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Top Ten Tips

Help for writers

Top Ten Tips for Nonfiction Writers

from Julie Wheelwright, programme director, MA Creative Writing Nonfiction, City University, London

  1. Story, story, story. Make sure that your story can sustain several chapters and tens of thousands of words. Keep asking yourself: Why would anyone want to read this story?
  2. Show rather than tell. With narrative nonfiction writing you should have plenty of opportunities to develop drama. New writers often give far too much information too quickly. Borrow from fiction by dropping hints about the unfolding drama, use foreshadowing, develop timing and by building characters.
  3. Develop objectivity towards your writing. It’s very hard when you’re working intensively and drawing on your imagination to breathe life into your long-dead characters or your long-ago past, to be objective. But whether you’re writing memoir or biography, you are creating characters and you will have to be brutal about what works and what doesn’t.
  4. Do your research. Whether you’re writing biography, history, travel or memoir you will need to check your facts. There’s nothing that puts a reader off faster than seeing a factual error in print. The more research you do, the more authentic your voice becomes. Your hard work will pay off.
  5. Work towards deadlines. Since writing a narrative piece, especially if you haven’t yet got a contract, can become an endless process of further research and more rewriting, give yourself an end point. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the pages pile up and finishing what you’ve begun.
  6. Buy a filing cabinet. If you’re doing a big research project you will need to be very organised about how to take notes and how to file them. This can also save you hours of time and can be extremely useful for later reference.
  7. Let your writing cook for a while. Once you’ve begun to write your first chapter or chapters, let them sit for a few days. Do something else before you come back to them and try to edit what you’ve written. You often need distance to ‘see’ your work clearly.
  8. Develop a habit of writing. After interviewing more than 200 authors I’ve found that writers almost universally agree that writing is habitual, whatever the genre. Start a journal, write a blog, take notes. Whatever it is that gets you into the habit of observing the world around and recording it is an important part of that process.
  9. Write an outline of your book. Structure is incredibly important so begin with the arc of your story; where does it begin, what are its peaks and troughs, what’s your conclusion and how are you going to get there.
  10. Find a reading group, a network of readers or enrol onto an MA course. Writers are a paradox: they need both isolation and support but at different stages in the process. The new MA Creative Writing Nonfiction at City offers both with one-to-one tutoring, a group workshop, guest speakers and taught courses – everything you need to turn your ideas into a manuscript.
  11. More information about Julie Wheelwright’s MA course at City University in London.

Julie is the author of two books, Amazons and Military Maids and The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage. She has also produced several historical docu-dramas for radio and television in the UK and Canada. Her most recent book, A Stolen Child: The Story of Esther Wheelwright, will be published by HarperCollins in Canada next year.


© Julie Wheelwright 2008