Writing nonfiction can be fulfilling, even fun, but it’s not for everyone. Serious nonfiction writing depends on serious research. You don’t want to put your name to something that’s riddled with errors and mistaken assumptions. The more you research, the better you will write.
1. Know what you’re after. Are you writing a book, a family memoir, or something else? If you’ve chosen an event you want to examine, will you write from a personal point of view or take the journalistic “disinterested observer” approach? (I used both in Jerry’s Riot.)
2. Know your audience. How will your nonfiction work differ from other stories and books? if you can’t find a new angle to an old story, maybe you should choose a new subject. (I knew for a long time before I started researching Jerry’s Riot that so little had been written about the 1959 riot — and some of it wrong — that I could write the definitive book. And I did.)
3. Know that in nonfiction writing, research comes first. Accuracy will become your best friend. The more you know, the better you write. (I worked part time for 10 years to research and write Jerry’s Riot.)
4. Interview sources who have first-hand knowledge of the event or person in your story. (I found about 100 of them for Jerry’s Riot. Most were cooperative, some weren’t.)
5. Corroborate what you learn in interviews with written sources such as police and court records, journals, newspaper accounts and other records. People’s memories fade over time. Sometimes they confuse first-hand observations with hearsay. (For Jerry’s Riot, I wrote the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for the federal file on Jerry Myles, the prisoner central to my book. It ran more than 700 pages.)
6. Look for drama. Nonfiction accounts become dry as dust when writers fail to tell personal stories. (I was able to piece together personal accounts and court transcripts to document the entire prison takeover, event by event, in Jerry’s Riot.)
7. Write chronologically. Nothing kills a nonfiction work faster than a writer’s desire to skip around through time by mixing dates and circumstances. Readers become confused, say your work is “hard to follow,” and share their frustration with other prospective readers. (I learned the hard way in early drafts of Jerry’s Riot.)
8. Be prepared to write and rewrite and rewrite even more. Amateur writers finish the first draft and think they’re done. Accomplished writers know they’ve got miles to travel before they sleep.