While this blog focuses on making more money in less time, it's important to write well. Duh, right? Well, today's post is loaded with smart, practical advice from Christina Boufis, author of the new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Nonfiction. So let's get right to it:
Christina, you cover nonfiction articles in your new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Nonfiction. What kinds of tips do you give freelancers for writing stronger, more informative articles?
First and foremost, as a nonfiction writer, you need to make sure you get your facts straight. Nothing can make you lose credibility faster if you don't. That means double and sometimes triple-checking statistics, quotations, sources, government publications, so that you are your own fact-checker.
That aside, your lede has to be so compelling that the reader is completely hooked and wants to keep reading. I like starting with an intriguing bit of dialogue, an arresting statistic, or something ironic or humorous. If you can be funny or witty (appropriate to the subject matter), you'll keep your reader engaged. Then on the sentence level, my biggest tip is to rethink your verbs. I tell my students those are the $500 words. Adjectives are probably worth a nickel, and adverbs a penny. I stole that metaphor from somewhere, but it's true. We tend to use the same verbs over and over, so finding a strong verb (or one that is used in a different context) just punches up your prose.
New writers often struggle with structuring articles. Any tips on how to do that?
I have a picture of an iceberg over my desk, and I tell my students to think of the first draft as the iceberg draft. Don't worry yet about structure; just get it all down. Then on subsequent drafts you're looking at the water line: what needs to be submerged? What needs to be above the surface? It's at this point that I tend to do an outline, so I can find out whether I'm ordering information correctly or not.
And then ask yourself for every paragraph: what am I really saying here? How well am I saying it? How does it fit with the whole? I try to end with a really good quote or something surprising, so the piece ends on a lift and ideally stays in the reader's mind. If I can't figure out how to end something, I take a look at the beginning. Is there an image I can return to? Also, your lede is your promise to the reader. It's like your train ticket. If you've told the reader you're going to Milan and the end of the piece you wind up in Venice, than something went awry with the piece.I'm a service journalist primarily, and find that I have a hard time writing profiles. Do you have any strategies you use to write a profile that captures a reader's attention?
Profiles are hard as you're encapsulating a person (or some notable aspect of her life) in a very short form. But I love reading profiles because they're all basically sort of heroes or heroine's journeys: what has this person done that's so remarkable, unexpected, admirable? What obstacles did they overcome to get there? It's the tension that can make a profile come to life, so I basically start with the conflict, the seemingly impossible odds.
Don't try to build tension or save it for the end to build suspense, as some of my students try to. On a separate note, I tell my students to scour their local papers for profile subjects. I've sold stories to national magazines based on a short profile I've read in my hometown paper, so always look for a person, an unsung hero or heroine, who might have national appeal.You also talk about interviewing, which is essential for freelancers. I'm seeing a lot of writers use email as their first choice instead of phone interviews. Do you have a preference? Why or why not?
Oh, I loathe email interviews. I don't think you can capture the voice or even warmth of your interviewee or allow for the serendipitous remark that didn't come from your questions but just popped out of your source's mouth if you do an email interview. I use them as a last resort. Most of the meat of the interviews (I do mostly all by phone) seems to come at the end. And I use your trick -- Is there anything I haven't asked you -- at the end of each interview, and I get gold almost every time. If you send someone questions in email format, you get quick, static answers. And lots of incomplete sentences. I truly find them a waste of time.I know your book is aimed at newer nonfiction writers. Tell me more about it and what readers can expect to get from it.
I wrote the book to answer all the questions (or at least some of them) that my creative nonfiction students always ask me: How do I begin? How do I tell my stories? How do I write well at the sentence level? How do I actually force myself to sit down and write? So it's really a book for novice writers. I cover a lot of ground -- everything from long-form nonfiction such as book-length memoirs and biographies to short profiles and travel essays.
But the main thing I want to do in the book is to be encouraging. I think narrative nonfiction is the form of the late 20th and early 21st century. We're hungry for true tales told well. We want information in story form. And creative nonfiction is a democratic genre, open to everyone. So I think the book is the first step for someone interested in jumping in.Tell me a little bit about your background as a freelancer. How did this book come about?
I started writing narrative nonfiction almost 20 years ago, before I realized it was a genre. I was teaching women prisoners at the San Francisco County jail, and I'd come home every day just feeling full of emotions that I had to get down on paper. I'd recently finished my PhD in Victorian literature and women's studies, and I wanted to be a writer, not really an academic, so I started submitting my articles about the jail.
But I was working off an academic model where one or two published pieces per year is considered prolific. It took me years to learn that freelancing is a business -- and I learned a lot of that from your books, so thank you -- and over the last decades I've still taught and freelanced, though I no longer teach at the jail. I'd seen a call for this book on the FLX (www.freelancesuccess.com) forum, and I contacted the agent looking for a writer. So that's how that came about.Any other advice for successful nonfiction writing for my readers?
A: Read, read, read. And then pitch the kinds of magazines that you're drawn to. Also never give up. Keep rewriting. And get support -- a forum like FLX, a writing group -- it's hard if not impossible to do this alone.
***Thank you so much, Christina, for your excellent advice. Readers, please check out her book for tons more great advice on writing stronger, more compelling nonfiction articles, essays, and books. And please let me know what you thought of this post! Do you have any questions about writing nonfiction you'd like to see answered here.
Finally, I apologize for this post looking kind of screwy. I've spent several hours trying to debug it but am giving up now!