What's the non-fiction writing process like?
August 7, 2015 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I just finished reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, and I realized I don't really understand, at all, what's involved in writing a book like that.

Same thing with The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes, Caro's biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, and so on. Specifically, how do you plan out a book like that? Do authors today use any fancy software (e.g. Scrivener)? How do you keep track of all your sources and citations? What's the actual day-to-day writing process like? How do you stick to the plan as you write? How does it get edited and cut down to size?

I'd love pointers to resources, either books or articles (or anything, really), that describe the process of planning such a book out, then actually putting everything together and just kind of grinding away at it, day after day, to the point where you're finally able to edit it and turn it into something publishable.
posted by un petit cadeau to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Structure by John McPhee
posted by gyusan at 11:43 AM on August 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Robert Caro
posted by djb at 12:08 PM on August 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
posted by Flexagon at 12:22 PM on August 7, 2015

There are as many approaches as there are authors - lots of this is based on straightforward academic writing skills, so, yeah, scrivener, but the non-digital natives also do things like 'put all the relevant documents relating to this chapter in a box folder/use a lot of highlighters and post-its'. You kinda have to find a method that works for you, as we all write differently.

But do bear in mind that books like this - popular history and pop-histsci/med books at least - rely heavily on secondary literature; that is they rely on other historians and writers doing some/most of the ordering and condensing for you in advance. By and large these writers aren't going out and writing a story from complete scratch - it's not like journalism, or fiction - they're starting with a canon of anything from a half dozen to two or three dozen existing written works, and then figuring out how to add them together, criticise them, tweak them, add to them, rework them. Even when you see footnotes that seem incredibly comprehensive, it (sadly) does not mean that the authors have necessarily read all those articles or been to all those archives - it may mean they've just lifted that reference straight out of the work of a historian and chosen not to be completely honest about where they found the information. (I cannot say this for sure of the books you specifically name, but know for a fact it happens with equally popular books in the same genre).
posted by AFII at 12:31 PM on August 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

oh, and this blog post on 'how historians write' contains further links to short-ish pieces outlining other people's methods.
posted by AFII at 1:27 PM on August 7, 2015

Best answer: I've got a nonfiction, non-academic book coming out around the end of this year, and my process was pretty straightforward. Certainly it was much simpler than the research and writing process for my previous books, which have been aimed solely at other academics in my discipline.

I got the book contract about three years ago, and spent the first 18 months to 2 years just reading everything related, and thinking about it in a muddy sort of swirling way inside my head. The only bit of writing I produced in that time was a detailed outline of the book's structure (chapter headings, subheadings, a few bullet points), and that changed a few times. I saved every file relating to the project (PDFs of things I read, lists of other references, links to websites, images) in a folder on my computer, with no internal structure. I finally structured that folder contents when I was ready to start writing, which was a good opportunity to run my eyes over everything again.

This past year I wrote basically a paragraph a day, just filling out the outline I had come up with before. Some days I wrote more like a page, but rarely more than that. I did this without going back to my sources, just leaving notes to myself when I wanted to check things later. I could do this because I had immersed myself in the materials so thoroughly at that point, but I wanted to make sure the voice in the writing was my own.

When I had filled out the outline and written something about every point I wanted to make, I had about the right number of words, too, which was nice. But it was fairly uneven in tone because I had written so slowly over a long period. So first I went back to all the bits where I had left notes to myself, and fixed or added whatever was necessary there. I did a bit of revision of those paragraphs at the same time, because obvious problems leapt out to me.

Then I revised for structure. It turned out that I had ended up repeating myself in places, and some sections had veered off the intended topic a bit, and needed to be moved or removed. One chapter was much shorter than the others, so it got split up into chunks that I incorporated into other parts instead.

When I was happy with the structure, I did another revision just for tone, sentence structure, readability, etc. Since my previous writing has been academic, I tend towards a too-formal, convoluted style if I'm not careful, and this book was meant to be aimed at the general public, so I had to figure out how to get it into a more conversational voice. That was the hardest part, but once I had a couple of paragraphs in the style I wanted, it wasn't so hard to make the rest match that in tone. I read a lot of other popular science on other topics at this point, to find models I liked.

Finally, I submitted it at this point to my publisher, who got back to me within days with a list of things to revise (for example, he wanted me to expand one chapter, and he thought another had gone too far in the "popularising" direction and wasn't giving my audience enough credit for what they might already know.)

Now I've made those revisions, and the publisher reckons there will only be minor revisions to come, but it's with external readers now, so who knows.
posted by lollusc at 7:16 PM on August 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

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