Create a Non-Fiction Column

Cheryl Wright

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Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I firmly believe non-fiction is easier to break into that fiction. And I stand by that theory.

Don’t get me wrong, you can’t be a bad or mediocre writer and still get published in the non-fiction arena; you definitely need to be a good writer. It’s just that there are loads of paying markets available (whether that’s low, medium or high paying), and editors in the field seem to be more willing to take on newcomers.

Start by deciding the type of articles you’d like to write. I don’t believe any of this ‘write what you know’ nonsense; that’s what research is for. What you can do, however, is have a basic understanding of the subject you want to tackle.

Do you honestly think that I have personally been to every single tourist attraction in Australia, and that I know every intricate detail about Australian history? Because if you believe the ‘write what you know’ philosophy, then you must believe that twaddle too.

I undertake a lot of research for my monthly column about places of interest in Australia, but I certainly don’t visit every place. Of course I go to as many as possible, but that’s not always financially, or even physically, viable.

What I do though, is decide where I would like to write about, then contact each attraction, usually by mail, then later with a telephone call if necessary. I request as much information as they can supply, including videos, CD’s of photographs, and printed matter. Once that arrives, there’s always more research required to complete the project.

If you would like to propose a regular column (on whatever subject), firstly decide if you can find enough to write about to keep interest going. Jot down as many ideas as possible in a brainstorming session.

Do you have enough ideas to sustain your column for at least one year? If not, and there’s no possibility of doing so, there is no point continuing. Brainstorm for another subject until you find a viable subject.

When I decided to query for my travel column, I did a quick brainstorming session. After finding nearly three years worth of ideas in less than thirty minutes, I knew I had a winner.

Check out any publications that your articles would be suitable for. Do they need you to supply photographs to complement the articles? If that’s the case, are you able to oblige? What type of photographs do they require, digital or standard photos? Check the quality required. (Read as: resolution)

If you are unable to fulfil their requirements, there is no point proceeding any further.

You now need to send a query to the editor of the publication you are targeting. Check her name. Address your query directly to that person, ensuring her name is spelled correctly. Use Ms or Mr as appropriate. And never, ever, address a query to ‘Dear John’. Always address your query to “Dear Mr Black” in the first instance.

(When you get a positive response, and the editor changes the correspondence to a less formal style – “Dear Mary” – that is the time to change over to a more casual approach. )

On acceptance of your column, the editor will advice the word count for your column, and the number of photographs required (if any) for each article. In most instances, a contract will be issued. Go over it with a fine tooth comb; if there is anything – anything at all – that makes you feel uncomfortable, question it.

For instance, if the publication is asking for ‘all rights’ that means that you can never, ever, sell that article again. If that’s the case, you need to be paid mega bucks for every article.

Remember, once you have signed the contract, its binding; nothing can or will be changed.

So… your article or column has been accepted. What now?

Allow plenty of time; if you’re anything like me, you’ll be incredibly anxious about your first article with a new publisher (or your first ever article). Maybe even stunned that someone had enough faith in you to buy your work.

Planning your article will make it so much easier; jot down some notes about what you intend to include in the finished article.

What are the main points you’ve chosen to highlight? What other points do you want to include? Are there any quotes you can use? Do the photographs you’ve chosen relate to points mentioned in the article? Do you have a signed ‘model release’ for each photograph you’re using?

Make sure you start and finish your article creatively. Creative non-fiction is just that; you’re telling a story. Imagine you are writing a piece of creative fiction, except in this case the content is fact instead of fiction.

Your prose needs to be interesting and informative. Just because it’s non-fiction does not mean it can be boring.

Here’s the first line of my article about Puffing Billy – a beautiful old steam train in Australia:

I fell in love with Puffing Billy the very first time I heard it. I was around eight years old.

And here’s the last line:

Nearly forty years on, the thrill of Puffing Billy still haunts my memory - the love affair continues.

Now you’ve written your article, it’s time to do a check:

Will the title draw the reader in?
Does the first sentence grab the reader’s attention?
Have you researched sufficiently?
Is your content plausible?
Do you get to the point or ramble?
Are you repeating yourself?
Are all words spelled correctly?
Is your punctuation perfect?
Do all photographs relate to the content in some way?

If at all possible, let your article sit for a few days, then go back over it using the above check list again.

To ensure repeat business with this publisher, never, ever, miss a deadline.

Cheryl Wright is an award-winning Australian author and freelance journalist. In addition to an array of other projects, she is the owner of the website and the Writer to Writer monthly ezine for writers. She is also the author of a series of ebooks for writers. Her romantic suspense novel “Saving Emma” was released January 2005 by Whiskey Creek Press. Check out Cheryl's website:


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