In this first session of our eight-part course on non-fiction writing we will be looking at what opportunities there are out there, finding ideas and how to write letters to the editor. So, without further ado…

The non-fiction market

It has been estimated that 75% of all books published every year are non-fiction. In the UK, where around 100,000 titles are released every year, that is about 75,000 books; in the USA, it is far more. Why is it then that most writers spend their lives chasing the elusive dream of getting their novel published? There is no reason why you can’t do both, of course, but you will have a better chance of getting a non-fiction book published than fiction.

And it’s not just books, I’ve made a very successful career out of writing feature articles for magazines, which we’ll be looking at in a later session.

Why write non-fiction?

If you are the kind of writer who is interested in everything from yaks in the Urals to holidays in Havana then non-fiction may be for you. The first characteristic of a successful non-fiction writer is curiosity. Imagine having an opportunity to read and discover everything there is to know on a subject; if that gets you excited, you’re in the right place. And there are other advantages too. Firstly, you can get paid for it. You can earn anything from £100 to £1000 for an article, although £300 is the average. For a non-fiction book, you will get paid an advance and then royalties on all sales and Public Lending Right fees (for library loans).

Non-fiction publishers are still open to receiving proposals directly from the author so you don’t have to have an agent before they give you the time of day. You also don’t have to write the whole book in advance. I feel desperately sorry for fiction writers who slog away for years with no guarantee of payment or publication. With a non-fiction book, publishers prefer that you don’t write more than a couple of sample chapters because they would like input on planning and content. So if you have a proposal turned down (which happens) you’ve only wasted a few weeks rather than a few years.

Know your market

The first thing to do is check out the market to see who is publishing what. Go into book shops and stationers and check out what is on the shelf. If you find there are books on nearly every breed of dog apart from the rare Saluki you own, there might be a gap in the market for that. For both magazines and books you need to propose a subject that is unique but at the same time still fits in with the style of article or the kind of books the publisher already publishes. For example, it’s no use sending an article on steam engines to a car magazine. The key is to find a unique angle on steam engines (say a locomotive that has been saved from scrap by the grandson of the original train driver) and offer that to the editor.

What do you write about?

I can guarantee that you already have at least three ideas for articles in you before you even start. Take Frank, the fictional author of the steam engine article. Let’s say that Frank has recently retired as a manager of a hardware shop. He’s married to Marie, who breeds Salukis. Marie and Frank met in Malta where he was based in the merchant navy in the 60s. Marie and Frank have three children and four grandchildren. Frank has an allotment and loves steam locomotives. Since retiring, he has taken up the post of voluntary treasurer for his local steam engine restoration museum. Potentially, Frank could write articles on:

  • ‘Using the Best Tools For the Job’ for a DIY magazine. This could be a funny article based on the ill-conceived projects of his hardware shop customers. No real names used, of course.
  • ‘Breeding and Raising Salukis’. A ‘how to’ book for the doggy market. Whether or not Marie gets co-authorship is up to them.
  • ‘What Good is a Grandad?’ an article praising grandfathers, for a parenting magazine.
  • ‘Malta Now and Then’ an article for a travel magazine. Depending on how much material Frank has and how much research he’s prepared to do, this could be a book idea too.
  • ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Allotments’ for a gardening magazine.
  • ‘Restoring the Betty Rose’, the article on the grandson restoring his grandad’s old locomotive we mentioned above.

Of course, Frank may be a terrible writer and never get published, but he certainly can’t blame his lack of success on a shortage of publishable ideas.

Exercise 1: Write a potted biography of yourself. Include information on your family, jobs (present and past), places you’ve lived or travel to regularly, hobbies and interests. Then jot down the names of any friends or family members who may have specialist knowledge of any subject. Even if you’re terminally dull, you can do an interview feature on one of them. Now, look at what you’ve written, and come up with at least three ideas for books / articles that you might be able to write. We’ll look at writing a proposal in a later session.

Letter to the editor

This may seem a bit left-field, but letters to the editor are an excellent way to cut your teeth on non-fiction writing. Through them, you can try your pen at writing publishable material. An editor receives scores of letters each day, week or month, and only publishes the best. He or she will choose letters that are well written, well thought out and put over a distinctive point of view. Those are exactly the same things that they will look for in an article. It is good practise to send letters to your target magazine before you try an article. You will soon know if the editor likes your style. In addition, many magazines offer between £20 and £50 for the best letter, or offer prize gifts to the same value. Even if you can’t do with another tea set, you can give it away as a Christmas present.

Points to consider when writing a letter to the editor:

  • Don’t rant. An editor is unlikely to publish someone who is simply letting off steam.
  • Don’t tell the editor / journalist / writer how to do their job. Flattery gets you further than criticism.
  • If you do feel that an article didn’t do the subject justice, be careful in how you point this out. Say what you enjoyed about the article then mention some other points that might also be considered.
  • Do tie in your letter to existing articles. Editors like to know that their articles promote debate.
  • Don’t write the letter unless you have additional information or a unique perspective to add to the debate.

Exercise 2: Choose four publications and read them cover to cover. Take particular note of the letters page. What subjects are covered? How long are the letters? Does the style of the letter match the style and tone of the articles? Select an article and draft a letter to the editor in response. If you’re brave, send it off.

Further Resources

nicholas-corder-successful-non-fiction-writingMarket guides are also a useful way of finding out who takes what. In the UK, check out either The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook, which also covers Commonwealth and foreign English markets. In North America the industry bible is Writer’s Market. Writing magazines including Writers’ News and Freelance Market News in the UK and Writers Market in the USA have market listings with a review of who is currently taking freelance work.

Remember to try and get ahold of the ‘textbook’ for this course: Successful Non-fiction Writing which is a good general introduction to non-fiction writing.

In the next session we look at different non-fiction writing styles.

29 comments on “Non-fiction writing

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  8. You said you have published writing feature articles for magazines. Do you need to have a college degree to write non fiction books or articles? Can you recommend an on line credited college that offers creative writing courses? I look forward to doing your free on line creative writing courses too. Thank you for making them available am wondering what you get from it though if you don’t make any money except on the books that are sold?
    Thank you, JC

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi JC, no you don’t need a college degree. You just need to be able to write. I don’t know of any credited online colleges I’m afraid. I know the Writers’ Bureau in the UK does correspondence courses but I’m not sure if you can submit your work online. Google them and check. The Open University in the UK also does some journalism courses. I lecture journalism at Newcastle University but that’s not online. What do I get out of it? Well the material was already prepared from a regular 10-week course I used to teach at an adult education centre. When I stopped teaching there the material was sitting around doing nothing so I thought I’d put it online. I enjoy helping people. Sometimes though people want critiques of their work and I charge for that. It also attracts visitors to my website which further attracts advertising. It’s not a big money spinner. But it doesn’t cost me much in time other than answering the odd query. Hope you enjoy the course.

  9. Len Maunder on said:

    Congratulations and thanks.

    Please sign me up for your course on non-fiction


  10. Len Maunder on said:

    Great ! I`m happy to get started ! I can comment on your excellent tuition , but what else do you want me to start with?

    PS I am sick with disappointment at the result of the Wales v. France rugby game this morning’


  11. Rebecca on said:

    Just started the first exercise-I wrote my biography (not so potted, I have to confess!) and came up with 9 different things I could write about based on my life and experiences! Thank you for pointing out these don’t have to be books and the value of writing articles-that was not something I had considered.

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Well done you! The fact is, you’re likely to write and sell far more articles in your career than books. Hope you enjoy the rest of the course.

  12. Rebecca Krail on said:

    Fiona, I just wanted to let you know that I had written a letter to the editor of a magazine as you suggested…and it was published in the American version of VOGUE magazine (June edition). Thank you so much for the guidance and help I have received thus far from your site!

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Wow Rebecca, that’s brilliant! Congratulations! I hope you feel encouraged to keep on writing letters and eventually pitch an article to them Hurrah!

  13. Rebecca Krail on said:

    Thank you Fiona! Yes, that is the ultimate goal-keep writing and eventually have an article published by VOGUE. 🙂

  14. Bruce Van Deuson on said:

    I have had a couple of magazine articles published, one prose and one technical. The prose was paid for and the technical article was in a fly fishing club journal with worldwide distribution. Several letters to the editor, both magazine and newspaper, have also been published. I still feel uncomfortable with punctuation and sentence structure. Where should I start?

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Bruce, I would recommend working through the <a href=" Penguin Writers Manualby Manser and Curtis. I did that at the start of my freelance journalism career and it really helped polish my punctuation and writing style. Another good book which I’ve come across more recently (although it’s an older one than the Penguin) is <a href=" Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans. It’s on the essential reading list for my journalism students at Newcastle University.

  15. I have a couple of non fiction ideas. One is the story of my cats lives. The other is the story of my reunion with my son I adopted out 59 years ago. I hope your lessons with help guide me get these stories on paper. I would appreciate your comments regarding if you feel my stories would be of interest to any one other than myself.
    Thank you

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hello Carmen. The adoption story will have some appeal – Philomena has proven that. The cat stories might work as a children’s story along the lines of Judith Kerr but not as a non-fiction articles / story.

  16. Thank you for helping me get a start. I am preparing for my final career after retiring in 12 yrs, writing. I realize I will need greater depth of knowledge to succeed, especially in the mechanics, but this is a good beginning.

  17. Mark Everett Sanders on said:

    What do you suggest to someone who has a fear of writing and doesn’t know where to start?

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      Hi Mark. My other course, the Crafty Writer Creative writing course, helps you get started in small baby steps. Give it a go. My other advice would be: at the beginning, write for an audience of one: yourself. That way you will not fear what other people will think of your writing.

  18. Veronica Merchant on said:

    I would like to take this course. I have been thinking which one to go for – fiction or non-fiction writing.
    I decided to take the non-fiction. So, here I am and I think this will really kickstart my writing.

  19. Debbie Warren on said:

    OK, I’m feeling really stressed. I click the link and takes me to a page with lots of great information on it. But, nowhere do I see how to download your free 8 week course.
    I do see exercised I guess you would call them, but is this part of the course.
    Sorry to be so dense.

    • Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

      HI Deb,

      There is nowhere to download it. It’s not a downloadable course. The ‘great information’ IS the course. You do it online as you see it on the website. And yes, the exercises are very much part of it.

      Good luck


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