Needless to say, writing nonfiction is a very different experience from writing fiction. The most obvious fact, of course, is that while with fiction your only limits are those imposed by yourself, with nonfiction your job is to posit straight facts. This can lead some to believe that nonfiction is a more restrictive or boring kind of writing, and for some this may be true. However, I find nonfiction interesting precisely because of the challenges it poses to the creative mind, as well as the opportunities.
As I see it, there are essentially three components to writing a good nonfiction book (or even a shorter article, for that matter). The first is to choose your subject and audience, the second is to do the actual research, and finally there’s the matter of writing the facts down in a manner that will catch and hold the reader’s attention. I shall attempt to cover all three here.
Selecting your subject matter is probably the easiest part of nonfiction writing. Obviously you want to do something that is of interest to you, or else you’re going to lose interest in the project with alarming alacrity. But of course, when seeking commercial success, you must balance your interests with a subject the public may actually be willing to read about. You may, for instance find endless fascination in the Rebel Yell, but writing an entire book about such a specialized topic is probably not going to put you on the bestseller list (though, if commercial success is not your primary motivation, then by all means go for it!). Thus, the trick is to find a subject that is specialized enough not to have been explored too deeply by previous writings, but is still big enough to be relatable to a larger topic of interest.
As far as selecting the audience goes, that’s a little trickier (see “Defining Your Audience“). Ideally you’ll have some idea of who will find the subject appealing by its very nature. A book on medical history will probably have some appeal to medical professionals and (to a lesser extent) to historians as well. The fact that you are interested in the subject may also serve as an indicator that others in your demographic might share that interest (unless you’re a bit of an odd duck, that is).
Once you’ve got a clear idea of what it is you want to know and help others learn about, it is time to do your research. This can be the most tedious phase without a doubt. However, if you take my advice about choosing an interesting subject matter, then you should be able to push through. The key here is to take notes on whatever it is you read, hear, or otherwise observe about the subject, and to do so in an organized manner. It will be much easier to put the information into words later if you keep it all sorted in the first place, perhaps by sub-topic or (in the case of history) chronological sequence. And of course, you’ll want to keep track of the sources you collected your notes from. Not only will this lend credibility to your work once written, but it will also enable you to dodge that sticky and reputation-ruining designation of plagiarist.
Finally, there is the process of writing itself. As described earlier, this can be the most challenging part, but it can also be the most fun. If you have done your research thoroughly, then getting the facts down ought to be a fairly straightforward task. Where the trickiness comes in is the presentation. Even the most fascinating subject in the world can lose the reader’s interest quickly enough if presented in a dry enough fashion, as I think we can all attest to. Thus, it’s all on you to use your creative talent and experience to present the facts you’ve gathered in a comprehensible and enjoyable manner. There’s not much I can say about this process that I haven’t said several times before. Just follow whatever technique you find works best for you (although I do recommend at least a minimal outline for nonfiction, if only to stay focused and avoid hopping from subject to subject).
That’s about it. I have not written much in the way of nonfiction myself, and my publications consist of three short works, but my minimal experience suggests that this is the pattern to follow. If you think I missed something, or would like further clarification, just let me know!