Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing the outline for your non-fiction book

By Dennis Mellersh

Developing an outline for your non-fiction book is a particularly important process because the outline is the underpinning or foundational framework to support the content of your book.

A book outline is essentially a point form description or blueprint or plan of the structure of the book you are planning to write. It is your plan for your book's content.

How you develop and write the outline for the book you’re planning partially depends on whether or not you already know a lot about the subject matter and are an expert, or whether you are starting from scratch. If you are already knowledgeable about the subject matter, you have a head start and will be able to write a basic outline before you consult further research sources.

Also, keep in mind that writing an outline for a book of fiction, such as a novel, is different from constructing an outline for a non-fiction book. Methods you may be familiar with for writing a fiction outline will not necessarily work for constructing an outline for a non-fiction book.

As a word of encouragement before you start on your project, remember that as long as you have a strong interest in the topic of your book, you can produce effective content for it, even if you don’t have a lot of knowledge about the topic beforehand. Professional non-fiction writers, for example, are often not familiar with the topics they write about until they do considerable research.

Doing your research will help identify themes
Unless you are already an expert, you will need to do research in order to have enough material for your book. At this point, let’s assume that you have done the research for your book. How to do the research is a detailed topic for further discussion in an upcoming article.

While doing your research, you may have noticed that certain themes or major subjects started to become prominent, or kept coming up in different source materials. These topics or subjects can be the basis of starting to categorize the topics that you will write about in your book.

In turn, these major topics can be chapters in your book, and the topics requiring less detailed information can be subsets of your book’s chapters. At this point, the basic outline for your book will start to emerge or be apparent to you.

Helping your readers to understand your material
To write the chapter outline for your book, you will need to decide in what order to present your information in the best manner that will help the reader fully understand the subject you are writing about.

This might mean an historical or chronological sequencing of the content, or it might require an outline in one of the early chapters, of the basic principles involved in the subject. The outline section involving your chapters should ideally include the subtopics, with subtitles, thereby dividing each chapter into subsections.

Decide on the reader knowledge level you will write for
You will also need to decide, and this should be before you do your research, at what expertise level of your reading audience you will be directing the book to. Are your prospective readers novices, people with an intermediate level of knowledge, or are they more advanced?

The knowledge or skill level of your prospective readers will determine to some extent the format of your outline. If you are writing the book for novices, for example, your methodology will involve step-by-step explanations of the subject matter.

The introduction and possible index
You may want to include an introduction or preface to your book and this should be included in your outline. The Oxford Writers’ Dictionary defines preface as follows: “The introductory address of the author to the reader, in which he [she] explains the purpose and scope of the book.”

Likewise, it can be useful, depending on the subject matter, to include an index at the back of the book so readers can find out quickly and on which pages there are references to particular subjects that interest them. An index can be helpful to readers when the book is of significant length and complexity, with a wide variety of sub-topics covered.

Table of contents
This a section of the final published book which serves to tell the readers what is the book by section with corresponding page numbers. Some authors like to give a mini-summary of the content of each chapter or section in their table of contents.

Other important elements of an outline
Although this article is primarily concerned with the creation of an outline for the main body of the text of your book, your outline should also include a note to yourself that you will need artwork and typography for the four covers of your book (outside front, inside front, inside back, and outside back) as well as a title page, and perhaps an acknowledgements page and a bibliography of books, articles and other materials you have sourced in the research for your book. You will also need a publication data page, noting copyright and other publishing information.

So far, your outline could be shaping up something like this:
Front Cover(s)
Publication data page
Title page
Preface or Introduction
Chapters by subject title of each chapter
Chapter subsections
Table of contents
Bibliography of research sources
Back cover(s)

Keep a flexible attitude towards your outline
The outline for your book should be thought of as a work in progress rather than being cast in stone. It is like a battle plan – something to serve as a guide — not as a plan to be rigidly adhered to at all costs. During the formative stages of developing your non-fiction book your ongoing research will continually reveal new aspects of material that you should include as part of the content.

As you develop your book you will likely find that you will need to modify your plan. Writing a book is a fluid process and an art, not a mechanical process. The development of your outline is similar: it may change considerably before you start the actual writing process.

Review of the purpose of the various non-fiction book content or outline elements

The acknowledgement page: This page is generally where you, as the author of the book would offer thanks for anyone who helped you in the writing and editing, and possibly research stages of the book. This page can also be an opportunity to acknowledge particular research source materials that you found particularly helpful in either the content or key ideas for your book.

Preface or introduction: This section can be used to explain why you feel there is a need for your book -- in other words, explain why you wrote the book. You can also offer suggestions to the reader as to how they can use the book to best advantage. The introduction  can also serve as a brief explanation of the main ideas you are trying to get across to the reader and why you consider these ideas to be important.

Chapters: The chapters or basic sections of your book provide an organization framework for the content and help your reader to navigate and prioritize how they will read and study your book. Chapters also allow the reader to tackle the reading of your book in bite-size pieces in a logical sequence.

Index: For readers, it can be frustrating to be looking for something very specific in a non-fiction book, only to find that there is no index. This particularly true for larger non-fiction books with some complexity. Do your readers a favour and help them better utilize your book by providing an index. It will take some extra time, but your readers will appreciate it.

Bibliography: This is a list of the research sources you consulted in the research stages of developing your book. You can do it in one list, or by chapters if your book will be lengthy. As an it can also serve as a "further reading" list for those of your readers who want to pursue any of your research findings in greater depth with the original sources. You might also want to actually include a "further reading" list of books and other source materials that you want to recommend.

Final Tip
Before you get along too far in creating your book's outline, go to your local library or bookstore and check out how other writers of published non-fiction books structured or organized the content of their books. This may give you some good ideas that you can use in developing the outline for the book you are planning.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The basic differences between writing a book report and writing a book review

By Dennis Mellersh

Writing a book report differs considerably from writing a book review.

A book report is generally associated with an academic setting, such as a high school, college or university assignment. As such it will likely be given a grade or otherwise recognized in an overall course mark or evaluation.

Writing a book review, by contrast, is generally done specifically for publication or distribution in some form of media such as a newspaper, magazine, website/blog, You Tube, discussion forum, or other media venue.

The Book Report
Generally, writing a book report does not require that the writer of the report  be an expert  or have personal  background experience concerning  the subject matter of the book, although familiarity with the topic the book is about, or with the genre, such if the book is a novel, would be an asset in producing a good report.

Briefly, a book report focuses on reporting in detail what a particular book is about. The book might be one that you choose yourself, or it may be assigned, with a number of people reporting on the same book. Essentially you will be writing a summary of the book.

The first requirement of course, is to read the book. While reading, it’s a good idea to make some notes as you go along on particular passages about the book that you like, find interesting, agree or disagree with, and chapters or sections that you find particularly well written.

The length of the report may be left open to the writer, but generally in an academic assignment the length will be specified, whether it is to be 500, 1,000, or 1,500 words, for example.

Writing a book report or summary leaves some room for originality in your writing, and this is important as your report will be ineffective, dull, and not likely to be well regarded if it is just an unimaginative recitation of slightly amplified chapter headings. Similarly, just skimming the book and trying to dash off a report quickly will be unsatisfying. Allow time to read the book thoroughly.

It’s important to include your personal reaction to, or interpretation of, the book’s contents and also whether you feel the book achieved its objectives. You can usually find out what the author is trying to accomplish in the preface, or introduction, which is often included in a non-fiction book.

The Book Review
As stated earlier, a book review is generally assigned by and/or written for a media venue. Today with self-publishing being a hot trend, the media outlet could be your own website, blog, or You Tube channel specializing in book reviews.

Usually the writer of w book review has some expertise in the subject matter of the book. If it is a novel, the writer of the review might be a novelist for example; if the book is a about a scientific topic, the reviewer may be a scientist or expert in the topic; if the book is a collection of essays, the book reviewer may be a writer well known for their essays; if an historical book, the reviewer might be an historian, if a biography, the reviewer will often be an author who writes biographies, and so on.

Even if the reviewer is not a specialized expert, they are likely to have a strong interest in the subject matter of the book, or in the author, or both. Usually, the reviewer will be experienced enough to be able to offer comparisons with other books on the same subject.

Generally speaking a book review will be highly evaluative with the review writer stating strongly the merits and shortcomings, if any, of the book in question. Although unprofessionally written and edited books are not likely to be reviewed, reviewers will sometimes review a book that is not up to the standards which a book author’s readers have come to expect.

Book reviews for distribution in media will be more in-depth in length and perception, than the short and sometimes superficial reviews, often with “star” ratings (2 out of five stars etc.) that one sees on bookseller websites, for example. Book reviews are also totally different from the short promotional blurbs of praise often seen on the outside back covers of books, although some of these blurbs might be excerpts from favorable reviews of the book.

If you are interested in “learning by doing” with book reviews, as a starting point you might want to consider is having a blog featuring book reviews. Ideally the books you review would be either on a topic that interests you, a type of writing that interests you (such as fantasy), authors that interest you, or a combination of all three elements.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Avoiding over-reliance on writing formulas and techniques

By Dennis Mellersh

For the beginner writer interested in developing a book, there can be a temptation to search for sure-fire book-writing formulas, theories, or techniques that will lead to success. These might be called short-cuts.

It is only natural to assume that, with so much advice available on how to write a book, that there are tried and true methods that will help ensure success. And, in fact, there is a lot of good instructive material available on the basics of how to structure your approach to writing your book.

But when it comes to the actual writing, it is important to speak in your own voice and to guard against your writing becoming imitative of your favorite authors, for example.

Similarly, imitating the way a favorite author develops exposition or dialogue could result in your work appearing derivative and lacking in originality.

The novelist William Faulkner discussed over-dependence on technique and the need to develop your own voice in an interview reproduced in Writers at Work, published by the Paris Review:

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no short cut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer he wants to beat him.”

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Don’t fall in love with your writing

By Dennis Mellersh

In writing a book, as with any form of writing, one of the dangers that many writers face is becoming enamored with their words and not providing themselves with the perspective to judge their writing objectively.

In the flush of finishing that first draft your book, for example, the creative juices are flowing fast, and the creative emotions are running high. At this point, as writers, everything we have put down seems to look and sound great.

And, it is important when writing creatively to go with the flow of our thoughts, not interrupting the writing to make continual adjustments. The downside, is that when we are “in the zone” with the first draft our book and writing furiously, we can: become repetitive, use too many unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, fall into the trap of telling and not showing through action, become redundant, have too much exposition, or become inconsistent.

At this point we need to back off from the work take a hard look at our writing, and see if we can determine ways to improve it.

At the first draft stage of a book, one of the techniques we can use to improve the manuscript is to see how we can make it more compelling by removing writing passages that add little, or even detract, from the central theme of the book.

In other words make the story more concise and compressed. The necessity for this exercise is not something that needs to be followed only by beginner writers; established, famous authors recognize the importance of keeping their writing focused on the core essentials needed to tell their story.

Stephen King, for example, offers this advice:
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt …but it must be done.”

Doing this cutting of what may be some of our favourite parts of our manuscript is difficult, and requires creating perspective.

One way to achieve this perspective is to put the manuscript aside for some time, go on to another project and then revisit the manuscript with a fresh eye after a few days or more.

And when you go back to the manuscript you want to edit, make sure you keep a copy of your first and subsequent versions of the manuscript in case you get carried away and throw out some of the good stuff along with the non-essentials.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Keep on writing: Persistence in the face of adversity

By Dennis Mellersh

In the journey of learning how to write a book, discouragement and thoughts of failure can creep in periodically and interfere with our writing plan and with our creativity.

For instance:

One day you may be able to produce 1,000 words for your book with apparent ease, and then the next day, you have difficulty creating even one sentence you are happy with;

Or, the original plot you envisaged for your book now seems overly contrived and not believable;

The actual writing, once started, is taking on a life of its own, and is not following your carefully planned outline;

Your energy and the desire to write was in overdrive yesterday with the words flowing effortlessly, but today your confidence and “creativity” seems low and nothing you write seems to work.

These are just a few examples of the difficulties writers’ face that can lead to thoughts of failure.

It’s important to realize, however, that on the road to successfully finishing the writing of your book, speed bumps and obstacles are normal, and should not be taken as signs of personal failure.
Writing is hard and does not come easily to most of us.

And most important, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “You only fail if you stop writing.”