Last week I had the good fortune to have lunch with Andrew James, whose father, Ron James has written a number of books about climbing. At the age of 73 he’s still outdoors, these days having hung up his karibiners and turned his attention to mountain biking, but still writing books about his passions. In the discussions it struck me that Ron had cracked what may be the golden rules of writing non-fiction for “the rest of us,” that is, people whose careers and lifestyles lie outside of the mainstream media.
So, what can we glean from Ron’s experiences?
1. Find a domain that has a community. There are plenty of interesting subjects to write about – but like the tree that falls in the forest when nobody is there, it is unclear whether such writings will ever have a readership. This is pure pragmatism – not necessarily commercial as we shall see, but it will only be the most devoted of authors that will write an entire book to reach only a handful of readers. The Internet can be a great help in this regard – message boards and forums are not only a source of information but also can give you a good idea of the scale of the audience. In Ron’s case he has stuck to outdoor sports – niche market perfection, with plenty of devoted followers.
2. Differentiate what you are writing about. It would be pointless to cover a topic in a way that has already been done – unless, in the past, it has been covered poorly. So if you’re writing a how-to guide look beyond the “First lessons in…” to more specific topics, building on the literature that’s already out there. But do be careful not to forget point 1 – you don’t want to end up too niche! For example, Ron’s current focus is mountain biking, to be sure – but for the over-60’s! Don’t be afraid to research the topic and find out what else has been written on it: indeed, it’s good practice to write a proposal, if for no other reason than to ensure you answer the questions a proposal demands – such as, for example, what differentiates this one?
3. Make sure the benefits are broader than financial. A tough one, this. Its not that nobody gets rich and famous writing books, but more that it is highly improbable. A common fallacy – a bit like seeing someone on the telly and assuming they live in a big house somewhere, whereas the reality is that most actors are only as well off as the next job permits. So, if you’re writing, do so in a way that covers your costs and maybe makes a bit of cash; meanwhile however, ensure take into consideration the wider benefits – through sponsorship for example, or purely the fact that writing enables you to spend time covering a subject you love. Which brings me to…
4. Write about something that you love. There are surely plenty of areas that fit the above three criteria, but you’re only going to get old and resentful unless a certain part of what you do is for its own sake. Write not only because you love writing, but also because you love the subject that you’re writing about, be it music, fly fishing or industrial archaeology.
This last lesson is important. Ultimately, whatever you do, you need to be doing it for your own satisfaction, as well as for the potential readership. This will not only help you enjoy the (sometimes mind-numbing) process, but also result in an output of which you can be justly proud.