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Writing Nonfiction

Eight preparatory steps necessary to successfully write a nonfiction book:

  1. Choose your topic.

The first thing you want to do as you prepare to write a nonfiction book is choose a topic for your project carefully. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it really isn’t.

  1. Create a Content Plan

Create an outline or a table of contents for you book. This ends up looking like a table of contents—actually a rather detailed table of contents with chapter titles and subheading titles. You might prefer to just create a simple outline or a bulleted list.

Whatever your method of choice, create something that looks like the structure of a book—a table of contents. And know what content will fill that structure as you create your manuscript. That’s your map.

Then, when you sit down to write each day, you know exactly what to write. In fact, the more detailed you make this plan, the more quickly and easily you will write your book. You will spend little time staring at your computer screen wondering what to write or what comes next. You will know. It will be right there in your writing plan. You’ll just follow the map—your table of contents—to your destination.

  1. Determine What Research You Need

You might think you can write your book “off the top of your head” because you are the expert on the topic. Inevitably, though, you will discover a need to search for something—a URL, a quote, the title of a book. These things can slow down your process. This is where preparation can help keep your fingers on the keyboard typing rather than perusing the Internet.

For each item in your plan—or your detailed table of contents, brainstorm the possible research you need and make note of it.

As you write, if you discover you need more research or interviews, don’t stop writing. Instead, create brackets in your manuscript that say [research here] and highlight them in yellow. Later, do a search for the term “research,” and fill in the gaps.

  1. Create a To-Do List

Look over your content plan. Take all the research items you listed and put them on a to-do list.

Make a list of URLs, books and articles to find. Look for anything you need to do. For instance, does your research require that you visit a certain location? If so, put “Visit XX” on the to do list.

Don’t forget to put interviews on this list. You want to conduct your interviews now.

  1. Gather and Organize Your Materials

Gather as much of your research and other necessary material as you can prior to the end of October. Purchase the books, copy the articles into Evernote.com, copy and past the URLs into a Word doc, or drag them into Scrivener’s research folder, for instance. Get your interviews transcribed as well—and read through them with a highlighter, marking the quotes you think you want to use.

If you are writing memoir, you might want to gather photos, journals and other memorabilia. If you are re-purposing blog posts, or reusing any other previously published or written material, you want to put all of this in one place—an online folder, a Scrivener file or a Word file.

Generally, get as much of what you need to write your book in an easily accessible format and location so you aren’t searching for it when you should be writing. Use piles, boxes, hanging folders, computer folders, cloud storage…whatever works best for you.

  1. Determine How Much Time You Need

Each nonfiction book is different and requires a different amount of time to write. A research based book takes longer to write, for example, because you have to study, evaluate and determine your opinion of the studies. You have to read the interviews you conducted, choose appropriate quotes and then work those quotes into your manuscript.

If, on the other hand, you write from your own experiences, this take less time. With the exception of drawing on anecdotes, an occasional quote or bit of information from a book, the material all comes from your head. You need only sit down and write about a process you created, your own life story or your area of expertise.

  1. Create a Writing Schedule

Last, create a writing schedule. You now know how much time you need to write your book. Now find those hours in your calendar and block them off. Make those hours sacred.

  1. Put a Back-Up System in Place.

Yes…this is my last tip, because you just never know what happens. Your computer crashes or dies. You accidentally delete your whole manuscript. Your child dumps milk all over your keyboard.

You want a back up of your project. Always save it to your computer’s drive and onto a thumb drive or, better yet, into the cloud, for safe keeping! Make these plans in advance as well. You can use Evernote.com, Dropbox.com or Google Drive, for example.

“To Be” or not “To Be”

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. Identify−Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time”
  2. Substitute−Sometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. Convert−Students can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.”
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. Combine−Look at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”

 

Guide for a Good Manuscript Critique

How can you give a good manuscript critique? When you critique a manuscript, you want to do a good job. You want the writer to be able to tell easily what you think. You want to give them both ways to correct and ways to enhance the manuscript. Here are ways that will guide you and insure you give a good critique.

When you critique a manuscript, make your notes stand out:

  • Put in blue text at least three Blue Ribbon passages or highlight in blue – my name for words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, or scenes that are especially well-written. In this particular manuscript, these parts win First Prize – the Blue Ribbon.
  • Put in red text, highlight in yellow, and/or cross out words you believe should be deleted .
  • Use a different color font for your remarks from the one the writer used.
  • Use all caps for your input. WHAT A STRONG BEGINNING!
  • Note punctuation and grammar errors.
  • Point out where the writer needs to show, not tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
  • Write questions in the manuscript when you think of them.
  • Or do your own thing. Be creative.

Write the following questions at the beginning of the manuscript you’re about to critique. It will help you focus on the story’s strengths, as well as give the author places that need enrichment. If you’re the author, ask yourself these questions about one of your own manuscripts.

23 Questions for a Critique

After reading a manuscript, answer these questions.

  1. What does the main character want?
  2. What was he willing to do to get it?
  3. What kept the main character from getting what he wanted?
  4. Does he get what he wants? How?
  5. What are the mistakes that the main character makes?
  6. What are his flaws? (He’s got to have flaws.)
  7. What is the lowest point in the story?
  8. Did the main character change? How?
  9.  What does the main character learn about life from his experiences in this story?
  10. Do you know what each main character wants?
  11. Does each main character have a distinct voice of his own?
  12. Can you tell when a different character is talking?
  13. What do you want to know that the writer is not telling you?
  14. Does it make sense? If not, note in the manuscript which parts that don’t make sense.
  15. Does the main character face his conflict or run away?
  16. Does the main character save himself by human means or is he saved with unbelievable circumstances that seems like magic?
  17. Mark where writer needs to show, don’t tell.
  18. Can you write a short summary of the story? Do it.
  19. What are three main errors-main punctuation and grammar errors-for the author to correct?
  20. Point out any pet words that the author uses over and over again? A thesaurus might have other words to use in place of them.
  21. What are three Blue Ribbon passages?
  22. What questions come to mind as you read the manuscript?
  23. After reading the story, can you write a short (25-100 word) summary? Do so. If not, tell the parts of the story that are missing.

Never Give Up!
Joan Y. Edwards

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