessa May 27, 2010 at 9:20 AM #

      Yeah, the platform thing can sometimes be a bit of a problem for a lot of writers who want to write non-fiction. The best thing you can do is keep writing; write articles for journals, newspapers, magazines – write and get your work out there as much as possible!

      I think it’s one of the reasons why I’m hesitating with my non-fiction series; I’m worried my lack of a platform will get me rejected. But I suppose I won’t know until I try!

  3. Angela May 27, 2010 at 8:49 AM #

    I love non-fiction, especially if it`s about a topic that I`m passionate about.

    Currently, I`m reading a book about U.S.-Japan security alliance. It may sound boring, but it`s so exciting that I`m skipping meals just to read it. lol

    • Vanessa May 27, 2010 at 9:22 AM #

      Non-fiction is just SO interesting! I love when writers are able to present factual information in such interesting ways. And nothing ever sounds boring to me (except… books about math, ahaha!)

      • Angela May 27, 2010 at 5:12 PM #

        Arrrghh. I hate math. I failed it in high school ):

        But I think non-fiction can be very useful. For example, if you`re writing a historical fiction, then you might have to read a bunch of non-fictions to learn about the period.

        Also, my friends always point out that I know all these random, interesting facts that I`ll blurt out whenever the room is quiet.

        I have to think non-fiction and wikipedia for that lol =D

  4. svonnah May 27, 2010 at 1:53 PM #

    When I was younger I really liked reading autobiographies, especially those of writers and poets. Their life’s wisdom taught me a ton at a young age that I was able to apply to my life.

    • Vanessa May 27, 2010 at 10:59 PM #

      I love autobiographies and memoirs! There is just something about them that really appeals to me.

  5. jenn fitzgerald May 27, 2010 at 9:09 PM #

    great article vanessa! it made me want to start writing nonfiction, lol!

    and if you want to have one of your series be on werowocomoco I’d be more than happy to help out 😉

    • Vanessa May 27, 2010 at 11:00 PM #

      Thanks Jenn! You’re actually better qualified to write my non-fiction series than I am! (Hmm… perhaps we should make it a joint effort? :P)

      And I’ve never heard of werowocomoco, but it sounds interesting!

  6. Caitlin May 28, 2010 at 1:33 AM #

    YAY!!!! I am so excited that you’ve decided to write this about non-fiction because not only do I love love love reading non-fiction but it’s the only genre I can really write well in (well creative non-fiction and essays for class.) Thank you so much for writing this and for reminding me of childrens non-fiction, like Savannah I was turned onto adult memoirs as a child and then expanded to history and other non-fiction books from there but I forgot about the non-fiction picture and chapter books.

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 8:59 AM #

      That’s great! It’s awesome, knowing that there are writers out there who enjoy writing non-fiction!

      Children’s non-fiction is great, because you get to be super funny and/or quirky, and can really go to the extreme with your layout and format or your book! And you can always add in a bunch of extras! You can do the same with adult non-fiction, but I think writing non-fiction for children is a great exercise for people, in regards to understanding how to target certain age groups and interest levels!

      And I absolutely ADORE history books!

  7. Glaiza May 28, 2010 at 7:53 AM #

    😀 I love reading non-fiction. Especially ancient history and psychology. I think the last non-fiction book I bought was Sun Tzu’s Art of War and I learnt from the introduction how it has been used beyond war for things like an approach to sex (very random) and how major companies use it still. Some of the first books I remember reading were a series of encyclopedias aimed at children and I loved them, I learnt about strange customs, animals, science etc. I haven’t really considered writing non-fiction but if I find a topic I’m passionate about, I’d definitely consider it.

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 9:08 AM #

      Ancient history is great! There are just so many fascinating things to learn; the different cultures, religions, politics… everything is just so interesting! And it can especially help fiction editors, especially if you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy (because world-building is a huge aspect of a story in both those genres).

      And at my work, we represent DK books, and they did tons of encyclopedias for kids (history, chemistry, the human body, etc). I loved those as a kid (and still do!)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: