Monday, April 25, 2011

Ten Hot Tips for Writing Non-Fiction by Angie Kay Dilmore

I recently attended Houston’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference. Several hundred conferees packed a ballroom at the Merrill Center in Katy. Six out of eight speakers were either an agent or editor. Because so many traditional publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, conferences like these are essential for getting your foot in the door of publishing houses. It takes time and money to attend conferences, but if you’re serious about your writing, they are definitely worth it.
Brenda Murray, Senior Editor at Scholastic, spoke to us on writing non-fiction. Naturally, she geared her talk to writing for children, but most of the principles apply to any non-fiction writing. Listed are Ms. Murray’s suggestions.

1. Know your audience. Know their reading level and what they enjoy reading. Then speak their language. Include a glossary if appropriate.

2. Research the competition. How is your book different? Is there room in the market for another book on that subject? If there aren’t other books out there on that subject, is there a reason why?

3. Make it interactive. Include quizzes, puzzles, experiments, games, and activities. (This would be more applicable to children’s writing.)

4. Keep it brief. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible. Follow word count guidelines.

5. Focus your subject. Can you narrow a broad general topic to create a more interesting subject?

6. Consider narrative in your non-fiction writing. Rather than merely stating facts, tell your reader a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.

7. Introduce a new concept. Tell your reader something he/she does not already know. Or add a new twist to a familiar subject.

8. Use exciting language, strong verbs, and interesting word choices to grab your readers’ attention.

9. Don’t assume your reader has prior knowledge of a subject. Add clarification or explanation in your story where necessary.

10. Include bonus material with your non-fiction work, such as maps, photos, illustrations, websites, etc. (Often the publisher takes care of this. Depends on where you’re submitting.)

If you consider yourself a fiction writer, don’t dismiss non-fiction writing, as I did when I first started writing. Any prolific published author will tell you, non-fiction sells way easier than fiction. I once heard a remarkable statistic at a writers conference. I wish I could remember the quote exactly. Though the specific numbers escape me, the powerful message did not. But it went something like this (I’m making this up, so do not quote me.) There are ten fiction writers for every two non-fiction writers. And there are ten works of non-fiction accepted for every two fiction pieces accepted. The odds are definitely in the favor of non-fiction writers!

Angie Kay Dilmore is a freelance writer originally from Pittsburgh Pa., and has lived the past several years in southwest Louisiana. She writes for the children’s magazine market and contributes regularly to Boys’ Life. Angie reviews books for The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, a literary website featuring publishing industry news, essays, reviews and commentary. She also writes picture books, poetry, and is working on a middle grade historical fiction. You can find Angie blogging at The Trials and Triumphs of a Transplant.


  1. Very good, Angie! The information you shared is certainly good to know. I've been toying with the idea of sending out some non-fiction articles. The first full weekend in May I'm attending the annual Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. conference. The opening night speaker is speaking specifically about freelance writing.I'm very much looking forward to the whole weekend. Choosing other workshops is always difficult. Miss you . . .

  2. Hi Nona. Glad to hear you're so active in the OK writing community. Miss you, too!

  3. Really good post, Angie. You need to teach a workshop for BWG. :)