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My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Writing non-fiction well – a classic guide

The popularity of non-fiction literature has grown exponentially over the last 40 years.  Hard to believe that there was a time when nonfiction was not even being literature.  And like all literature, the craft that makes it has to be leanred.  Although nonfiction shares many of the same techniques and challenges for writers as fiction, there are also some important differences in approach that every nonfiction writer needs to consider in his or her work.

One of the best books for helping non-fiction writers learn their craft is the classic On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  First published in 1976, the book has sold well over a million copies and remains one of the standard how-to books on learning the craft of nonfiction writing.

Zinsser writes:

“Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is…This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good nonfiction writing.  Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will be in search of: humanity and warmth.”

His book is divided into four parts – Principles, Methods, Forms and Attitudes.  He admonishes writers to be themselves.  Know your subject, certainly, but the principle challenge is for each of us to communicate our own passion for the subject, not to merely duplicate the approach and style of someone else.  “My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me.  And your commodity is you.  Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject.”

Zinsser is encouraging throughout.  His last advice, “has to do with the nonfiction writer’s need to make his or her own luck.

“An exhortation I often use to keep myself going is, ‘Get on the plane’…As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane.  If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country.  It’s not going to come looking for you.  Decide what you want to do.  Then decide to do it.  Then do it.”

On Writing Well by William zinsser is published by Quill.

Buy now: On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction


One comment on “* Writing non-fiction well – a classic guide

  1. Madla
    January 30, 2011

    Definitely a new approach, especially for us , the old timers. Encouraging. Thanks for sharing.


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This entry was posted on January 29, 2011 by in Book Reviews and tagged , .
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