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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Nonfiction Writing, Part 1: Structure and Mechanics

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

When you hear the word "writer," your first thought is probably that of a fiction writer, one who makes up stories and creates fantastical worlds. Little thought is usually given to the other type of writer, the one who put facts into words and combines those facts to create textbooks, user manuals, and the like. And it's no surprise really; many see books as an escape from reality, a stress reliever. And fiction seems to fit that bill. However, nonfiction is still arguably the most popular type of writing. Our curious nature and insatiable thirst for knowledge actually makes the informative books rather appealing. So I'd like to speak up for the nonfiction genre and give it recognition it sometimes lacks.

The subject matter of nonfiction has a vast range, and it is one of the most difficult types of writing to master, making it a much sought-after skill. Not every person can balance the art of crafting a book with technical explanation. Each piece of nonfiction has a different audience, making a different style of writing necessary. The most successful nonfiction writers figure out how to both relate to the audience and communicate in a way that is clear and easy to understand.

Before writing a nonfiction piece, you'll want to answer these essential questions:
1. Who is the audience for this piece?
2. What am I trying to communicate?
3. How much can I assume my audience already knows about the subject at hand?
4. What am I trying to accomplish by writing this piece?

After you have answered those questions, you can begin sketching an outline or a rough draft of your nonfiction piece. You'll want to decide on the type of nonfiction best suited for your purposes as you do so.

Classes of Nonfiction
Nonfiction can be anything from essays and articles to manuals and textbooks to documentaries and biographies. It is literally every form of literature under the sun that narrates fact or topics understood to be fact. Some types of nonfiction span over several classes or categories of nonfiction. These include articles, essays, textbooks, photographs, and magazines. Other are more specific to their individual class. There are four prevalent classes of nonfiction this post will cover, each with a preferred audience and style.

Sciences and Arts
For science and art pieces, your audience will consist not only of those with a high interest in (and likely a decent understanding of) science or art, but you'll pull in some people unfamiliar to the subject as well. For that reason, nonfiction pieces for this class need to cater to those who are learning new information and those who want to expand their knowledge in the subject area. That's no easy task. So instead of initially focusing on the content you want to present, start by establishing an age range for your audience.

Once you do, maintain the level of your content, keeping it consistent with the audience. For example, let's say you're writing a piece for grade schoolers 8-10 years old. You would present far different information about the solar system, novas and supernovas, and gravity to them than you would someone older who likely would have a better understanding of the detailed physics and chemistry of such objects and ideas. Some previous knowledge can be assumed; your job as a writer is then to fill in the spaces with new material of the same level as the assumed information.

A similar approach can be taken for art books. Those for younger children may introduce the different styles, while ones for older readers can go more in-depth about those styles and the history of them.

How-To and Self-Help
For the how-to and self-help class, readers consist mostly of teenagers, young adults, and adults roughly through middle age. The pieces are heavily content based and should be structured in a way that is easy to follow and concise. The literature can be something as simple as an article or diagram to something as lengthy as a manual or textbook. Blog posts such as this one also fall under the how-to and self-help class.

When constructing a piece for this class, practice the KISS principle; don't make anything more complex than it needs to be. Focus on the point you want to get across, and only include the information that is essential. This type of writing in particular takes some practice. It's a fine balance between realizing the assumed information and exposing fresh material about an otherwise familiar topic.

People and Places
The people and places class is a fairly simple one. It contains factual stories told about historical events, as well autobiographies, biographies, journals, memoirs, diaries, and documentaries. The audience for these pieces will vary based on the content. It's a good idea to first establish the specific topic you want to cover, the information about said topic you want to include, and go from there. If you can further deduce a more specific category for the type of nonfiction piece you'd like to write (i.e. a textbook, essay, or narrative), your intended audience will become more obvious. The biggest challenge in writing a piece for this class is presenting the information in a way that is both interesting and completely factual. In my experience, some pieces in this class tend to come off as biased, making it difficult to determine how accurate the information given is.

Politics, Philosophy, and Religion
Many written essays and narratives fall under this class of nonfiction. There is also some overlap between this class and the people and places class, particularly for politics and religion. Catering to this group can be tedious. The topics are abstract, and the audience will vary, though the age range tends to be young adult and older. One of the most advantageous aspects of writing a piece for this class, however, is that you are open to explore many ideas and notions of the topics within, allowing you as the writer to guide the reader where you want them to go. The writing is often very creative. Narratives of this class should pose thought-provoking questions and provide in-depth answers. The biggest challenge with pieces in this class is creating a distinguishable line between fact and satire, a common tool used in crafting this type of nonfiction.

Mastering the Technical Craft
As you write, recall the initial questions you answered in the planning process, and continue to apply them to your piece. Make sure that the details of your writing line-up with these answers. As your piece begins to take shape, go back and review it periodically for accuracy, grammar, and spelling.

When finished, ask yourself some additional questions and make changes accordingly:
1. Is the point of this piece effective?
2. Is the content appropriate for the intended audience?
3. Is the writing clear and direct? Is it easy to understand?
4. Are correct grammar and spelling used throughout?
5. Does the structure of the piece make sense? Should the order of anything be changed?
6. Is the length appropriate?
7. Should any part be more concise?
8. Should any part be expanded upon?

Some of these questions will seem a bit repetitive, but technical pieces require extra revisions. Since they are assumed to be factual, accuracy and professionalism is a must.

Overall, the ability to write nonfiction work takes practice, but it's a useful skill to have. Besides giving you a rather marketable trait when being hired by an employer, becoming adept at writing nonfiction also can increase your abilities in fiction writing, as it gets you to focus more on structure and intended audience for each piece.