Two Trains for the Nonfiction Writing Track

Welcome aboard for National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo) 2013! Whether you’ve been preparing for the Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN) Challenge for 10 months with Amanda M. Socci’s “I Know I Can” WNFIN training program or you  just began thinking about taking on a month-long nonfiction writing project in the last few weeks or days, I hope you are ready to hop on this train and get moving toward your goal—a finished work of nonfiction in 30 days. It’s definitely ready to leave the station, and I’d love to see you on it!

Everything about NaNonFiWriMo revolves around helping you gain momentum as you move toward one goal as a nonfiction writer: successful completion of a writing project and, ultimately, publication of that work. To that end, you can participate in the forum or the Facebook page to get support from other writers, and you can read and comment daily on each of the posts my exert guest bloggers have crafted to offer you inspiration, tips and information on how to write, publish, and promote your nonfiction work as well as how to become an authorpreneur.

Today, on Day #1 of the WNFIN Challenge, Roy Peter Clark, “America’s Writing Coach,” starts you off with advice on how to reach your goal, or your “destination,” as he describes it. You’ve already chosen to board the train—you’ve taken the WNFIN Challenge and decided to participate in NaNonFiWriMo. Now be certain you know if riding the Express or Local provides your best option.

Two Trains for the Nonfiction Writing Track

By Roy Peter Clark

All aboard National Nonfiction Writing MonthSo you want to write a work of nonfiction and have 30 days to do it.  How will you proceed?  If I were in your shoes, I would think of the finished work as a destination and the process of writing as a journey. But what kind of journey?  I could walk, but that might take too long.  I could fly, but I might miss some stops along the way.  I think I’ll take a train.

If I choose to board a writing train, I still have to make an important decision:  Will I take the Express or the Local?

The Express, we know, is quicker because it makes no stops along the way.  The rider (or writer) settles in for a trip of a pre-determined duration and destination.

I prefer to write via the Express. It helps me feel the natural flow of good writing. To overcome writer’s block, I just lower my standards and get my hands moving. I draft as early as I can to take advantage of what I know and learn what I still need to know.  I pay little attention to the requirements of the writing, knowing I will fulfill them along the way.  I never procrastinate because even when my hands are not moving I’m rehearsing.  This helps me anticipate problems and solve them in my head.  It helps me predict what I need to do next.  It disarms what Freud called “the watcher at the gate,” that internal critic that stands in the way of creativity and experimentation.

That is my preferred method of travel, but, alas, the writing does not always cooperate.

Faced with obstacles, I will climb on board the Local.  When I am riding the Local, I realize that there are stops along the way—points of departure where the parts of the writing process become more transparent and reliable. And those stops have names:

Idea Street

For me the first step in the writing process is the discovery of something worth writing about.  With experience this becomes easier.  Instead of saying “I have nothing to write about,” the writer learns to say, “I have three good story ideas. Which one will I choose?”  The goal is to develop a level of curiosity that helps you see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.

Hunt Highway

Productive nonfiction writers don’t just write with their hands; they also write with their legs.  They get out of the office and engage the world.  They find places where stories are happening.  They meet people who have stories to tell.  They are hunters and gatherers, collecting in their notebooks the raw material that will bring the written work to life.

Focus Lane

Focus is the central act of the writing process, the ability to understand what the story is really about. It begins with an effort to limit the topic, so that you are not writing about vandalism in American high schools, but in one school in St. Petersburg, Florida, that represents a larger reality.  Focus—to use two metaphors—becomes both a door and a knife.  As a door it lets in evidence to make your point.  As a knife, it cuts out material not central to the reader’s understanding.

Draft Boulevard

If you are having trouble drafting your story, you may have to get off the train and go back to an earlier stop, doing more work on the focus.  That central idea is probably going to be expressed high in your story, either in a lead, a theme statement, or what is sometimes called the “nut paragraph.”  It will help you to begin drafting your story earlier than you think you can.  If you begin drafting too late, you may run out of time, miss your deadline, or not reach your final stop.

Revision Way

Too many nonfiction writers spend too much of their time on the hunting and gathering.  I’ve seen reporters work nine months on an investigation and then try to write it in less than nine hours.  Early drafting leaves times for revision.  It is during this final stage that some of the most important discoveries are made—in information, in language, and in meaning. So all aboard the writing train, my fellow writers.  Take the Express if you can.  But choose the Local if you must.

About the Author

PI-RPC Headshot 0509Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, since 1979. He is the author of four recent books on writing and language, all published by Little, Brown: Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers and How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times. His recent essay in the New York Times, “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth,” became the most emailed story in the paper. His essays on writing can be found at  You can find him on Twitter @RoyPeterClark. He has been referred to as “America’s writing coach.”

Image credit: firewings / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. So excited to be on this month long challenge. I once did a poetry month challenge on my own blog and it was an exciting challenge. I have 2 ideas for NaNonFicMo but want to choose one. I know the challenge begins today so I have a few hours to consider my choice before I get home tonight to sit down and write my first pages. I am going to post my progress on my blog and let my readers share in this journey. Hopefully will pick up some more readers along the way.

  2. Wow– such great advice. A couple of my favorite quotes from this post:

    To overcome writer’s block, I just lower my standards and get my hands moving.
    The goal is to develop a level of curiosity that helps you see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.
    They are hunters and gatherers, collecting in their notebooks the raw material that will bring the written work to life.

    I need to write these down. Thanks for the first day inspiration.

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