Thursday, May 12, 2011


Most non-fiction books require a lot of research. That research can involve many different areas, including books, online sites, and phone, in-person, and email interviews. It also includes double-checking sources and verifying information. Then, once you have hours of transcribed interviews and folders of information, you have to choose what to use and how to organize the book. This is true whether you’re writing a memoir, a tell-all, or a technical book (the kind I write).

I can tell you that perhaps the most important attribute of a non-fiction writer is organization. You need to be detail-oriented and organized. You will gather probably ten times more information than you’ll use in the book. You will want to know your subject before you begin interviews, but you will realize that isn’t always possible. Some may be phone interviews; some may be via email; others will be in person. If you record each interview, you may spend hours transcribing.

Some writers don’t transcribe. I always do. Once I have it printed, I can go through it and choose what to use as quotes in the book and what to use in the profile of that person. After the profile is written, I decide where it fits within the book. You might be surprised to find that a quote from someone isn’t always an exact word-for-word quote. When people talk, they often hem and haw or go off on unrelated tangents or backtrack or a myriad of other things. As the author, you sometimes have to rearrange what they said so it’s clear. But you have to be very careful not to alter the meaning or tone.

Once I have the profile written and the individual quotes written, I send them to the subject for their approval or changes. Some authors don’t do that. I always do. Most often they approve. Sometimes they want changes. If they do, I make those changes.

All of this takes time, as does flying here and there to do the interviews or setting up times to do phone interviews, especially if the subject is, for example, in another country, such as France or Mexico, as some of mine were.

In-between all of this, unless your book is nothing but interviews and profiles, you must continue to do the other research and gather information. No matter how you do your research, make sure you have contact and mailing information on each of your subjects. If your publisher is like mine, he will be happy to send a copy of the published book to each person profiled in the book. And if he won’t, I recommend, if possible, you send each a copy.

Writing nonfiction often requires good people skills, but it also requires organization. For each of the three books I’ve done for TSTC Publishing, from getting the assignment to turning in the manuscript was three months.

Leave you comments, questions or experiences. I’ll be checking the comments, as will other Blood Red Pencil editors.
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. In TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Helen has written:
Automotive Technicians
Computer Gaming

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  1. Helpful information and interesting post, Helen. I have done a number of nonfiction books, not as technical as yours, and I start with a basic outline of the book so I know what I need to research, then start that process. I did use the various folders like you suggest. I had one for each chapter and kept all the interview notes and other research notes in the folder for that chapter.

  2. Great post, Helen. I've had to conduct interview in the past and have a couple on my plate right now, and to be honest... I suck at them! This helps a lot--thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing how you organize it all.

  4. Maryann, the good thing about writing in this series is that each book has the same structure. So from the outset, I knew what information I needed to find and what kind of profiles and how many to write.

  5. My hat is off you, Helen ... you have a lot more energy and organizational skills than I could even dream about ... which, I suppose is why gravitated to fiction because all have to do is dream. On the other hand, my dreams and a buck-fifty gets me a cup of coffee.

  6. You either get a discount, Christopher, or you don't go to Starbucks!

  7. My experience with research in fiction differs somewhat from Christopher's. I had to do extensive research to create a believable story about attorneys, court procedures, and other topics that appeared in my latest novel. Even now, I suspect a picky judge or lawyer would find fault with one or more of my scenes; hence, my disclaimer reads, "courtroom drama scenes and the humanness of those involved take precedence over strict adherence to actual courtroom procedure and demeanor." Maybe the problem is that I don't drink coffee . . . but I still have dreams——one of which is writing a sequel.

    This is a valuable post, Helen. Research is as much an essential part of writing great fiction as it is a part of writing nonfiction.

  8. Helen, Starbucks is way outta my range ... it's McDonald's.

    Linda, I lied ... I do have to do a little research now and then ... thank goodness for the Internet, however ... I rarely have to leave my chair.

  9. I will take this into account when I embark upon my essay writing. I will probably end up interviewing a few people...Thanks!


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