Monday, September 9, 2013

Writing Tips From a Nonfiction Writer

I write nonfiction.  Don’t ask me to write a novel or any kind of fictional piece.  I couldn't do it if Stephen King handed me a manuscript, stood over me, grabbed my fingers and began typing.

I also write humor. If I take a tidbit of truth and stretch it, pull it, or squish it, it becomes another animal altogether, which isn’t nonfiction, but that’s not my point here.

You might say that humor and nonfiction are polar opposites, unless it’s humorous creative nonfiction, which is my favorite genre.  Believe it or not, fiction, nonfiction and humor have a lot in common.

Writing nonfiction, creative nonfiction and humor require the same qualities as great fiction, it should be well written and flowing in a direction that takes the reader to a logical destination without them knowing they've been hijacked.

Nonfiction doesn’t have to be boring, or in sequential order.  However, it requires a working knowledge of English, few passive verbs, pertinent facts, great quotes, and a lack of clichés, in a concise, coherent writing style, with lots of hot coffee.

Sometimes when I'm writing a humor piece, I use regional phrases and accented words, like "darlin’, and “Well, shut my mouth", but it would be inappropriate for an article on nuclear fission, unless it's Southern nuclear fission.   Look professional and choose the right writing style.

The same thing is said for clichés.  Whoever coined the phrase “think out of the box” was innovative and descriptive.  After the millionth time, it became a cliché and there are better ways to utilize the English language.  Your goal should be to create the perfect phase that becomes cliché, so we can avoid it.

In Japanese, there is only one word to describe delicious food, “Oishi”.  It doesn't matter if it is for a meat or dessert, that’s the only word to use.  However, if you were to list all the words to describe delicious food in English, you might come up with ten, fifteen words or more.  Try it, then make your writing, delicious.

When I write a magazine or newspaper article, I must be mindful of the word count.  Sometimes there is a space limitation, or the publisher is paying me by the word; he’s always counting his pennies.  Bottom line, be concise, choose your words wisely, and edit, edit, edit so those pennies become dollars.

A shortcut that may help is using “TK.  It means, “To Come” or used to fill in a space for the right word later on.  I use it when the writing stalls and I need to move on, or I've had a little too much coffee; it holds my place.

Need more direction?  Check out Jim Romenesko’s blog about words in writing from the Washington Post’s Outlook section. and

Hoppy Writing.

This piece was written for the South Carolina Writer's Workshop's blog and September issue of the Quill, the SCWW's newsletter.  Just thought you'd like to see it.

May all your days be humorous writing days.  Email me at

1 comment:

  1. Hi Helen

    You SHOULDN'T sell yourself short. When I began to write in earnest I wrote commentary type items for a community newspaper for several years. Along the way, over eleven years ago, I began to write an adult Contemporary romance however I never seemed to be able to get more than about halfway in writing it.

    Someone then suggest I write for a younger audience. I did and wrote my first YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel entitled "I Kissed a Ghost" and those you've read it have said they liked the storyline.

    The journey from typing that first letter to typing the elusive final period has been a learning experience. I had to learn, and I still have to learn more about showing not telling, descriptive narratives, dialogue. When I held the proof copy for the paperback edition in my hands and smell the luscious aroma of the fresh ink on the pages of it, I still couldn't believe I'd written a 246 page novel for teenage and young girls.

    Just as you need to develop the nonfiction you write from the beginning to the end, building on what you've written on the previous pages, I had to the same thing. However, instead of merely facts, I had to worry about character and storyline development as well.

    Right now I've returned to writing the manuscript I'd started so many years ago using the knowledge I've gained writing my first YA romance. I've noticed all the mistakes I'd made in my first attempt and can see the vast improvement in my writing. I've written about 89 pages with about 26,300 words so far and have my sights on finishing this manuscript by the end of the year.

    So Helen - why don't you try your hand at writing some fiction, it doesn't have to be in romance genre. The interesting thing about writing fiction is that most, if not all, of the tips you've given us also applies here as well.