Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When do I write?

Write your book when your research is finished.

Dr. John McManus, assistant professor of U.S. military history at Missouri S&T, shared an easy method for determining when to begin writing during his presentation at the Missouri Writer's Guild. It's a question he asks writers, and one that writers need to ask themselves: "How do you know what themes will be developed from a scholarly POV (or any other POV) if you aren’t finished (researching)?"

He said it’s hard to juggle all the research and writing at the same time. He believes the work is more distracted and doesn't provide the same coherence when writers try to research and write at the same time. The finished product is better when the research is complete before the writing begins.

Next question - How will you write it?

If there were only one way to write a book or article, then writing would be easy. But there are many ways, and McManus covered several points to consider as you begin.

- First, figure out your writing times. Do you have to work a 12-hour day and squeeze it in? If so, figure out time to work and stick to it like it’s a job. "All good writers are self starters, and all good historians are self starters" he said.

- Next, consider the point of view (POV). Writing from a distance, as an observer, provides readers with the big picture of an event, while writing from the POV of someone close to, or in the middle of, the action can bring a human perspective to that event. When we see everything through one person's eyes, we can relate to the actions and feel the emotions.

- Develop a chapter-by-chapter outline – it forces you to think and bring coherence to what relates and what doesn’t, forces you to make hard decisions about what to cut and what to keep. Also consider how your book will look. This outline forces unity and coherence. Each chapter that follows makes your point. By the time you’ve done the proper research, you should have these ideas. Outlines help.

- Organize material chronologically. Most good history is written chronologically. There are some exceptions in biography and other types of nonfiction. 

- Consider pacing, context, and sequencing to figure out how best to tell your story. How will the reader want to read this story, what will work best for him or her? If you are talking about the evening before, don’t give it away. Let the story unfold.

- Determine the format. What is tone? How will you refer to people - formally or informally? Will you use official titles like The Duke of So and So, or first names? Make these decisions beforehand for consistency, and you won't need to go back and change them later.

And finally, after writing your book or article:

- Proofread after giving yourself a little time and distance so you can look at the writing with fresh eyes.

Write soon, and let me know about YOUR process,


(Next week, a little more on organizing your writing)


  1. Since I'm working on an historical novel, this advice resonates with me. Researching as you go along is a method that often requires the rewriting of previous chapters.

    Critter Alley

    1. I would like to say I follow his advice, but it's not 100 percent of the time. It's something to strive for, though!

  2. Mary--I get what McManus is saying--that all the research should be finished before the writing is started. However, is that always possible? Are there not things that you don't think of, necessitating on more research being done?

    Thanks for sharing this. Isn't he speaking at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters soon?

    1. Sioux, for me, the research never seems to end. But I do try to wrap it up before writing (emphasis on the word "try"). It seems like some question always comes up and I have to do more research! And I think you are correct about him speaking there! This presentation was from a few years ago and I just got around to writing about it. The advice never goes out of style, though.

  3. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for posting this advice.

    I'm working on a novel and have found a chapter-by-chapter outline helpful to keep me focused. Although I'm working on fiction, it has some historical components. I have had to do some research, which I found on the Internet. I did a cut and paste and made separate entries for the historical aspects I needed to make sure were accurate for my book.

  4. Thanks for sharing and giving g us an overview of how McManus works.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I love hearing about the writing process from any writer. We are all different!

  5. Thanks for sharing and giving g us an overview of how McManus works.