I’m not a big follower of writing guides, which tend to be pedantic, oriented toward novice novelists and too generic (or specific) to be helpful to anyone who actually writes. As numerous writers have pointed out, there are as many ways to write as there are books: the only real trick is to actually produce one. Still, occasionally good advice surfaces and becomes worth sharing.
Earlier today book blogger and legal/literary scholar Kate Sutherland posted a link to Steve Silberman’s Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. Silberman, an award-winning investigative journalist writing his first book, asked literary colleagues for advice and shared their suggestions, nearly all of which are simply superb — particularly for writers of non-fiction. Their advice is useful for writers in general but is a must-read for non-fiction authors, who tend to write into the wind.
There’s no substitute for reading these excellent suggestions (please go do so; I’ll be right here when you return). I have a few comments, though, offered below. They are grounded in my own experience as a non-fiction author (my first book, Imagining Toronto, was published by Mansfield Press in the fall of 2010 and was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award. I am currently at work on two, possibly three, non-fiction follow-ups, plus a novel I’d really like to finish first).
1. Write early and often. This advice reappears throughout the tips Silberman received, and it is utterly true. It took me three years to write the Imagining Toronto book, a period that also included the birth of my daughter and the death of my father (two events that make the life I lived before 2008 seem very distant indeed). While working on the book — which involved a massive research undertaking and clocked in at 135,000 words upon completion — I also continued to teach a full load (two days a week at York University, where I am happily affiliated with the Geography Department) and co-manage business affairs that required (and require) weekly and sometimes daily attention.
But during that time I wrote virtually every day. I wrote while holding my infant daughter. I wrote while pumping milk. I wrote while grieving my father (and continue to do so, although he’d hate the wasted time). I wrote on the subway and in lecture halls while my students wrote their exams. At times the writing did not go very quickly (there were periods when I choked on a single paragraph for a week or more, not so much because the writing itself was hard but because I didn’t yet know what ideas I was struggling to articulate).
I am by nature a very early riser, and I hold the view that early morning is a wonderful time to write, mainly because the day has not yet begun wearing you down with its demands. Moreover, any ideas that may have crystallized while you slept are still free and unencumbered. If you have a short window for writing, getting an hour (or even half an hour) in is wonderfully motivating, and can engender ideas that percolate in your head during the day. I also recommend writing for a little while before going to bed, just because it makes the next morning’s writing seem like a continuation rather than a new start.
If you struggle to “find the time to write” or have trouble motivating yourself to write, perhaps it would be more honest to say you are not currently in a writing frame of mind. Almost all the writers I know juggle full- or part-time jobs and family responsibilities alongside their writing careers.
2. Scrivener = meh. Two or three of Silberman’s advisors recommend this writing management software, and he indicates an intent to follow up on the suggestion). I’ve tried out Scrivener as a lark and abandoned it quickly, as it seems to me to put structure ahead of writing. It is far too easy to get lost in the details Scrivener purports to manage rather than to simply write. If it works for you (and for Silberman), great, but it is far from essential. All you need to write non-fiction is a good idea, a fetish for research and a writing device.
For the Imagining Toronto book I read more than a thousand literary works, hundreds of non-fiction books and scholarly articles, and managed a mental list of thousands (if not tens of thousands) of literary excerpts, references and quotations. The book contains eight chapters and forty-one subsections, plus well over 200 footnotes and a very extensive bibliography, and I never felt the need for anything to help organize it other than the structure of the book itself. One reason this was easy to do was because I incorporated what I read into the book as I wrote it. Also: Post-it Notes as book-markers. I went through cases of them, and nearly every book I read still flutters with Post-it notes inserted into the pages like prayer flags.
3. Feedback is overrated. One of Silberman’s advisors suggests getting as much feedback as possible. It’s my view that one should seek only as much feedback as is necessary and not a jot more. I’d suggest seeking feedback (and then only when necessary) from trusted colleagues or publishing friends at pivotal moments. Write your own book.
My husband (and now co-author) read much of the Imagining Toronto book before it ever reached my very patient publisher. Sometimes I asked him to read so we could discuss some of the ideas; other times he offered criticism and/or moral support. All these things were terribly useful, not only because he is someone I trust my life to but because he is also my intellectual interlocutor and many of our ideas emerge through a mutual feedback process. But I don’t think anyone else saw any of the book before it was published, apart from print articles that made their way into the book in modified form. My publisher didn’t even see most of it until the final six months or so.
4. Outlines can also be overrated. It’s my view that if your (non-fiction) outline is longer than a page, it’s taking energy away from the book. My outline was ten bullet points and a detailed (sometimes shifting) map in my head.
5. Too many drafts spoil the book. I am a terrible baker (it requires a precision I cannot manage, not to mention an affection for baked goods, to which I am pretty much indifferent) but have managed to learn the first and most important lesson of baking: do not overwork the dough! If you overwork the ingredients, the bread (or cake … or book) will often fall flat or be tough or too dense or otherwise unappealing.
A similar thing, I think, is true of book writing. Overworked books seem visibly laboured and can fall flat as a result. Re-drafting can also become an excuse not to finish something and thus becomes a psychological evasion rather than a meaningful act of writing.
Sometimes books need redrafting. Sometimes this is evident to the author. At other times it’s something an agent, publisher or editor will tell you. But if redrafting gets in the way of actually finishing the book, it’s not ultimately a useful exercise.
Dare I admit that the Imagining Toronto book involved only a single draft? It was edited, certainly, and I spent quite a lot of time working on expressing the ideas as clearly and eloquently as possible, and several chapters ended up quite different from how they began, and plenty of stuff got moved around (or, in some cases, chopped out). Maybe some of this sounds like redrafting, but it was very much an as-you-go process, and in my view it was the most efficient way to write. And while the book is not perfect, its limitations have more to do with personal research proclivities than with structure or quality of writing.
6. Don’t feel the need to be exhaustive in your writing. This is actually an inversion of a great bit of advice from Bill Wasik, who suggests that readers expect an author to have exhaustively covered the terrain he writes about. But I’d suggest choosing a stopping point somewhere between what Wasik calls the “basic ground” and the omega point of your subject.
The Imagining Toronto book was the first full study of Toronto’s literature to appear in print. As a result (and also because I have a genuine fetish for research) I wanted the book to be as complete as possible. More than that, I wanted to celebrate every writer whose work I had encountered. I wanted to address everything about the imagined city. This was, of course, an impossible task, and certain subjects fell off the table as I wrote because there was neither room nor time to fit them in, or because mentioning them started to seem repetitious. According to my mental map of the subject the book should have been about 80,000 words longer — which might have made it more of an encyclopaedia than an analysis and might also have made it prohibitively expensive to publish. I have noted that while reviews of the book have been nearly uniformly enthusiastic, one criticism has revolved around a certain weariness at the number of literary references cited in the book. This is something I’ll keep in mind in future non-fiction projects: sometimes less really is more.
It’s okay to leave some things out. One way to pre-empt complaints that you haven’t discussed someone’s pet subject is to mention peripheral matters in passing and suggest they are beyond the scope of your current project. This trick works wonders in the scholarly world, and I think it’s good advice for non-fiction writers beyond the confines of the ivory tower as well.
6.5. This may sound like a contradiction of point 6 above, but do be exhaustive in your research. By this I do not (necessarily) mean that you should research every nuance of your topic, but rather that everything you choose to write about should be fully researched and properly sourced. Don’t guess, or rely on secondary references, or get caught in an error or slip-shod thinking. Don’t trust anyone else’s research, either; at the very least, triangulate among multiple secondary sources. As a meticulous researcher, it irks me when I find errors in others’ books, and it would be embarrassing to find factual errors in my own. If you cannot gain access to the primary data and must reply on secondary sources, describe any claims as “reported.”
7. Write the book that you’ve always wanted to read. This excellent piece of advice was supplied by Mark Frauenfelder, and I couldn’t agree more. The only downside to this approach that you never get to read the book with the sense of discovery and desire you might have enjoyed had someone else written it first.
Closely paralleling this point is Peter Conners‘ wonderfully put observation that “[n]on-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.” Amen.
8. Deborah Blum suggests writing the first chapter last, and I share this view, at least insofar as noting that the first chapter will likely change more than most of the rest of the book. To this I’d add: consider writing the final chapter long before you near the end of the writing process. I wrote the final chapter of the Imagining Toronto book a year or more before the book itself was done (and have already written part of the final chapter for Acts of Salvage, the Toronto novel I’m currently working on).
Similarly, Sylvia Boorstein, whose advice to Silberman I loved in its entirety (apart from not reading other books on your subject, an injunction I cannot fathom following) observes that she does not write from beginning to end but rather produces her chapters in the order their subjects appear to her. I do this, too, and think it is also (among many other things) a great way to overcome the ‘fear of the blank page’ some writers reportedly feel upon starting. I always begin in media res, and recommend this approach highly. As Boorstein notes, if you have the order in your head already, it’s easy to slot stuff in wherever it belongs.
The order in which I wrote the Imagining Toronto book is roughly as follows: The Imagined City (Chapter 1); The Myth of the Multicultural City (Chapter 4); The City as Text (Chapter 2 — in truth the twelve sections in this chapter took over a year to write, and I ended up finishing a number of later later chapters before this one); Class Fictions (Chapter 6); Imagining Toronto (Chapter 8 — the conclusion); City Limits (Chapter 7); ; Desire Lines (Chapter 5) and The City of Neighbourhoods (Chapter 3). Almost all of The City of Neighbourhoods chapter was written during the final weeks (as part of a marathon that is a bit nauseating to remember), and one of the reasons it is so long is because I forgot the discipline that had kept the earlier chapters (which appear later in the book) somewhat shorter. Having said that, to many people this is the central chapter of the book and so perhaps it was a good idea to try to be as complete as possible.
9. This is implicit in some of the suggestions sent to Silberman, although I’m not sure anyone says it directly: the length, content and timing of a book is determined less by the author’s preferences and personal writing proclivities than by real-world exigencies and deadlines. Few books that ever get published are really considered ‘complete’ by their authors; I suspect that many (like mine) end because the time available to spend working on them has simply run out. Books are (like a writing career) works in progress.
Related to this should be the awareness that a book doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead, it should be the best work you are capable of at the time you write it. I am terribly proud of the Imagining Toronto book, not because I think it is a perfect book (I know I would do a better job if I was writing it now) but because it was the very best work I could produce at the time.
10. Although several of Silberman’s advisors suggest being open to harsh editing and never being afraid to “delete your darlings,” I recommend saving everything you edit out. Retain extraneous material and false starts in a file or files somewhere. You never know when it will come in handy.
Whenever I write something I maintain a file called “orphaned text” or sometimes “quarantined text.” Everything major I delete goes into these files for potential future use. Often false starts are motivators for future projects. There’s a place for almost everything.
11. Fully acknowledge your sources and inspirations. This goes beyond footnoting and referencing and protecting yourself from plagiarism accusations or lawsuits. It has more to do with the ethics of research and writing. Books, particularly non-fiction books, belong to a genealogy of ideas and writers, and it’s important to acknowledge the history that informed your work.
12. Finally, and most vitally, be grateful to those who support you. As Maryn McKenna advises, “Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.”
Let me say that I am exceedingly grateful to my husband, Peter, who looked after our Keep and put his own intellectual projects second while the Imagining Toronto book took up most of the air-space in our life. In return I’m co-authoring a new (non-fiction) book on which he is the lead author and I primarily the textual hand-maiden.
In closing, I guess I’ll say one more thing: good ideas and good writing will always find a home. I believe in this verily. The universe expands, and there is always room for new ideas to fill it.