Writing nonfiction, writing the hard topics

Often when someone chooses to write a nonfiction book, it’s because something has moved them. Something has changed their world. Often, it’s for the worse. Nonfiction books are often written because there’s something terrible in the world that the author wants to shine a light upon.

These are things that cause us grief. And it’s good that we talk about it. Grief is healthy. It’s a visitor that we all have to sit with in our lives.

But grief is also duplicitous. It will tell you you’re the only one feeling this. That you’re weak to handle this so poorly or to be so upset. That you are, and always will be, alone.

Of course, this is all bullshit. But it’s hard to remember that when you’re looking at everyone’s Instagram-worthy life. No one’s posting pictures from their mother’s funeral.

This is exactly why writing personal books about things that have left scares are so vital. It’s a way to reach people you may never meet, hold their hand, and tell them that we’ve been where they are. That we can walk this path together. That they are not alone.

All that being said, writing a book about hard topics is difficult. Especially if it’s something you have firsthand experience with.

If you have chosen to undertake this, God bless and go with you. It is hard work, but it can be so worth it. In writing about hard topics, you’ll exorcise the poison inside you from them. But it’s still hard. 

If you’re writing about something you’ve experienced first hand, it is terrifying to wade back into that. If you’re writing about something that impacts others, it’s still emotionally taxing to delve into these stories. So you need to take care of yourself when you’re working on these kinds of projects.

Start with boundaries

Boundaries are vital in all aspects of your life. Especially when dealing with difficult work. So the first thing I suggest is having specific break days. Mark these out. Don’t work on the project at all. Don’t take notes or meetings, or do any research. Not even one little slip. If this is the only day someone can meet for an interview, then they don’t get interviewed. These are days for you to rest. For your psyche to recover from the beating it’s getting.

 Because this work can be so much more draining than writing fiction, I suggest you don’t set strict deadlines. If you need a break, then take it. Don’t add that extra stress of a deadline that you emotionally might not be able to make. Deadlines, even if they’re ones I’ve put upon myself, make me a little anxious to start with. This helps push me to get work done. But it’s not a great idea if I’m pushing through emotional trauma. 

Just like it’s important to have days off, it’s vital to put your work away at the end of a session. While I get that it’s easy to let writing bleed into the rest of your life, I don’t suggest this being a project that does that. When you’re done writing for the day, put your work away and do your best not to think about it until the next session. 

Finally, you need to have boundaries about what will and will not go into your book. You don’t have to put everything in. I’m not suggesting you lie, or hide part of the truth. If something is difficult to write about, that might be the exact thing that needs to go in there.

But we all have those moments that are truly personal. Things that we just want to keep to ourselves. 

Yes, a large part of writing nonfiction about hard topics is to share those hard moments. That doesn’t mean you have to lay your entire life bare. If you’re wondering whether or not to add in a particular story, think of it this way. Will it help someone to read it in a way that isn’t covered by another part of the book? If not, then you don’t have to put it in.

This is your life, you get to decide how much of it you share. Because you’re going to have to keep living it after someone else has long finished reading about it.

You might need some help

Writing tends to be a solo gig. But writing about hard topics is easier if you don’t face it alone. Let’s talk about building a support system.

We’ll start with a close friend or family member. Someone who knows you well enough to watch you for warning signs of depression, anxiety, or just overall being not okay. Talk with that person. Let them know what you’re doing and how they can help you if they worry you’re getting in too deep. Then, if they say they’re worried, listen to them. If you can talk to a therapist about this, do it. But I understand that not everyone can do that.

The next part of your team is your editor. If you’re working with a publisher, great you have an editor. If you’re self-publishing, get yourself an editor as soon as you can. Because here’s a nasty fact that you don’t want to hear. A hard topic book still has to be as polished and well written as any other book. And I know, the thought of such paltry things as grammar when talking about serious topics is laughable. This is why you’re going to have to rely heavily on your editor. They’re going to be the level head and steady hand when you can’t be.

Finally, don’t forget that you’re not the only one working on a difficult book. Reach out to other people who are doing this work. Find other writers online or within your community. Ask them how they’re coping. 

That’s all I have for the nonfiction series right now. But I’m open to doing more. If you have any questions about nonfiction writing, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Writing Nonfiction, Organization

In learning to write nonfiction, I’m discovering a beautiful part of it that I wish I’d known about all along. It’s something so dear to my heart that it makes nonfiction a joy, even aside from the pleasure that writing always brings me. 

I finally have a worthy reason to use the metric ton of stationary I own to organize all my notes. 

Organization when writing a nonfiction book is a whole other dimension than when writing a fiction novel. Organizing for a fiction book is like playing for the farm leagues. Nonfiction is getting called up to play in the majors. If you want to come at me over this, I’ll remind you that I’ve written and published four novels and four novellas. I understand the research, organization, and planning that goes into that process like I know how to make pasta. I’ve simply done it too many times to ever forget.

All that being said, let’s dive in. 

I find organization works best when it’s a blend of physical and digital. No surprise, I am a hybrid in all things. So let’s talk first about the physical. 

Here’s a quick shopping list to get you started. As you keep your notes and find what works best for you, you’ll likely add to it. But I’ll be surprised if you subtract too much from it. 

One dedicated notebook. 

Colored highlighters.

Sticky notes. 

Yes, you need a notebook, even if it’s a small one. No, you probably don’t want to keep notes in your writer’s notebook, because that has all sorts of other things in it. If you start keeping notes for your nonfiction book in there it will fill up too fast and make it harder for you to refer back to the info when you need it.

Colored highlighters are a joy. But they’re also useful to color-code things. More on that later.

Finally, there are sticky notes. What can’t you use these things for? I like to mark passages in books with them. I make detailed notes and stick them into research material so I’m not scribbling through the margins. (God forbid it not be my book and I write on it.)

Remember, physical organization has two goals. Capture the information you need and make it easy to find later when you need it. These are the bare necessities and can be had at the dollar store. You don’t have to be a psycho like me and invest way more than is required. (But if you do want to, I get most of my materials at either Stationary Pal or Jet Pens. Not sponsored, I just find that they have good stuff for good prices.)

You may ask, in this digital world, why take physical notes? Well, I have two reasons. One, I don’t have a smartphone. I have a tablet that I love but is sometimes cumbersome to whip out if I’m out doing research. Two, I still do my best thinking with pen and paper. While I even write many rough drafts on Dabble now, I still outline everything in a notebook first. It just helps me get my thoughts together. I’m going to stand by writing on paper with pen until my dying day.

However, there’s just no way I could write a nonfiction book without some serious digital organization. Here’s just a shortlist of things I’ve had to keep track of digitally.

Virtual interviews and email interviews


Notes from e-books

Links to sites

Lists of books to read

Lists of people to talk to

Essays I’ve written

Interview question pages

Source links (Cite your sources, my friends. Cite your sources.)

I’m using Notion to organize all of my information. (I’ll be doing a full review on Notion soon.) But you can use any sort of system that works for you. You can use word documents, google docs, Evernote, Milanote. Whatever software you’re comfortable with. The only important thing here is that when you find one system, stick with it. 

This is hard if you’re impulsive like me. Because I swear, I stumble upon a new organization and note-taking software every week. And because they’re new, they’re shiny.

Not one to stick with anything that isn’t working as well as it can, it’s hard to stay with one system. But I’m not doing myself any favors by switching things up mid-project. All that’s going to happen is that I’ll lose precious hours of work time swapping documents and files over. And I will almost certainly lose something vital in the process. So once you’ve chosen your note-keeping system, that’s the one you’re using for the entirety of this project. You can try something new next time.

Finally, I have a few bits of overall advice for organization. The first is the most important. Start out organizing your notes right away, when you have even a single document. Do not organize your notes every month or week. Organize information as it comes in, at the end of every work session. 

If this seems ridiculous to you, you don’t yet understand the work you’re going to go through getting info for your info. You don’t grasp how foolish you’ll feel having to ask to re-interview someone. Or how many hours you can waste riffling through audio files for the one you need. 

Next, make sure that you’re backing information up regularly and securing it. You never know when something might happen to your computer or your online accounts. I keep everything backed up on a flash drive that doesn’t leave my home. Everything I do online regarding this project is password protected. It’s not that I think I’m writing anything groundbreaking, or that someone’s going to steal my precious work and publish it as their own. It’s that there are assholes with nothing better to do than mess with others. 

One final bit of advice I have is to color-code your notes in a way that makes sense to you. And keep your colors consistent from physical to digital. That way you’re not remembering or tracking multiple color meanings. It helps considerably when you’re looking for something in a rush.

That’s it for this time. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about nonfiction writing that you’d like me to cover. 

You can support Paper Beats World on Patreon.

Or buy me a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

Writing nonfiction, interviewing

As I dive further into the world of writing nonfiction, one thing is becoming clear. Interviewing people as someone with social anxiety sucks so hard. 

What the hell was I thinking, putting myself in a position where I was going to have to like, talk to people? As a professional?!

Okay, all that aside, conducting interviews is something that I had to learn how to do. I’ve also developed some ways to make it easier on myself. Are any of these world-shattering revelations? No, not really. But they’ve all helped me. And if you’re writing a nonfiction book, they might help you too.

Especially if you, like me, don’t like talking to people. I mean, that’s why we became writers. 

When you’re setting up interviews, common courtesy comes into play. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. While there are benefits to being interviewed, largely your subject is doing you a favor. So act like it, and value their time.

Start by doing some research ahead of time. No, forget that. Start by doing a lot of research ahead of time. Don’t ask this person things you can google, is what I’m saying.

It might also help if you check out interviews they might already have done if they’re a specialist that gets interviewed frequently. I can imagine it gets tiresome to be asked the same questions all the time. Try to shake it up a little. Or at least not waste their time, and yours, asking them things that you don’t need them to answer.

Another part of not wasting their time (or yours) is to write up your questions ahead of time. That way you’re not fumbling around, trying to think of what to ask next. This helps with anxiety, too. I’m sure that as you’re thinking of someone you want to interview, you’ve got millions of questions in your head. Writing them down might seem useless. Until you’re face to face with another human being that you probably haven’t met before. Then all of your questions vanish from your head like a puddle on a hot day. 

It also just makes you look like you’re a professional. Like you’ve got your shit together. 

When you’re writing out your list of questions, you’ll want to start with some basic release stuff. This is always useful, but even more so if you’re working on an emotional topic. Once you start talking, you might forget entirely. So let me help you get started.

1. Do you want me to use your name? 

2. If so, how do you spell it? 

Ah, but before we get to the questions, you have one very simple piece of information you need to give them. Repeat this sentence with me. 

I’m going to record our discussion today. If you’d like, I can send you a copy.

That’s it. Don’t give them the chance to say no. If they don’t want to be recorded, maybe don’t talk to them.

I understand that I’m being a little hard line here. And of course, you don’t have to listen to me. What the hell do I know?

Well, one thing I know is that having a recording of a conversation protects your subject and you. If you fuck up and misquote them, there’s a record for them to fall back on. If they claim you misquoted them and you most certainly did not, you have the record too. 

There are a lot of other good reasons to keep a recording of the conversation, of course. You’ll need it along with your notes to refer back to. And you do want to make sure you’re not misquoting anyone.

One thing that’s helped me when conducting interviews is not doing them face to face. First off, Covid. Second off, lots of people I want to interview don’t live near me. Or, they’re super busy people who find it hard to make time to sit down and be interviewed by some random woman.

That’s why I utilize zoom interviews and email interviews.

Honestly, the emailed ones are the best. It gives your subject time to consider the questions you’re asking and give you thought-out answers. It also lets them answer the questions in their own time. It’s just a lot more schedule-friendly.

Also, once again, you’ve got a complete record of what was said. #protectyourass #notlegaladvice. 

Finally, remember that in most cases you’ll be interviewing professionals. While you might do some personal interviews, most people are informed members of their field who are qualified to talk about your topic. Treat them as such.

But remember that you’re a professional too. You are writing a book, and that has some clout to it. Your subject is adding to your book, and you should be grateful. But you don’t need to be scared of them. This book is your project. Hold your head up high. You’re doing something most people only talk about doing. 

Thanks for reading! You can support Paper Beats World on Patreon.

Or, buy me a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

Nonfiction, not a school essay!

Writing nonfiction often gets a bad reputation. Lots of authors think it lacks the creativity and storytelling of fiction. 

And I blame the public education system. 

English class taught me to love books and hate nonfiction writing. It kind of made me hate writing anything I was going to turn in for a while until I learned to work with the system.

The problem is that not everyone works with the system well. And when you’re writing an essay for English class, it’s fairly dull work.

It’s boring to write and it’s boring to read. I’d think teachers would assign different topics that encourage kids to explore creativity. But then, teachers don’t usually make their lesson plans.

Here’s the thing, though. Writing a nonfiction book is not the same as writing a school essay. 

It’s not a school essay because you’re writing about something you have a passion for. Unless you were very lucky, I’m assuming you didn’t like most of your school essays. But a nonfiction novel is about a subject that you care about enough to live and breathe.

At least it had better be if you’re going to successfully write about it.

You’re excited about your topic. You’re passionate about it. And the language you use needs to reflect that. 

Language and word choice is one major way we can utilize creativity in nonfiction pieces. When someone’s reading your piece, they should be able to feel your excitement. They should feel your love.

Not for them. That would be weird. For the topic. 

Another thing that pissed me off about school essays was the strict reliance on templates. You know, a standard intro, key topics and then a closer.

Okay yes, I use a loose version of this for writing blog posts. But I don’t have to. And I certainly don’t use them when writing nonfiction.

If you want to write great nonfiction, throw out the rules. Your work doesn’t have to fall into neat paragraphs. You don’t have to discuss things chronologically if that doesn’t make sense.

The book is your own. You are an artist. Free yourself from the shackles of topic sentences. 

The most important thing to remember is this. Your nonfiction books are meant to convey information. That’s its main purpose. But it’s not its sole purpose. Your book also needs to be entertaining. It needs to be fun to read.

Because if it’s not, no one is going to bother. 

Writing nonfiction, Planning

Writing a nonfiction book is a world away from writing a fiction book. As I travel this brand new terrain, I’m taking you along for the ride.

Don’t forget to read part one of this series, Research, if you missed it. 

Today we’re talking about one of my favorite parts of writing a nonfiction book, planning it.

Don’t laugh, I’m not joking.

Planning a nonfiction novel is designing the skeletal system of the whole book. You’re figuring out what’s going to go where as you gather information and write content. It’s like the sketching a painter might do before beginning a painting.

When planning a nonfiction book, I find it’s best to start with your goal. When I’m working on an Off The Bone episode, I always remember my main goal is to provide the background you might not know about stories you probably love.

Knowing the goal of your project will guide you through the whole process. Is your goal to convey information? Do you want to inspire others to act? Are you sharing a personal story to convey comfort and comradery? It doesn’t matter what your goal is, so long as you have one. Otherwise, why are you writing a book at all?

I know this kind of sounds like a school essay. I think we all learned these sorts of essay writing styles. An informative essay, entertaining, persuasive. And yeah, it kind of is like that. It’s also super not like that, but we’ll talk more about that in a future post. 

Once you have your goal, it’s time to make your outline. Now, the information going into your outline is going to vary wildly depending on what kind of nonfiction book you’re writing.

The project I’m working on right now relies a lot on personal essays. They tell a story. So, it was easy to use this as a large part of my outline. Through this, I add in interviews and helpful (hopefully) charts to support the points I’m making in the book.

I made my outline on Notion. You can use any outline software or even pen and paper. But I’ve been loving Notion for my project organization. (If you want to see a post about how I use Notion in addition to my bullet journal, let me know in the comments below.)

The outline helps me out through the entire project. I can see easily how much work still needs to be done on the book. I can also see at a glance if the book is a little unbalanced. For instance, if I see that I have a lot of personal essays, I know I need to set up more interviews. If all of my interviews are personal ones, I know I need to hit up some professionals. 

It’s also kind of inspiring to watch my outline fill out as I work. You all know I love visualizing progress. 

I have just one more bit of advice for planning your nonfiction novel. It might be the most important bit of advice yet.

Leave room for what might surprise you. 

You’re going to do a ton of work on a nonfiction novel. Like, I don’t think you realize how much work goes into this. And as you do this good work, you’re going to find things that surprise you. That might throw your entire plan totally off the rails. And I highly suggest you make space for that.

Or, as it’s hard to leave space for the unexpected, I’d encourage you to be flexible. You never know what you’re going to learn. And nothing is ever set in stone until it’s printed. 

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series so far. I’ll see you next week. And if you have any questions regarding nonfiction writing, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

You can support Paper Beats World on Patreon.

You can also buy me a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

Market- Second Hand Smoke

This is an anthology that is really close to my heart, and since I finally finished Starting Chains, I’ll be sending a piece in.  Second hand smoke is an anthology dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of second hand smoke.

This one really hits home for me, guys.  My mom was a smoker, and I can tell you, it effected my life.  Like I was only five pounds and almost didn’t make it to my first birthday effected.  If you’ve got a story like mine, try it out here.

Genre- Nonfiction, about the effects of second hand smoke.  Preferably personal anecdotes.

Word Count-Not specified

Submission Date- September 15

Wait time- Not specified

Payout- Publication

Check the full submission guideline here.  You’ll be sending your submissions to   annette.kraus@gmail.com

This is a really important topic, guys.  Let’s help get the word out.

Any luck with this market, or any other?  Let me know at nicolecluttrell86@gmail.com, and I’ll post it on the monthly brag board, on the last day of the month. 

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