Non-Fiction Books: A Writers' Guide (by Michael Legat)

I’ve been collecting books about writing for a long time now. Some of the earliest ones I acquired were by the late Michael Legat. I’ve had this one over twenty years, and have dipped into it several times. I’ve lent it to friends, too. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided I would read it in its entirety.

‘Non-fiction books: a writers’ guide’ has a self-explanatory title. The book is divided into three main sections: What to write about, how to write a book, and how to sell a book. The focus is exclusively on non-fiction, but covers a wide variety of topics.

The first section has a good basic introduction about writing non-fiction in general, followed by a lengthy and exhaustive list of possible genres. The author is frank in his appraisal of each, and suggests which ones are more appropriate for beginners. Some subjects - such as health, or law - are only suited to professionals in the field. Autobiographies are only likely to sell if the author is well-known, but he adds that writing one’s own autobiographical accounts can be a good exercise to start non-fiction writing, even if the final product is just stapled together for the grandchildren.

I admit I skimmed over some of the entries. I’m never going to write on legal issues, or sports, or war. However there was plenty to interest me in other genres. As much as anything, this is a useful reference for anyone wanting to write in almost any topic.

The middle chapter begins with a useful guide to planning, something the author recommends for non-fiction. He explains both linear and what he calls the ‘sunburst’ method for coming up with a structure to a book, and gives advice on dividing it into chapters and sections. He explains about considering one’s audience - whether to write for beginners or experts in a given field - and about developing one’s style. None of this was new to me, but it was interesting nonetheless.

This section became less helpful when the actual writing process was discussed. The book is nearly twenty-five years old, so was written before most people had computers in the home. He mentions word processors, but assumes that most of his readers will be writing on a typewriter. Even when considering electronic equipment, there is no mention of email, and the only way to store documents was on floppy disks.

The final section is about approaching publishers and/or agents. Again, there is a mixture of useful advice and information that’s now out of date. Still, Michael Legat had a very readable style. He uses some low-key humour here and there, so I kept reading to the end.

Recommended in a low-key way to anyone thinking of writing a non-fiction book. Ignore the parts that are no longer relevant, and don’t expect anything that can’t be found elsewhere online, or in writing magazines. But as a general reference, with everything in one place, it could make a good addition to any writing bookshelf.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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