So You Want to Write (Nonfiction) This Summer

It’s already June; summer is underway. We want to write this summer; we want to write a lot this summer. By a lot, we mean spend a great deal of time writing and produce gobs of pages.

DorlandDesk1To kick-start our summer of writing, we perused some of the nonfiction writing guides on our shelves, not so much to read them through in hopes of discovering the key tidbit of advice that will make our projects work well or more easily but, instead, to remind us of obvious principles we take for granted, fundamental motivations for writing, or what it means to work on a big project. Reminders about the interplay between writing well and writing a marketable book well. Overarching issues and big ideas.

Here, then, are some of the big ideas from the nonfiction writing guidebooks—perhaps not the expected ones—that caught our attention.

Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction

By Stephen J. Pyne

The point is, scaling involves more than size, in the same way that a dripping faucet and the Mississippi River are both running water but the dynamics of one is not simply the other with more volume. Writing does not scale in a linear way: genre invokes differences in kind as well as degree.


For the serious author, writing is a vocation that contains its own order. It can shape a life as much as it does a day’s routine. It demands a duty and discipline that can be indistinguishable from a moral code and that can similarly satisfy, a purpose applied to create something tangible that you can lay before others, a universe of meaning.

Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write

By Elizabeth Lyon

Think about what shape you’d like your life and career as a writer to take in five years, ten years, and beyond. Make sure you would be proud to have a particular book as your legacy to the world.


Put yourself behind an editor’s reading glasses. Editors considering a previously unpublished author must be assured that you can finish such a big project and not drop the ball halfway through.

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published

By Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato 

First off, let’s deal with a popular misconception: that writing style counts most, or even heavily, in getting a would-be writer past those first hurdles [with an acquisitions editor]. In fact, the decision to offer you a contract is made on the basis of a submission package […. Y]ou must understand that how well you can write your book, indeed how good a writer you are, doesn’t initially come into play. First an editor must determine if your project is, in concept and focus, commercially viable.


Over the course of the book, this running commentary, this voice of the author putting his or her stamp on the research and extracting meaning from it, becomes the author’s interpretation of the material. How—that is, by what reasoning standards—she introduces these observations, defends them, and allows them to build into a coherent, defensible, and ultimately persuasive statement is the book’s argument.

Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

By Dinty W. Moore

I’ve known a few writers who manage eight hours a day, just as if they were pulling a shift at the “writing” factory, but that’s unusual. Most writers I’ve spoken with over the years manage two to four hours, and maybe a few more when really focused on finishing a project. […] Even thirty minutes, twice a week, is going to make you a better writer. Just thirty minutes. But you have to show up, as if you had a boss who was regularly studying your time card, and as if you wouldn’t get paid otherwise.


But vigorous revision—the stopping to move each piece of furniture out onto the lawn and deciding whether it really belongs—should come when your essay is beginning to reach some sense of cohesion. By that I mean that your essay, around the third or fourth draft, may be turning itself into something very different than the essay which you started.


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