Rules About Non-Fiction Writing

There are rules that apply to writing non-fiction aimed for scholastic or technical publications, newspapers, magazines, e-publication, or books.

Get Your Facts Right

Don’t presume, guess or surmise. A factual article should be conclusive of its information. There will always be someone out there that will know about the topic you’re writing and will recognise presumptions dressed as facts. If you’re writing for a publisher, then you will not only bring yourself into disrepute but also your publisher as well. That means you may not be published next time you submit your work, or at least with that same publisher.

All information needs to be researched thoroughly whether it ends up being part of the publication or not. In fictional writing, the author has to know the backstories of each character that plays a significant part in the story, whether all that information is revealed is up to the author. In non-fiction, it’s the writer’s duty to ensure the information presented is accurate and can stand up to an expert’s scrutiny.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Scholarly, science or medical articles or books require in-text citations and references. It’s wise to have professionals in the same field approve your piece and possibly get that approval in writing so you can include it in your book. Unfortunately, a newspaper article has neither the room nor the interest level to include an expert’s accolade of your work. Although, if the article is published on the internet then that may be possible if an expert posts a favourable comment at the end of the article.

Quotes

Including quotations serves to break up lengthy paragraphs, thereby encouraging the reader to continue, while substantiating your article. A quote from a professional strengthens a non-fictional piece of work. Factual articles without direct quotes or reinforcement of factual information may be viewed disparagingly. When you do quote someone, ensure you state clearly their full title and their representation.

Examples:

Dr Michael Greene of XYZ University stated that …

Dr Michael Greene, a biologist who has been studying this field for 20 years, has documented similar experiences …

Dr Michael Greene of XYZ University said, ‘…’

Note: In Australia, we do not put a full stop when shortening a word like ‘Doctor’ (Dr) if the last letter in the word matches the last letter in the shorten form.

Direct quotes must contain quotation marks. While double quotes (“ ”) are still acceptable, the single quotes (‘ ’) are the Australian preferred quotation mark.

Personal Opinions

One of the biggest mistakes authors can make is including personal opinion as the right one. Your opinion may be clouded by experience, which can sometimes be unique and not shared by others. Stick to the facts and what esteemed professionals have proved rather than your take on a subject. However, if you are a professional in the field that you’re writing about, then sharing your opinion may be valid but avoid using it as an opportunity to force your views as right and another expert’s opinion as wrong.

 

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The Pros and Cons of Going On and On and On …

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When a Pencil is Just a Pencil
It’s easy to fall into the rambling trap. Taking up an entire paragraph where a simple sentence will do the same job. There is little point, for example, describing all the uses of a pencil (its colour, its size, the smoothness or scratchiness of the lead, and so on). Even with technology taking over nearly every aspect of our lives, I think it’s safe to say we have all used a pen or pencil, so we already know these aspects without reading about it.

Re-Discovering a Pencil
Is it ever useful to describe the details of a commonplace item? Sticking with the pencil idea, we would describe it if it were new to the character. Perhaps technology has completely taken over and manual writing instruments no longer exist and haven’t done so for centuries. If a character unearthed one and the character has never seen it before, then a description would be appropriate, but the challenge would be to make it come alive for the reader, after all let’s not forget that the reader still knows what a pencil is. The writer may try to make it a bit comical until the character finally works out the pencil’s purpose and how to use it correctly. Then there’s another opportunity when the lead becomes blunt and the character has to work out how to sharpen it.

When a Pencil Reveals More
There is a reason to draw attention to the pencil without describing its purpose. How a character treats and uses a pencil can benefit a writer in developing that character. A pencil with a chewed end shows the user’s habit of gnawing on a pencil. Perhaps the user does this subconsciously while thinking about what to write, or it may be a nervous habit that surfaces during exams. It shows the reader more about that character.

Let’s call our character Jim. So what happens if Jim’s pencil is broken and he borrows a pen – is the urge to chew on the pen overwhelming even though Jim doesn’t own it? And how would the other person (we’ll call Melanie) feel when receiving the pen back with the end crushed and evidence of saliva still clinging to it? Melanie might get some satisfaction if the pen’s ink is now spread all over Jim’s lips, mouth and teeth, but what will Melanie do? Would she yell, cry or become violent because it was a gift or an expensive pen? Would she bin it in disgust or tell Jim that he can keep it vowing never to loan him anything ever again?

A chewed up pencil shows the reader more about a character, but a row of perfectly maintained pencils on a neat and organised desk will also reveal a character’s habits, nature and mindset. What if the owner of these pencils and tidy desk was Melanie? Imagine the conflict between Jim and Melanie then. It poses the question – what is their relationship? Are they merely students in the same class? Co-workers in a training session or general meeting? Are they related or have they recently started dating? Their relationship could impact Melanie’s reaction to her chewed pen.

Unleashing the Pencil
Developing characters, creating conflicts or even writing about a pencil’s description are good ways to ignite the creative flow and unlock writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what is written as long as you write. It might trigger an idea, inspire a story or help with solving a writing issue. Even if it ends in the bin, at least you’re moving forward with your writing. So, pick an object and write about it.

Put in every detail you can think of. Ask questions – who would use this object and why? You may find that you move onto other things as ideas start to form. Don’t fight it; go with it. This isn’t the time to worry about where a comma should go.

Exercising the Pencil
As a writing exercise, create a character and give that character good and bad aspects, habits, a job, family, and then put an odd object into the character’s possession. This creates more questions. Why would this character have such a thing? Does the character treasure the object, or is the person ashamed of it? Has it ever been lost before? Did the character try to get rid of it, but couldn’t for some reason.

Questions move writers forward. Never stop questioning, never stop moving forward and never stop writing.

Sharpening the Pencil
Once you have finished your draft, go back and tighten your writing. If one word can do the work of multiple drawn out words or one sentence gets to the point better then a paragraph then replace it. With the exception of the writer’s style, each word has to earn its place on the page.

The Key to Being a Professional Writer: Create, Rework and Edit

Hello to all the writers out there. The best advise I can give regarding grammar is don’t let it consume you. Sit down in front of your computer or pick up a pen and writing pad and start creating. Don’t worry about grammar or where to stick commas; this isn’t the stage to allow yourself to be distracted. Write! Emerge yourself into the creative process and allow it to flow from you to the page.

But you haven’t finished yet. Here comes the ‘roll up your sleeves and start digging’ part of the process. Explore the possibilities until you have your start, middle and ending. Develop your characters so they act, speak and react in believable ways while remaining true to themselves. Use the full scope of colour and depth, smells and noises, and make it come alive for the reader. Play the ‘what if’ game and challenge yourself. What if this happened then how would each character act or react, and how would that affect the plot and sub plots. Keep working on it until you make it as good as you can get. Keep delving deeper with each draft moving closer and closer to the story that it’s destined to be.

Now here’s an important step: put your work away and don’t look at it for at least a week (longer if possible). If you can’t leave it for that long, then enjoy a coffee break at the local cafe, dance around the house as if no one can see you, or go for a long walk. Do whatever it takes to break away from using your creative side and distance yourself from your newly created work.

Return to your written piece with a fresh mindset and look at your work as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Now it’s time to start editing it.

Check your grammar and punctuation. Look up any word you’re unsure of in a good quality dictionary. Once you think the piece is at its best, give it to someone (or multiple people) you trust to read it that can provide insightful feedback. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, friend, neighbour or work colleague, but pick avid readers who are capable of providing quality feedback. If you don’t have someone like this in your circle of friends, then have it professionally assessed.

Listen to their comments regarding the content and understand they are trying to help. They are giving their point of view, perhaps uncovering an area you haven’t considered. Pay attention to what they question because that can identify storytelling problems. Are they having trouble understanding a particular section, and that’s why they are questioning it? Perhaps it’s not clear enough and the section needs reworking. Perhaps the sequence of events has been revealed in the wrong order and isn’t working with the timeline. If they point out a word or punctuation mark that seems inappropriate — look it up!

Rewrite the piece taking the feedback into consideration. You don’t have to take all feedback on board when reworking your story if it goes against what you want to achieve. For instance, a suggestion about changing the plot might tell a different story to the one you want to tell. However, understand why a suggestion was raised and if you can improve your work without compromising on the story you want to tell. It doesn’t matter if it takes 20 drafts. A story takes as long as it takes until it’s right.

Have you finished yet? Not quite. I’d recommend hiring a professional editor. Family and friends can help knock the rough edges off and highlight understanding difficulties within a story, but you still need a professional who knows the rules and who has been trained to see the inconsistencies in a story.

If your goal is to have your work published then you have to be professional — that means your attitude as well as your work. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s important. If you were applying for a job that you wanted, then you’d make sure your résumé was impressive before sending it anywhere. Sending your manuscript to a publisher works the same way. You’re competing against all those other writers.
Even if you opt for self-publishing, you’re still competing with other writers to get a reader’s attention.

Another important rule, perhaps the most important of all: don’t give up! Hard work and dedication will get you there, but be prepared for the long haul. Everybody wants their dreams to become reality today, but the most important dreams – the ones that mean the most to you — take time. And when those dreams start to turn into reality — you’ll know you’re on your way.

Active and Passive Voice

Many writers drift into the passive voice. When this happens, teachers and other writing professionals often say, ‘You’re writing in the passive voice. Use an active voice instead. It will make your writing more interesting.’

Most likely they offered the same explanation: With the active voice, the subject undertakes the action. With the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon, (or words to that effect).

No one seems able to describe it in any other terms, which leads many writers surrounded by open books trying to understand this conundrum. It’s actually surprising how many books use this same phrasing.

Writers want a simple way to detect when they have moved from active to passive. So, for those writers who have trouble with the concept, here are a few hints to let you know when you have slipped into the passive voice.

Look for the word ‘by’. Here is an example of passive voice:

The trespasser was chased by a bull yesterday.

The bull is actually the subject and it’s the one carrying out the action. A simple rewrite changes the above example into the active voice:

A bull chased the trespasser yesterday.

Of course there are also passive sentences that don’t contain the word ‘by’. (You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?)

Have a look at this example of a passive sentence:

The matter will be looked into further and a solution will be found.

Notice that there is ambiguity with the above example. Who is looking into the problem? A sentence that is unclear who is the subject can indicate it’s written in the passive voice. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence to transform it into the active voice, as in this example:

The mailroom personnel will check into the problem and rectify it immediately.

Now we have a clear subject – the mailroom personnel.

Not all sentences have a subject, such as fragments.

Why is the active voice more desirable than passive?

Active voice can make a sentence more exciting by speeding up the pace, and it’s especially useful when the writer wants the reader to feel anxiety or suspense. Creative writers (fiction and non-fiction) use the active voice for these reasons.

Does that mean we shouldn’t use passive voice at all?

The passive voice does have its place. It can help readers to catch their breath after an exciting, fast-paced section.

It’s also extremely useful in corporate writing and to soften the effects of blame on an individual or group, as in the following example:

The letter failed to be sent on time by the mailroom personnel.

(Did you notice the example had the word ‘by’ in it?) The example clearly blames a particular group, but is softened with the use of the passive voice. (Was the previous sentence written in passive or active voice?)

This next sentence is written in active voice and delivers a more brutal attack:

The mailroom personnel didn’t send the letter on time.

Hopefully these hints will help alert you to the passive voice and clear up the confusion about whether the subject undertakes the action or if it’s being acted upon.

As always, happy writing!

 

Habits To Avoid

Habits in speech have a tendency to creep into our writing. Things that are accepted or ignored in everyday conversations should be avoided when writing. Have you ever said, or heard, something like this?

  • The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.
  • Her dress was the colour of blue.
  • The final score was dismal at the end of the game.
  • I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!
  • I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

These are tautologies. A tautology is saying the same thing twice. Let’s look at those examples again.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm at night.

There is no need to indicate it’s at night as the ‘pm’ already tells us this.

The movie starts at 7.30 pm.

Her dress was the colour of blue.

Blue is a colour.

Her dress was blue.

The final score was dismal at the end of the game.

A final score indicates the end of the game.

The final score was dismal.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed to death!

Some times when we try to emphasise a point we can fall into the trap of over doing it. Dead is dead; there are no in-betweens.

I’m telling the truth, he was killed!

However, it is okay to say, ‘He was stabbed to death’, because people can survive a stabbing.

I ride my two-wheeled bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Bicycle means a two-wheeled bike.

I ride my bicycle for twenty minutes each day.

Some tautologies stand out, but some are used in everyday conversations so they can go unnoticed. Keep a look out for them, and then avoid them.

What do all of the following have in common?

  • Needle in a haystack.
  • Not over until it’s over.
  • Plenty of fish in the sea.
  • A hard slog.
  • Kicked the bucket.
  • Beat a dead horse, or flog a dead horse, or whatever variation of it.

They are clichés. It’s amazing how often they manage to slip into writing. Any phrase or expression that is overused is a cliché and should be avoid. If you have a character that has a tendency to use such phrases when talking, then of course you’ll probably want to use a couple to enforce this character trait, but don’t overdo it. Usually overdone expressions annoy people, especially when reading.

There’s nothing that can ruin a story faster than cliché after cliché. It’s disappointing when they show up in published books. It’s as if the author didn’t care enough about the readers to take a couple of minutes to think of another way of saying it.

A simple rule: if you’ve heard it before, and pretty sure most other people would have heard it, then don’t use it. Be creative and think how else you can say it or describe it.