How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Five: Edit

Editing requires stubborn patience and discipline. The good news is, all you have to do is read. The bad news is, you have to do it over and over and over. You have to read your manuscript until you can recite it like the catechism.

You must read with purpose, though. Otherwise you bore and blind yourself to what needs fixing.

On your first read your concerns are:
A) Structure and B) Continuity

Structure is how the whole thing fits together:

1. Does it have a beginning, middle and end?
2. Does the pace fit the topic and tone?
3. Does it feel like a book rather than an assortment of pages?

Continuity is how smooth, complete and ordered the writing is:

1. Do the main sections have a logical order?
2. Does each section/chapter fit in the overall theme?
3. Do individual chapters read coherently from beginning to end?

Since Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers consists of separate profiles with a common theme my main concern was the internal structure of the chapters. If you are writing a non-fiction book where each chapter builds on the previous one you have to be careful to present facts and information in clear, linear fashion.

Your second read takes a closer look at A) style and B) voice.

This was critical in Vine Lives because style and voice are what give the profiles continuity. By the time I wrote the last profile my writing had matured. There were obvious stylistic differences between early and later chapters so, I rewrote. Usually your writing will get leaner and cleaner as you work, so often early chapters just need a good pruning. Rather than treat this as a dull duty take satisfaction in the fact your writing has improved. Showcase this better self.

Your third read should be a GAS: A) Grammar, B) Adjectives/Adverbs, and C) Spelling
Sure, you could hand your manuscript over to a professional editor or proofreader at this point, but if you do you lose a tremendous opportunity to enhance your craft. Writing is like playing an instrument. As a beginner, you go to a teacher or technician to tune your instrument. To become a master musician, though, have to develop your own ear. You have to know if you are transmitting at the right frequency. The key to mastery: practice, practice, practice. Eventually, like the Stones say, tuning your work will be a “Gas Gas Gas”.

Grammar: You don’t have to be formally trained in grammar to check your work. Lord knows, I’m not. Like magisterial prose stylist Joan Didion, I claim “grammar is a piano I play by ear”. Any avid, careful reader (much less writer) instinctively knows when a sentence sounds wrong. If you hit on an awkward phrase and aren’t sure how to put it right, get thee to Google. Most grammatical conundrums can be solved by internet these days.

Adjectives and Adverbs: Patrol your writing for inappropriate use of the two “A”s. Adjectives should not be a substitute for clear description; adverbs should not be a substitute for a decent vocabulary.

Example: In the Montinore chapter I wanted to write: “It was a glorious spring day”, because it was. “Glorious” is vague and subjective, though; “glorious” doesn’t tell the reader anything useful. This is what I wrote instead:

“Rhododendrons, lilacs, roses, cypress, oak, and weeping willow channel the earth’s exuberance into great bursts of foliage and color…. Chipmunks skitter on tree trunks, scolding the birds that loft saucily towards clouds hanging like puffs of whipped cream in the spring sky.”

As for adverbs, watch those “ly” endings. If things are “especially good” better they are “splendid” or “thrilling”, if “awfully bad” try “catastrophic” or “disastrous”, etc. Adverbs are for the most part lazy replacements for strong adjectives, which are themselves often substitutes for specific detail. Be aware of how you use language.

Spelling: Yes, spelling matters. No, you cannot rely on Microsoft-fucking-Word. A writer’s vocabulary should outstrip the paltry mechanisms of Microsoft, especially if you are writing about a technical or specialist subject, such as wine. By all means, run a spell check to correct any obvious typos, but rely on close reading and regular dictionary checks to ensure your words are saying what you think they are. Pin down inaudible differences (“compliment”, “complement”) in print, watch out for malapropisms (“prodigy” for “protégé”) and double check commonly misused words (“disinterested” for “uninterested”).

Now your work is ready for other readers.
By all means, pass it around. Fresh eyes will spot incongruities to which you are blind, and generally have an overview you lack. Ask for specific feedback, e.g. “Does chapter three follow logically from chapter two?” or “Is the description of underwater basket weaving clear?” Accept comments dispassionately and with good grace. Remember, criticism of your writing is not criticism of YOU.

Once you’ve incorporated any suggestions and corrections, proofread.
I’m a professional proofreader and sub-editor so I proofed Vine Lives myself. If you’re not a trained editor, farm it out to the best proofreader money can buy. You want a hawk-eyed pedant who will read every line of your book as if it were his/her billionaire uncle’s last will and testament. Let him/her correct your manuscript then read it one more time.

Is it perfect? Congratulations. You’ve edited a book. Pour yourself a glass of wine!

Share your editing tips in the comments.

How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Four: Write

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, said: “If you wish to have a faculty for… writing, write; if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing.” Two thousand years later that’s still the best writing advice going.


If you’re jigging around, unsure of where to start, here are five steps to help acquire the habit:

1. Think small
Leave the “dream big/reach for the stars/give 110%” bullshit for high school football coaches. Your only ambition, as Steinbeck said, is to finish a page. Especially if this is your first book.

Vine Lives is about 30,000 words, but that is a terrifying amount when starting at zero. Once you have rough idea of your total word count, forget it. Focus on units of a manageable size. I’m a feature writer so 1500-2000 words is a comfortable range. I framed my task as 15 chapters of 1500-2000 words each. Voila: a reasonable assignment. I’ve written god knows how many features. All I had to do was crank out another 15.

If you’re embarking on a book you will, ideally, have an idea of your writing capacity. How do you work best — 500 word blog posts? 3000-word white papers? Adapt your project to your writing style, not vice versa.

2. Give yourself a deadline
It isn’t enough to want the book done, you have to give yourself a deadline. When you’re indie publishing you have to be your own taskmaster. My Vine Lives research sat untouched for several months before guilt sparked a sense of urgency. I sent my brother/publisher the first profile in October. Once he gave it the thumbs up I set a deadline: 11 February (the day I had to move out of my house). Despite some slack weeks, I delivered as promised.

3. Create a routine
As a writer, routine is your best friend; routine will save you. A day in my Vine Lives life went like this: Wake up, feed cat, drink coffee, read a chapter of Epictetus, go for a run, flirt with the gardener, shower, cook breakfast, eat, clean teeth, then write.

You might think: “Surely it would be quicker to just roll out of bed and start writing.” Perhaps. But I’ve learned, through trial, error and abortive attempts to be more “productive” that abridging this routine makes me sketchy and distracted. Maybe it’s indulgent to spend four-plus hours warming up for work but I’m Thoroughbred, not a carthorse. If sitting at a desk and grinding it out for eight hours works for you, by all means do. If you need to prance around the paddock first, though, don’t be down on yourself. Results are what matters.

4. Be calm but disciplined
Don’t worry if you begin the day blank and afraid (I do). If you don’t know where to start, read and highlight your notes. Find an arresting phrase or image. Then “only begin”. Start writing. Even if it feels awkward and wrong, push on. I’d invariably sit down and think, “There is no fucking way I can write 1500 words today.” I’d cajole myself into doing 500 words. Usually that was enough to get into a flow. The rest was more or less easy.

Some days writing seems impossible. Take 50% of these days off to recharge your batteries. The other 50%, write anyway. Teach yourself that you don’t always have to feel good about writing, you just have to write.

5. Take up long-distance running*
Writing calls for stamina, courage, resilience, pain resistance and self-belief. The cheapest, easiest way to cultivate these qualities is to run. Especially if you don’t like running. Every time you lace up your shoes and step out the door you show yourself what you can accomplish. Every time you huff and puff up a hill you prove you can overcome obstacles. Every time you start off wishing you were doing anything else and come home buzzing you remind yourself of the rewards of discipline. Running also calms your nerves, clears your head, steadies your pulse, and keeps your arse from overflowing your chair.

*Yoga, swimming, hiking, cycling, rock climbing, free-diving, boxing or martial arts work too

Ready, set, run

Ready, set, run

What’s your best piece of writing advice? Share in the comments!

How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Three: Organising Your Material

Organising your material is the critical step between research and writing. If you have orderly tendencies this should be easy. If, like me, your inclination is to scribble, stuff and scatter this is where you pull things together.
Remember when you Plan and Research

You want to have more information than you “need” (remember what Hemingway said about the iceberg) but you don’t want to get bogged down in detail. Here’s a few tips:

-Go into every interview or research session with a list of questions
-Take copious notes
-Use a voice recorder
-Take photos (they’re great memory prompts even if you don’t use them in the book)
-Label your notes/photos/etc (e.g. “Jean Smith interview, July 3 2015, recorded and saved as file ‘JSmith 3/7′)
-Collect additional material (maps, brochures, clippings, ticket stubs, etc)
-Gather everything that seems interesting and relevant (within reason) — edit later

Organising is actually a step in the writing process. Imposing physical order by cataloguing, categorising, labelling, filing, etc creates mental order. Organisation starts the writing process before you type the first word. I’m terrified of writing. Organising is a way of conning myself into developing structure and narrative.

Specific organisational tools and techniques depend on your project. For Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers I used a tabbed file folder to hold miscellaneous items like business cards, maps, brochures, etc. I recorded interviews on a Dictaphone (or use your smartphone) and carried a large notebook to scribble observations. Each interview / vineyard visit was the basis for a chapter of the book, so it was easy to bundle information.

The critical step in my organisation process was typing my hand-written notes and transcribing the interviews. I’m lazy, so left doing this till the end. It would have been better to have typed/transcribed immediately after the interviews to A) preserve fresh detail and B) spot any gaps. As it was, leaving it till later meant I forgot some things, and thought “gee, I wish I’d asked…” about other things. That said, imperfection is a fact of life. It is always better to work with what you have than obsess over what you don’t.

On my computer I created a master folder for the book with separate folders for each chapter, plus a folder of “additional information”. For a more elaborate project involving a wider variety of source material you might have separate folders for video clips, music files, databases, etc. Keep a careful bibliography of any source material (books, magazine articles, etc) — this makes it easy to find references while writing and saves you the excruciating task of compiling a bibliography at the end.

Four Steps to Organise Your Material

1. File and/or catalogue all your physical material
2. Transcribe interviews, type hand-written notes, etc
3. Create a file system on your computer that works for you
4. Keep a running bibliography of reference material

Don’t worry about the overall structure of the book at this stage. Work on the level of individual chapters or sections. Your (writing) life will be a lot easier if you heed Jesus’s dictum: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34)

Share your organisational tips or questions in the comments.

How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Two: Plan and Research

Topic in hand, you’re ready for the next phase of writing your book: planning and research.

Before you begin go back to Step One: Choosing Your Topic and review this bit:

1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?

These questions shape your research agenda. They will help you figure out what you need to know and who you’re going to ask.

In the case of Oregon Wine Pioneers my primary source was winemakers. I had to figure out who I was going to interview, why, where and when. My brother and I put our heads together and started making a list.
He’d had a nice bottle from A to Z Wineworks, so they went on the list. Plum Hill is a family favourite. I’d already interviewed the owner of Abacela for a different project. I went to Willamette Wines and made a list of potential subjects.
cover 1
Don’t get too hung up on a particular angle, subject, or idea at this point. My initial contact list was probably 40 wineries. Of those, maybe 25 responded. In the end, I interviewed and wrote about 15 of them. Some people I contacted were enthusiastic then stopped answering emails; others were initially aloof but wound up being great subjects.

Depending on the project your primary research focus may be people, books, newspapers, archives, websites, films, police blotters, or YouTube videos. For each source or type of research consider the following:

1. Access: Is the information you need accessible in your area? Your language? Is it confidential?
2. Cost: Phone bills, gas money, subscription fees, printing/copying costs, buying equipment e.g. software, camera, etc
3. Time constraints: What’s your deadline? Is your topic time-sensitive? Are you limited by your work/travel schedule? Is certain information only available at certain times (for example, do you have to attend an event?)

For Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers my access was determined by the willingness of my participants, so that was straight-forward. Other resources such as existing Oregon wine and travel guides were available in the library or local book shops.

Costs included gas money, phone top-ups, office supplies, and sundries. The biggest expense was a high-grade Sony digital camera to ensure we’d have book-quality photos.

And I was working against the clock: with just six weeks in Oregon I had to schedule my interviews as efficiently as possible. This meant visiting adjoining wineries on the same day, in some cases.

Once you identify your access, cost and time constraints all that’s left to do is research.

You want to have more information than you “need” (remember what Hemingway said about the iceberg) but you don’t want to get bogged down in detail. Here’s a few tips:

-Go into every interview or research session with a list of questions
-Take copious notes
-Use a voice recorder
-Take photos (they’re great memory prompts even if you don’t use them in the book)
-Label your notes/photos/etc (e.g. “Jean Smith interview, July 3 2015, recorded and saved as file ‘JSmith 3/7’)
-Collect additional material (maps, brochures, clippings, ticket stubs, etc) in a file folders
-Gather everything that seems interesting and relevant (within reason) — you can edit later

Good luck! Share your research tips in the comments.

Five Step Guide to Writing Non-Fiction

You can write a book. Just five steps are required to craft a non-fiction book and, in the coming weeks, I’ll take you through each step in detail. If you read and apply this information you can write a book. It’s easy, like losing weight through exercise and sensible eating is easy — the principle is blood-simple but you have to do the work.

cover 1

This five-step plan is based on my experience writing Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers, a travel-guide-cum-social-history of Oregon’s thriving wine industry. I’ll take you through the entire process from the seed of the idea to final edit.

The guide covers:

1. Choosing Your Topic
2. Planning & Research
3. Organising Your Material
4. Writing
5. Editing

Each article will include examples, action points, and inspirational quotes to get you going.

Don’t just read these blogs. Use them as a guide and inspiration to begin your own book.
Follow Creative Writing Ibiza so you don’t miss anything!

Stay tuned for bonus tips on finding your writing rhythm, marketing and more.

Coming next week: Step One – Choose Your Topic


fragments of TS Eliot whirling in my head

I wrote for years before I had any notion of being a writer. The gift of this scribbling is dozens of notebooks and countless files containing fragments of my life that would otherwise be lost. Some are happy, some are sad, most are maudlin (Didion would have a thing or two to say) but they contain truth. It’s easy to gloss over our flaws and fears; tempting to think only of our best selves. That’s a luxury we can’t afford as writers, though. Because life isn’t clean, motives aren’t clear, honesty is dirty fingernails. We need to remember ourselves as we really were so we can understand who we are.

Share an honest self-portrait of your own in the comments.

view from cala des moro

21 June 2010

All I can do is lie around with fragments of TS Eliot whirling in my head: twenty years largely wasted… found and lost again and again… conditions that seem unpropitious… a different kind of failure… a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating…

What have I done? I’ll call them the Facebook years. I started my account when I moved to Ibiza, to keep my friends appraised. All those pictures and I don’t know who of. I look at myself laughing, on the beach, at DC10, in Mexico, Venice… all the places I went, the things I did, the people I thought I loved. It just looks – I don’t know – hollow? I don’t regret any of it. If anything, I’m greedy to have seen more, yet that’s all it is: greed. Who was I? Who am I? A rolling stone. A sponge. A pair of legs with a camera and a credit card. Wandering. But to what end? I have experience but no context. What, to put it crudely, is it good for? The only possible answer, the only way to redeem the years, is to find some kernel of meaning, or some means of expression that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The responsibility terrifies me.

The photos scare me because I feel absent. I was there, I did things, I loved people, I made plans and had jobs and paid rent and went running and looked at paintings and wrote articles and whatever else. But I look at them and only recognise someone who looks like me but is younger, thinner, prettier and so remote from me as to be untouchable. Who was she, and what was she thinking? How can I drag any of that into the present and make it mean something?

God, I want to be her again. I want to be sun-warmed and tipsy and have long, golden legs. Yet that turned out to not be me at all. What was I doing? What chances did I miss? I remember James asking me in Venice, that first autumn, “are you happy?” He thought I wasn’t. I thought I must be. He was right.

Am I any happier now? I don’t know. At least I feel more aware. That girl, as much a girl as a woman of 27 can be, was willfully oblivious to herself. I didn’t want to know anything about myself, my history, or what might be. I don’t know what I did want. Maybe just to be away from myself. That was never going to work. Now I want to get back to where I started, knowing what I know now.

Share an honest self-portrait of your own in the comments.