Improve Your Nonfiction Book Writing with Journalistic Skills

Taking a break from my guest bloggers, I though today I’d treat you to a look at the similarity between writing articles, essays and books-the view from where I sit. I’m a journalist by trade, and, while I happen to be a working freelance journalist, I really make my living editing nonfiction books for my clients. When I’m not engaged in those two activities, I work on writing my own books. (Ask me when I find time; the answer: “Not often,” which might explain why none of them are done. My clients books get done, though.) Therefore, I often combine my knowledge of one field – journalism – with the other – book editing – and vice versa. More accurately, I might state that I often see that I can use my journalistic skills when writing or editing books, and I’m sure that all that book editing has helped my journalistic endeavors.

Let’s take a look at five ways you, too, can develop and combine these same skills.

Articles and a Book Chapters Equate to the Same Thing:  While I was attending college at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication (many years ago), I had the pleasure of not only studying magazine journalism from best-selling author and seasoned journalist Professor John Keats but also of having him as my college adviser and travel guide for a semester in London, England. He taught me many things, but when it comes to writing books, one lesson has remained in my head: Writing a book is like writing a series of articles on the same topic.

I offer this lesson today for this reason:  I find that when writers get stumped by the enormity of the task of writing a whole book, it helps to “chunk it down,” as they say. If you can look at the book as a series of articles, this can seem even less daunting than a series of chapters.

That said, chapters are, indeed, nothing more than articles. They share all the same characteristics. Articles have a lead, or a paragraph or two that draw the reader into the story in an intriguing manner. They have a statement of purpose that follows, or may be included, in this lead. A chapter includes these elements as well; if it didn’t, no one would want to read further than the first line or past the first page. An article also has a middle section, which elaborates on the purpose and offers data, quotes, arguments, or any other type of information to make the article’s point, or to fulfill its purpose. A chapter also has a middle that must accomplish the same job. Then, both possess an ending, which sums up what has been said. While an article often encourages the reader to think about the subject further, a chapter’s ending peaks the readers interest in the next chapter.

If writers keep this simple format, which is no different than the essay/article format I laid out in an earlier blog, in mind as they write their books, they won’t feel so overwhelmed.

Journalists or essayists should ask themselves this question: How many essays can you write on a certain topic? Can you write 10 or 12? If so, add an introduction and, possibly, a conclusion, and you’ve completed a book. If you’ve already written the essays or articles, you’ve written a book without even trying! That’s the best of both worlds!

Interviews Make Good Fodder for Books and Articles: Many writers don’t think reported articles have anything to do with their prescriptive nonfiction books, because they don’t plan on using quotes from interviews in their books. They plan on using their own ideas and information alone. However, most self-help, human potential, personal development books, and spiritual books, as well as most other prescriptive nonfiction books, become stronger in content if the author takes the time to interview some “other” experts on the topic. You can then do one of two things: use a few of their comments as quotes to corroborate your premise or simply incorporate the information into your book as “research” and give them credit for their help in your acknowledgements section.

Most of my books constitute prescriptive nonfiction and are based on my own ideas and experience. However, prior to beginning the writing process, I use my journalistic interview skills to pick other people’s brains. I bring my tape recorder and act as if I’m interviewing them for an article. And who knows, maybe I’ll even write an article on the topic using them as a source; if I get it published, it will help me build my platform for that book! That’s called killing two birds with one stone. (I am a bird lover by the way…)

Journalistic Endeavors Create Better Nonfiction Book Writers:  I’m not saying journalists are better writers; I’m saying that by writing articles, which requires that you meet deadlines, write to specifications, check facts, adhere to word counts, work with editors on a regular basis, and write short pieces with beginnings, middles and ends, you become a better writer. These skills come in handy later when you begin working with a freelance editor or an editor at a publishing house, as well as when it comes time to meet the deadlines you agreed to in your publishing contract. If you are self-publishing, it will help you stick to your own deadlines.

Over the years, I’ve gained a superb ability to go through an article manuscript line by line, word by word, looking for ways to tighten sentences so I can cut words and meet a word count. I’ve been known to shorten a 3,000-word article to 2,5000 words by going over it many, many times looking for ways to cut, improve, strengthen, you name it… (I tend to over research and then have way too much information and way too much to say when I write articles, which means I then have to cut and slash before I can turn in an article. Sometimes, however, I end up with more than one article – a nice bonus!) Write enough articles, and you’ll either get very good at writing to a specific word count or at cutting until you meet it.

Journalists Practice Detachment, A Skill Authors Need to Learn, Too:  I also have become very detached from my words, and I suggest all writers try to take this attitude with their writing. When you write articles, especially reported articles, for publications, you basically are given an assignment that you fill. You are contracted to do a job – turn out an article on a particular topic of a certain word-length by a certain deadline. You do the job, and they pay you. If they decide to cut 200 of the words you sweated over, it shouldn’t be a big deal to you. You did your job. You got paid. They are happy. Like they teach in spiritual traditions and meditation, become detached. If you can then take some semblance of this attitude to the writing of your book, when an editor says, “You know, I think this paragraph is unnecessary. Let’s cut it,” you won’t be appalled. And when an editor wants to move a chapter or rewrite a couple of sentences or asks you to find a way to cut 10,000 words, you won’t be disturbed. (I’ve more often than I care to say, had to cut a 5,000-word article down to 2,000 words, knowing from the start I only had to write 2,000. If I can do that, anyone can cut 10,000 words from a 60,000-word manuscript. ) Maybe you’ll even offer to let them simply go ahead and do it for you.

Articles, Essays, Chapters and Books Need Constant Trim Tabbing: As one last developmental editing tip, I’d mention that writing articles, essays, chapters, and books seems to me a bit like flying an airplane. I understand that pilots and their planes tend to be off course more than they are on course (something like 90 percent of the time). Pilots, therefore, spend most of their time doing something called “trim tabbing,” constantly navigating the plane back onto its original course with slight adjustments. Writers have to do the same, looking at where their writing is going, where it is taking them, and deciding if its current course is the one they set for that piece of writing, whether its a reported article, an essay, a chapter, or a total book. And then they have to trim tab to make sure the writing stays on course and ends up at the pre-planned – and desired – final destination. Of course, sometimes an unplanned destination works out better, but more often than not, a piece of writing whose writer has determined its flight plan and keeps it on course until it lands will have a better chance of turning out a successful manuscript.

And while you’re writing, don’t forget to enjoy your flight!

(Note: In case you want to know more about me and don’t want to click on one of my pages or go to my website, today I’ll post a bio for myself! Everyone else gets one, why not me…)

About Nina Amir

Nina Amir is a seasoned journalist, nonfiction editor, author, consultant, and writing coach with almost 30 years of experience in the publishing field. She has edited or written for more than 45 local, national and international magazines, newspapers, e-zines, and newsletters on a full-time or freelance basis. Her essays have been published in five anthologies and can be found in numerous e-zines and Internet article directories. An award winning journalist, she also has a proven track record as a book editor; one of her client’s books was self-published and then purchased and re-released verbatim by Simon & Schuster and another won the 1998 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award (Inspirational category) and has sold over 100,000 copies.  

In addition, Nina is an inspirational speaker, spiritual and conscious creation coach, teacher, and the regular holiday and spirituality expert on Conversations with Mrs. Claus, a weekly podcast heard in more than 90 countries and downloaded by 85,000 listeners per month ( Through her writing and speaking, Amir offers human potential, personal growth and practical spiritual tools from a Jewish perspective, although her work spans religious lines and is pertinent to people of all faiths and spiritual traditions.

Nina has written and self-published several booklets and workbooks, including: Using the Internet to Build Your Platform One Article at a Time, 8 Tips for Getting Publicity, Exposure and Expert Status by Providing Free Copy Online; The Priestess Practice: 4 Steps to Creating Sacred Space and Inviting the Divine to Dwell Within It; The Kabbalah of Conscious Creation: How to Mystically Manifesting Your Physical and Spiritual Desires; From Empty Practice to Meaning-Full and Spirit-Full Prayers and Rituals …in Seven Simple Steps.



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