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What Should You Write? Choosing Your Best Nonfiction Ideas
Nonfiction ideas truly are everywhere, and writers who focus on nonfiction need never say, “There’s nothing to write about.” We can delve into biography, history, science, sports, astronomy, autobiography, memoir, geography, technology, travel, pop culture, religion, health and fitness, business, philosophy, fashion, architecture, the arts, and more. Readers want material that is informative, entertaining, inspiring, useful, and thought- provoking—and publishers want writers who can supply it.
But some ideas are a better fit than others, so how do we decide which ideas to pursue? What can we bring to each project as writers with unique backgrounds and sensibilities?
To start, look at your reading interests. At libraries or booksellers, do you head for the science, history, or biography sections? Do you love home decorating, sports, fashion, archaeology, self-help, or music titles? Or maybe you gravitate to politics, current events, and social issues. Consider writing the types of nonfiction you like to read.
Next, home in on ideas that make good use of your background, interests, skills, and experiences. Try answering these questions:
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
What do you know (and know how to do) that would interest other people? Probably you already know many things you could write about, even without research. Your knowledge might come from your education, work experiences, family life, hobbies, or travel, to name a few. For example, a special education teacher writes material for parents who want to help their children with learning differences reach their full potential. Do you know how to throw great parties, hold a tag sale, tie wonderful fishing flies, or cook for people with food allergies? Can you grow an herb garden, build bookshelves, or plan a family vacation on a tight budget? Have you survived a cross-country move or learned ways to cope with back pain? Some ideas come from dealing with problems in our own lives. One author who found herself stranded with car trouble during a snowstorm later wrote an article explaining how to assemble a winter emergency kit.
Other ideas in your “backyard” can come from local history, museums, historical societies, fairs, festivals, regional attractions, and cuisine, not to mention famous residents and “firsts.”
*Tip: Remember to “mine” your previous writings. While researching articles or books, you might encounter things that will spark new writing. For instance, while working on a book about surfing, one author gathered enough additional material to write profiles of champion surfers and articles about competitive surfing events.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?
You’ve probably heard Mark Twain’s advice to “Write what you know.” One author adds: “But learn all about it first.” Curiosity might drive your quest for knowledge or send you searching for solutions to problems or ways to reach your goals. Do you want to make a kite, coach Little League, or roast a turkey? Find out how helicopters fly or what causes a tornado? Learn which actors and actresses have won the most Oscars? Identify the smallest and largest insects in the world? Know who made the first telescope or ice cream cone? If something intrigues you, chances are someone else will also be interested, too. Curiosity means never having to say you’re bored—or idea-less.
WHOM DO YOU KNOW?
Do you know people readers would like to know, too? They need not be famous as long as they can offer something of interest to readers. Start with your own family and family history, since that material is unique for every writer. Check out local newspapers, TV news shows, and regional websites. You might discover someone who is raising money for a good cause, trying to break a world record, graduating from college at a very young/very old age, doing unusual research, patenting an invention, or raising puppies that will become guide dogs.
WHAT DO YOU CARE ABOUT?
Do you worry about climate change, pesticides in foods, bigotry, or the state of the nation’s schools? Are you concerned that kids are spending too much “screen time” or that Christmas has become too commercialized? Through writing, you can share your opinions and raise awareness. If you have the ability to present both sides of an issue, you might be well suited for what is called “issue and debate” writing.
THE ENTHUSIASM FACTOR
Does the idea excite you? Some writers feel a tingling sensation when they encounter an idea that calls out to them. Enthusiasm can sustain us through the challenges of researching, writing, and revising. When we end up writing something we find boring or trivial, a lack of enthusiasm can seep into our writing and produce lackluster results.
Be realistic about how much time and energy you have for a given project. If you are considering a book idea, will it take months, even years, to research, write, and revise? What is going on in your life, and how will that affect your ability to complete the project?
Other resources matter, too. Does this project require travel? What costs are involved? Can you find enough research material via libraries, booksellers, online, personal observation, and interviews? Writers have been derailed by a lack of adequate research materials.
IS THIS IDEA MARKETABLE?
If your goal is publication, you will also consider the market potential for your idea. Is this something that will interest readers and publishers? Has it been done a lot, or done recently? If so, can you bring something new and fresh to the subject, along with a writing style that suits your material? Learn about the book publishers and magazines that use the type of material you are writing.
Not all ideas are created equal when it comes to individual writers. Think about what you can write better than someone else, based on your experiences and concerns. You might even identify things you feel born to write!
To learn more, visit these websites:
“WHY I WRITE: Q. AND A. WITH SEVEN TIMES JOURNALISTS.” Writers for the New York Times discuss what they write, how, and why; they describe some of their favorite assignments and their writing process. https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/why-i-write-q-and-a-with-seven-times-journalists/
“50 IDEAS FOR WRITING A BOOK YOU CAN START TODAY” Tips for choosing nonfiction book ideas that can work for writers with limited time; how to check their market potential.
“11 MOST POPULAR TYPES OF MAGAZINE ARTICLES—Print & Online” Discusses some of the tried-and-true types of articles that appear in magazines regularly, along with tips on how to plan and develop them.
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. In recent years, she has written about women in the Gold Rush, famous immigrants, and the history of the U.S. space program, among other subjects. She recently completed a 230,000-word nonfiction book.