I have a confession to make: up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea how to write a nonfiction book. Sure, I’d written a number of personal stories and experimented with different styles, but never had I tackled something I’d consider “non-fiction”—at least not something that required any special expertise or training.
I needed an education. And I don’t mean just any old education—I needed a business degree. Specifically, I wanted to pursue a career in journalism and combine my passion for words and stories with my love of researching and reporting on businesses.
So I enrolled in a correspondence course with New York University and began taking their online journalism course. As strange as it may sound, I found the instruction incredibly useful and, in fact, began to see this entirely new form of writing as something rather wonderful. Specifically, I loved how you could teach yourself what you needed to know without needing a class dedicated to teaching you just that.
Now that I’m in the thick of it, I can’t stress how valuable this course has been. Even now, as I write this, I’m thinking of a topic I could explore in a future article and know that I’m already halfway there thanks to my education.
In just 7 months, I’ve been able to write a 40000-word nonfiction book—an incredible feat, especially given that I started with a 20,000-word proposal and ended up with a 150,000-word magnum opus. In this article, I’ll highlight some of the key things I learned along the way and include some tips on how you can put this skill set to use right now.
The Importance of Diversification
As I mentioned, I’ve always written a variety of things. From my student journalism days at the University of Florida, where I majored in English, to the personal stories that made up my blog posts, I’ve always been able to write something—even if it’s just a few words here or there. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent worldwide economic collapse, I found myself with a huge amount of free time on my hands. And what did I do? I dove in and began to write. So when the pandemic finally began to recede and life returned to something resembling normalcy, I found myself with a massive document waiting for me. And what was it? My autobiography. It’s been a while since I’ve written something without editing or polishing and, as you’ll soon discover, my writing style can be rather rough. But, in its rawest form, it was the best writing experience I’ve ever had. I wrote with a passion and intensity that I hadn’t experienced in years.
Even now, as I write this, I can’t decide if I like my book more than I like myself—it’s rather a dichotomy. Although I went through a lot, I didn’t feel like I came across as weak or helpless. Instead, I believe the complete opposite to be true. In writing this book, I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of. Most importantly, I realized how important it was to have diverse sources and examples in your work. For this book, I cited many famous historical figures and experts to shed light on how they overcame significant adversities and challenges. It’s been a while since I’ve written something without editing or polishing and, as you’ll soon discover, my writing style can be rather rough. But, in its rawest form, it was the best writing experience I’ve ever had. I wrote with a passion and intensity that I hadn’t experienced in years.
The Value of Research
As a journalist, the value of research is invaluable. Especially in a world full of information, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the vastness of the data. And, to be honest, much of the time I found myself struggling with this very issue. In the beginning, when I first began writing this book, I had a massive document awaiting me—over 150,000 words. It was at this point that I realized the importance of researching and synthesizing information, rather than just winging it. Especially when it comes to historical figures and experts, your foot may soon find itself in a figurative pond when you don’t know who or what you’re talking about. In researching this book, I read many biographies, autobiographies, and histories of various historical figures and gained a much better sense of who was behind the masks these people wore.
To give you a better sense of what I mean, here are just a few of the people and events referenced in my book:
- Karl Luecker: German industrialist and founder of MAN.
- Maria Christina: Queen Consort of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia
- Adelaide of Saxony: Queen Consort of King George II of Great Britain
- Duke Ernst of Saxony: Brother of King George II of Great Britain
- Princess Alice of Great Britain: Wife of the Duke of Cumberland and mother of Queen Victoria
- Elisa Martinazzoli: Italian explorer, botanist, and the first woman to plant a palm tree in the Southern Hemisphere
- Frances Darwin: Daughter of Charles Darwin and grandmother of Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Darwin, and Emma Darwin
- Henrietta, Duchess of Bridgewater: Daughter of the 2nd Duke of Bridgewater and wife of the 4th Duke of Bridgewater
- Mary Freeman: Founder of the first women’s college in America and the first American woman to receive a PhD
- Annabel Karim Kassar: British-Egyptian author, speaker, and humanitarian
- Mary Kissock: British author and journalist
- Hilda Kean: British travel writer and archaeologist
- Alessandro Magnasco: Opera singer and composer
- Charles Kingsley: English author, poet, and nature lover
- Thomas Carlyle: 19th century British historian, essayist, and theorist
- William Wordsworth: English poet and novelist
- John Pierpont Mangin: American businessman and politician
- Dame Barbara Hutton: American socialite and fashion businesswoman
The Importance of Editing
Although I love the raw energy and intensity that comes with writing something without editing or polishing, I believe there’s a reason why a lot of books never see the light of day. Especially when you want to write nonfiction, there’s a reason why so many people shy away from the task—editing and refining your work, as well as dealing with criticism, can be very stressful. And, to be honest, when I was in that place in early 2019, I considered giving up.
Fortunately, I had my editor. My brilliant and tireless editor Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had already helped me with the early drafts of my book. Together, we went back and forth, arguing, polishing, and improving my work—sometimes literally page by page. We were extremely fortunate to have found each other at that juncture in time. Without her, I’m not sure if this book would have seen the light of day. And, to be honest, it’s only thanks to her that this book is even available to read—many of the chapters were first published in my blog, and it’s only because of her that anyone else is even going to read these chapters. But even now, as I look back on the early drafts of my book, I cringe a bit. Especially when I think of that one scene where I described in gory detail, how I cut my parents’ hair as a child. But even then, I had to add a qualifier—it was the only way I could get the scene to work within the confines of a 150,000-word proposal.
But the value of my editor, beyond just helping me with my book, is that she helped me learn so much about the process of writing nonfiction. Even now, as I write this, I can’t stress how valuable this course has been. Most importantly, I realized how important it was to have diverse sources and examples in your work. For this book, I cited many famous historical figures and experts to shed light on how they overcame significant adversities and challenges. It’s been a while since I’ve written something without editing or polishing and, as you’ll soon discover, my writing style can be rather rough. But, in its rawest form, it was the best writing experience I’ve ever had. I wrote with a passion and intensity that I hadn’t experienced in years.