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The (Worthwhile) Trials and Tribulations of Non-Fiction Writers

Today’s Writing Challenge of the Week acknowledges that non-fiction writers have it tougher than their fiction counterparts.

Fiction writers have to worry about stuff like keeping their plots straight. Making sure their characters come across as realistic. Ensuring that their settings are believable instead of haphazard or contradictory.

And yes, sometimes that list of to-dos can be daunting.

But non-fiction writers? Non-fiction writers have to worry about citing outside sources. And that can be time-consuming in the extreme.

At first blush, the basic description of “cite” might not seem like it’s too much extra work. Here’s how it’s listed on the ever-helpful

Verb (used with object), cited, citing.

  1. To quote (a passage, book, author, etc.), especially as an authority: He cited the Constitution in his defense.

  2. To mention in support, proof, or confirmation; refer to as an example: He cited many instances of abuse of power.

  3. To summon officially or authoritatively to appear in court.

  4. To call to mind; recall: citing my gratitude to him.

  5. Military. To mention (a soldier, unit, etc.) in orders, as for gallantry.

  6. To commend, as for outstanding service, hard work, or devotion to duty.

  7. To summon or call; rouse to action.

Considering that the only part of the multi-faceted definition above that instantly applies to writers is the first one, it’s completely understandable if the word “cite” comes across as being short, sweet and to the point.

Not scary at all, right?

Yeah. You wish.

While I’ve never written a non-fiction work, I have helped people write and publish them And I’ve done a lot of citing for my historical fiction works, Maiden America and Designing America, as well as their not-yet-done sequel, Proving America.

Those stories follow fictional characters set during America’s earliest national days. Yet fiction or not, they meticulously document the true-to-life facts woven into the narratives, from historical figures to societal details to battle tactics.

The end result is so well-cited that these books can actually double as curriculum. Really, really fun and fascinating curriculum, but curriculum nonetheless.

Because of all that – and my propensity for reading historical non-fiction – I’m a pretty good judge of how obnoxious citing can be.

So here’s the basics of what you need to know on the subject if you’re writing non-fiction (or really, really detailed fiction/fiction-based curriculum):

  1. You have to cite everything you put into your manuscript that A) Isn’t your own original thoughts or B) Isn’t already common knowledge.

  2. There are various ways of recording this information for public consumption, from footnotes to endnotes to bibliographies and works cited pages, or some combination of the four. But no matter the method, you legally must give credit where credit’s due.

  3. To make your non-fiction writing life as easy as possible, cite every source you use as you’re composing your manuscript's first draft. Don't wait until the last draft to stick all that stuff in.

We’ll go further into that last part on Friday, but for now, just understand that you want to be taking notes.

In fact, you need to be taking notes. For both your sanity and your status as a law-abiding citizen.

Yes, it’s that serious.


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