Writing a Book vs Writing Nonfiction for Journals

A quick Amazon search on the phrase "writing nonfiction" turned up no less than 1500 titles. The shocking top seller is the 5th edition of the "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" which I assume must be a common textbook to be ranked 13th at Amazon in early September. A better known title is the 25th anniversary edition of "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. Dan Poynter has written a number of books about writing, including, " Writing Nonfiction: Turning Thoughts into Books." I must confess I've never read any books about writing (can you tell?) and I listed the title count above just to make a point. Out in the "real world" professionals have rediscovered that writing is the most effective way to transmit ideas longer than a sound bite, and writing nonfiction is a critical skill for career advancement in many professions.

The difference between writing nonfiction articles for academic or professional publications and writing a book for a general audience is profound. It's not, like some academics think, simply a matter of eliminating footnotes, or even worse, moving them from the bottom of the page to an appendix. Nor is it about "making page count" by gathering together a dozen or two previously published articles and giving the collection a sexy title. So much nonfiction written for academic or professional journals is essentially a 5,000 word, five point defense of a single derivative idea. "Here's what other people have said, here's what I said in the past, here's what I'm saying now, here's what you're probably going to say about what I said, and here's what I'm going to say in response." It's not good writing, it's not interesting writing, and nobody would read it at all if they weren't getting paid to do so.

To start with, writing a book requires an idea beyond a criticism of what somebody else has said. Not to pick on academics, but it's not a question of simply expanding a 5,000 word critique into a 50,000 word critique. It doesn't need to be a BIG idea, some of the bestselling small press nonfiction is about very small ideas, niches, for which there is limited competition. Almost any nonfiction subject you can write about can be narrowed to a small enough niche where you won't have any competition when you publish, it just a question of whether or not you'll be left with a large enough audience to make a living.

Next, writing a nonfiction book requires the ability to write nonfiction. This means you either have to know enough about a subject to write a book, or you have to know how to research a subject sufficiently to write a journalistic style book. I'm not talking about writing skill here, I'm talking about knowledge of and experience in the subject. Otherwise, you might believe you're writing a nonfiction book, but a knowledgeable person reading it would recognize it as bad fiction. There's a lot of really bad fiction written under the guise of nonfiction, generally for a profit motive. Do everybody a favor and write what you know. You'll come out better in the end than if you just pick a hot topic to write about.

Most importantly, writing a nonfiction book for profit requires an audience. Some authors figure the only way to determine if there's an audience is to write the book and find out, but that's just silly for two reasons. First, it's extremely easy these days to do market research on comparable titles, and there are always comparable titles, even if the exact subject is unique. Secondly, the proof is not in the pudding. You might write a book that actually has an audience and fail miserably because you don't do a good job marketing the book or getting it into distribution. So, if your career is going along fine and your mother never quite gets around to reading that annual journal article you send her, don't quit your day job.

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