7 Myths and Half-truths about Writing Non-fiction

Probably many people would recognize that writing a good novel is challenging. There are ‘creative writing’ courses everywhere, from universities to your local community college. Yet somehow writing non-fiction does not get the same close attention. Perhaps this is because there are so many unhelpful myths and half truths about it. In a career spanning many decades as a writer, commissioning editor and editor, here are some that I have noticed

1.You just need to know your subject, then it’s easy

There is some truth in this because if you don’t know your subject, your book will be a non-starter, but knowing your subject just creates a mass of other questions. Who is your target reader – another expert like you, or someone who is a beginner? The bigger the gap between your expertise and your target reader, the harder it is potentially to pitch the level right

2. You should write the book first and then find a publisher

No – don’t do this. If you do you will waste a lot of time. Always approach a publisher first with a proposal. If it intrigues them they will guide you on how to make it the right book for them

3. You can’t approach Commissioning Editors direct

Indeed some are very haughty and pride themselves on their inaccessibility. But most are just youngish people making their way in publishing and keen to hear about saleable ideas. Of course you can approach them direct and it is dead easy to find out who they are

4. You should always have an agent

This is true if what you propose is a cookery, self help, history or health title because these are over-populated genres. If this is the kind of title you want to write then it could be as difficult to find an agent who will take you on as it is to find a publisher, but once you do have an agent then things could look up. If your proposed book is not aimed at the popular market, then you do not need an agent

5. I’ve always loved writing so I’m sure I could write about my special subject

Hmm. Perhaps. But as a commissioning editor and series editor I have seen at first hand that people who ‘love writing’ do not always write well. The most common mistakes are these: thinking that long words will make what you write seem more weighty and serious, whereas in fact they just get in the way; writing in a over-personal tone; a mass of grammatical errors often involving apostrophes and weirdly constructed sentences

6. My students tell me my course is fantastic – I think it would make a great book

Trying out your material on a live audience is certainly a good way to get feedback, but this is not the same as writing a book. Beware especially of trying to create a book directly from your handouts. As an exasperated reader of one such tome said, ‘If I’d wanted to buy a book with lists of bullet points on every page I’d have done it!’

7. My PhD thesis is fascinating – it’s all ready to be turned into a best seller

Yes, could be. But your PhD thesis was written to impress a tiny readership of sceptical academics with your breadth of reading and your ability to do impressive research. This is quite different from the person who wants an accessible read on an interesting subject. It means developing a totally different style and tone – and abandoning all those intrusive references.

If you want to know more, I am, running a one day course for Guardian Masterclasses called Planning and Pitching Non-Fiction on these dates: August 13 and 11 October. For more detail see  http://bit.ly/1hTgh2h