Writing Nonfiction

It’s been close to 40 years since I sat in a classroom on the second floor of Virginia Tech’s Williams Hall listening to English professor Herb West dictate how we would write the business-oriented papers he assigned. It was a such a memorable experience, that I have used the concepts of his teaching throughout my career to compose many written works such as

  • blog posts,
  • white papers,
  • technical brochures,
  • instructional manuals,
  • design documents,
  • and textbooks.

I don’t know if I could have written as much as I have without his teachings, so I thought to introduce the following process that I have honed over the years.

  1. Analyze the Need
  2. Choose a content relationship strategy
  3. Set up the big picture
  4. Chunk content
  5. Create paragraphs

Analyze the Need

The concept of need spans several aspects of nonfiction: audience, purpose, objective, tone, and content. As a way to introduce these aspects, consider the table below. It provides sample scenarios for three potential audiences.

AudienceYour PurposeReader ObjectiveToneContent
Decision MakerGrab the interest of a potential customer Make a decision Positive. Selling. Honest bragging. Why us? Benefits.
Middle ManagerEnable a manager to provide an opinion to decision makers To see how a product or service might work within existing environments Straight forward. Brief in verbiage but long enough to deliver the necessary scope. Integration requirements and strategies.
WorkerEnable workers to accept a decision Learn how to use the service Straight forward. Orderly. Concise. Instructions. Tips.
Example audience driven scenarios for nonfiction works

As it happens, I wrote three DZone technical documents and each just happens to have a different intended audience. If examples are helpful, perhaps the following guides will inspire.

Once you know who you are writing for, you can start planning the actual content for your nonfiction work.

Choose a Content Relationship Strategy

The next step in the preparation of writing is to understand the content topic. Whether you are the subject matter expert or you need to learn before writing, identifying how the applicable topic data relates is key to organizing your writing. Common types of data relationships include:

  • Process steps
  • Chronological events
  • Degree of importance
  • Level of complexity
  • Data shared between data points
  • Any combination of the above

The above types of data relationships might seem obvious, but if you have never written nonfiction, it’s critical to organizing your content into an outline. Of course, don’t just choose a strategy. Start planning your content sections. For instance, if you are writing about a process, maybe you should list the

  • process tasks,
  • steps for each task,
  • and the input, output, policy, and mechanism for each step.

At this point, you should be ready to organize your work into a the type of document you need, starting with the overall structure.

Set Up the Big Picture

There is an old presentation strategy that Professor West introduced and that I have seen repeated over the years. I’ve taken the liberty of adding suggested content for each of the Tell’m steps.

  1. Tell’m what you are going to tell’m.
    • Introduce the topic and objective.
    • List the primary content sections that will meet the objective.
  2. Tell’m.
    • Create headers for each content section.
    • Insert sub-headers, if applicable.
    • Insert any notes that will help with chunking and writing.
  3. Tell’m what you told’m.
    • Summarize what you presented.
    • Draw a conclusion.
    • Close with a next step, if applicable.

Simplistic? Yes. However, it’s worked for me for decades. In fact, I am using it in this post to deliver a process. Once you have this framework set up, start composing your content.

Chunk Content

The chunking process focuses on which paragraphs, lists, tables, and images are needed to convey the topic data. Brainstorm the data points you need to cover in each section. Treat this part of the process like a mini-outline, and look for micro-content relationships.

For instance, when writing the needs section above, I performed the following chunking activities.

  • Sectioned content – I started the chunking process by free-writing/brainstorming content for the aspects of a needs analysis.
  • Sectioned with an image – As I wrote whatever came to mind, I started to see a possible mini-process, where the audience influenced the purpose, and the purpose influenced the objective. But, that wasn’t quite right.
  • Section with a table – Then, with some more pondering, I saw a way to illustrate the aspects of the needs analysis versus just telling you. A table. At first, the table had the audiences listed across the top and the aspects down the side. Then, with my web accessibility insight, I imagined assistive technology reading the table rows. The layout didn’t make sense. So, I reversed the table rows and columns.

The goal of the chunking content process is to create content that can be shaped. Assuming your composition includes more than images and tables, the next step is to turn your content ideas into paragraphs that work.

Create Paragraphs

Back in the day, Professor West went as far as giving us the actual text we were to use in our sentences. He would start the sentence and we would be responsible for completing it. It wasn’t fun but the forced structure helped me see just how easy nonfiction writing can be.

I’m not going to go as far as my professor. However, there are a few sentence/paragraph strategies that have helped me shape my content over the years. One for an introduction and one for content.

Introduction Paragraph

Introduction paragraphs are used at the start of the nonfiction work as well as each section. It might also be used in a sub-section. The point is, the following types of sentences can help you shape an introduction.

  1. The first sentence reminds the reader about the topic to be presented.
  2. The second explains the objective such that the readers understand what they will know or be able to do by the end of the section.
  3. At a minimum, the next sentence states how you are going to accomplish the objective. This is where the list comes in. Sentence-based lists are not as easy to read as bulleted lists.

Content Paragraph

The content paragraph is the reason the reader is reading. Given not all content is created equal, the following formula has some flexibility. With that in mind, if you are staring at a blank page, perhaps this will help you get started.

  1. First, make sure the reader knows which data topic within the big picture is going to be presented.
  2. Present the data. Short and concise paragraphs are the goal but feel free to run on. Then go back and cut out the unnecessary words and thoughts. Or, create a new paragraph.
  3. At the end of the paragraph, the last sentence should guide the reader into the next paragraph. Imagine a series of blocks connected by a thread. The thread is the last sentence.

Of course, writing nonfiction isn’t just about preformatted outlines and paragraph formulas. With that said, when I was starting out, forcing myself to use the structure and formulaic process I learned in college. It helped.


This post presented a five step process for writing nonfiction that I have used for decades.

  • Analyze the Need
  • Choose a content relationship strategy
  • Set up the big picture
  • Chunk content
  • Create paragraphs

I believe this process is similar to learning any type of art, because writing is an art. When you learn to paint, you learn about colors, brushes, canvas materials, and the mechanics of assembling the materials into pictures. With practice, your execution of painting can eventually become art.

And, just like art, everyone has an opinion of what is good and what is not. So, practice your writing. Walk away from a piece and let it brew in a virtual draw. When you read it with a fresh mine, be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to trash it all and start again. I do.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

One thought on “Writing Nonfiction

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