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The Role of Subject, Title, and Subtitles in Nonfiction Writing

The Role of Subject, Title, and Subtitles in Nonfiction Writing
The subject, title, and subtitles of your book or article are the guts of your work and its basic skeleton, respectively. Without them you cannot create structure, content, or a sense of your material. In order for your work to make sense, you must limit or draw boundaries around a portion or niche of your subject matter. If you have no boundaries or niche, then your writing becomes ineffective and does not accomplish your intent or persuasively convey your thesis or initial assertions.

For example, if I want to write an article on higher education, then I must decide how I will approach the subject, what facet of the process of higher education I will address, and to what extent I will explore or expose that facet. If I decide I want to explore the value of non-classroom experiences for instance, then I will need to assert certain ideas in the creation of my thesis or initial assertions. I will then create my structure, including my title and subtitles, based on the initial assertions defined in the thesis.

Here is how my subject, title, and subtitles may help define my structure in my example; :

Subject: The Value of Non-classroom Experiences in the Process of Higher Education

Thesis: Professional educators estimate that approximately 95% of the value

of higher education lies in the student's experiences outside of the

classroom in the process of obtaining of a four year degree. We will

explore these experiences and how they may be assessed as having a

significant value in the student's education process.

Title: Another "Brick in the Wall"
Subtitles: The Real Value in Higher Education

Inside Subtitles: Brick in the Wall; Thank You, Pink!

[a.k.a. "chapters"] Who Needs a Wall?

Why am I Interested?

Wine, Women, and Song.

Working on the Railroad and Other Experiences.

Funnels, Fun, and Funny.

The "Morning After" Club.

Things to Never Tell Momma.

"He Still Owes Me Money!" and Other Financial Lessons.

Tear Down the Wall? Why it all Matters.

Using this thesis, subject, title, and subtitles I can construct an entire structure and outline for my new book. Yes, I have heavily borrowed references from Pink Floyd's old The Wall albuml in which Another Brick in the Wall was the title of the main trilogy. But, properly notated and credited I can succeed with it. Since the 1979 album, now CD, The Wall, confronts authority, education, and the system, it is a reference that will heavily convey the underlying message of the thesis: the real value is in the individual rather than the system.
As a nonfiction writer, the juxtaposition of The Wall's ignorant mantra, "We don't need no education," with the thesis serves as a creative way to catch and keep the reader's attention. Between the first two subtitles and the last subtitle are other subtitles that will later serve as chapters to more clearly define for the reader the why, where, and how of the value of external experiences in the process of higher education.
Incorporating Pink Floyd's ending, "Tear Down the Wall" into the last subtitle helps to wrap up the writer's assertions from the thesis. While its incorporation at the end also paints Pink Floyd's conclusion as an absurd notion since the writer concludes and emphasizes the value of the most mundane outside the halls of higher education, the implication of it helps to strengthen the writer's assertions.
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While such creative practices take time to develop, they are not outside of the acceptable realm of nonfiction writing. If you think it is, then ask yourself why you see so much social context referencing in the titles and subtitles of magazine and newspaper articles. Simply put, it helps the nonfiction writer get the attention of the reader and it helps to make a connection with the reader. Using another work of art, music, or fiction as a juxtaposition reference in the context of nonfiction writing does not diminish the facts or seriousness of your nonfiction content. You should, however, not expect to jump straight into this style of writing as it takes time to develop a style conducive to creative borrowings.
Even a novice, however, can implement such strategic handling of social or artistic content if they use it as a basis for the titles, subtitles, and structure of their content. The key to doing so effectively is to avoid overdoing it. Too much explanation or too much implication ruins the impact of creative borrowing and diminishes your work's originality. To be an effective nonfiction writer, you must be original, even if you borrow a phrase or two or incite certain notions by referencing musical works.

Things to Remember about Your Titles and Subtitles

  • They are best chosen before you begin to write.
  • They will help you to create your outline and book or article structure once you gather them and begin to articulate a vision for the management of your subject.
  • They should get, and help to keep, the attention of the target audience.
  • They should bait and lead the reader; and they should never explain your content to the reader.
  • The most creative use of these titles and subtitles is to imply certain things to the reader from that reader's social perspective, and then you should exploit the implication.

[1] This subtitle references Pink Floyd's content in which Roger Waters writes, "By the way, which one is Pink?" Originally from the song Have a Cigar on the Wish You Were Here album, this line became a high form of sarcasm directed to those ignorant of Pink Floyd's material. In social context, it is a postmodern slap at the educated practice of assuming that two names together are, by definition, someone's formal name. In fact, Pink Floyd is the group's name and applies to no single person; it is also the reason that it is improper to w
rite the two names as if they are a first and a last name.
Researching Your Subject
A good portion of researching your subject will deal with reviewing your competition. This section is about the references and materials available to you to properly write about your subject.

Know Your Subject; or at Least Become an Excellent Researcher

Before you begin writing your work, you must know your subject very well or you must master the art of research. In general, nonfiction writers become experts in researching their subject matter because if you are going to write for payment, you will invariably write on topics outside of your knowledge base or comfort zone. So, get ready to learn how to research and prepare to spend time practicing before you ever take on an assignment from an editor.

One of the best ways you can prepare yourself is to set your mind in the right frame of thought. As a nonfiction writer, you cannot afford to think of researching your subject as boring or burdensome. You will become a better researcher and a better writer if you think of researching your subject matter as an adventure. I personally think of it as an effort similar to finding out who in my circle of contacts can connect me to the President of the United States.

It is well known that any citizen of the United States is no more than six levels from the President within his or her circle of influence. This means that there are no more than six people between anyone in the U.S. and their President. So, if you wanted to talk to the President, you would need to find out WHO in your world knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows the President. This may take you a few days or weeks or months, but the statisticians argue that it is possible.
Just as you would pursue the President if you had a burning desire to talk with him, you must be willing to put that type of effort into the research of your subject matter. You would not give up your quest after a day or two or even after a few phone calls. In the same manner, you must not give up in your research efforts if you hit a couple of blank spaces or dead ends. Along the way, you will learn a good deal about your subject of which you previously had no clue.

You may find yourself off on what I call pig trails, related topics of interest. If you are not on assignment or if your editor gives you the luxury of choosing the details of your subject material, then you will find yourself pursuing some of the related topics of interest. If you do not have this latitude, then drop the pig trails and move on to material which directly supports your assignment.
The More Commonplace Your Source, the Less Valuable the Research

In today's marketplace, the professional nonfiction writer must be attuned to what is valuable and what is not in terms of research sources. The Internet is an extremely commonplace source of information for most people. However, for the professional nonfiction writer, the Internet is more commonly used as a quick reference, rather than as a source, to verify certain assertions. For example, I referenced a line from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here album. When I first wrote that passage, I could not remember if the line was from The Wall or another album. Rather than digging out my CD collection and getting side tracked from my work by submerging myself into my own youthful and esoteric collection of music, I quickly found my answer by Googling"Pink Floyd" and searching from there.

This was helpful to me as a writer, but somewhat insignificant as a reference because it was merely fact checking. Although fact checking is important to good nonfiction writing, the majority of your pre-writing research will have to do with significant information or facts on which your material will be based.

For this purpose, the less commonplace your source of information, the more significant it will likely impact your content. If your source is not so commonplace, then it often carries a heavier impact on your reading, assuming, of course, that the source is credentialed and well respected in their related industry. The more complex and less commonplace sources of research material will be found in your city or university library.

Libraries and Their Systems

A quick way to discern the natural writer is to watch his reaction to thesmell of the stacks in his local or university library. A natural writer will snuggle up with the books. She or he will sit comfortably in the aisles of the stacks and make themselves at home while reading through whatever they come across. He or she may even bring a pillow or a bottle of water for comfort.

During my years at the University of Florida, I would hide in the stacks with an excitement in my soul of what I may stumble across in my research while sitting up there away from everyone in my world. At that time, the University of Florida had 12 libraries on campus that held over 22 million books. How exciting!

Only a natural writer can get excited by hiding out in stacks of stinky books. But, if you are indeed a natural nonfiction writer, then you willmake friends with your library and its librarians and you will get comfortable with their ways and their systems.

Remember, librarians are your friends. They are the experts on finding content in their library. If you come across a librarian that finds you or your requests for help burdensome, then change libraries.

It is important for the novice writer to know which libraries you can access. If you live in the United States and pay taxes, then you can technically and legally access any public library including libraries on state university campuses. Most of the general public does not know that you can access all 22 million books at the University of Florida if you live in and pay taxes in Florida. This is true in every state and in every state supported university. It is also true of local community colleges since they also receive state tax dollars and you are a tax paying member of the community. It is not true of private colleges and universities. They can deny you access and most often do.

If you go into your local state university library and ask to borrow books, they will likely balk at you when you disclose that you are not a card carrying member of the student body. Try not to make a scene, but don't settle for a no either. If you are talking to a student worker at the desk, then you may need to politely ask for the library director to make your request for a non-student library card. Every state university library and local community college issues them, even if the student clerk does not know it. Try not to make the student feel stupid when making your request. After all, unless you have a university degree there is a good likelihood that this section is your first encounter with this information.

The reason I point you to your local state university library system is because it is most likely your best source for reference and research information. The larger the volume of the state university library contents, the better the library. In large states, such as Texas, or in densely populated states, such as Florida, the state university system is quite large and all of the locations are networked together through an Internet network between the universities. In Texas and in Florida, the system is known as LUIS (Library User Information Service). Other states may use different systems and they may or may not be as well connected.

For researching your subject, these are awesome resources because you can query or make a borrowing request from another university if the one you are standing in does not have a copy of the book or material. Remember, as a borrowing member of the tax paying public rather than a member of the student body, you may have limits set on your privileges that include shorter borrowing times than if you were a student; prepare to adjust accordingly.

When you first begin writing nonfiction, you will need to take a few weeks in your library of choice to acquaint yourself with their many systems and processes. If you have not done so in a while, brush up on your library's card system, their online card system, their microfiche machines, in-house copiers, Wi-Fi hot spots for your lap top, their DVD collection, and e-books on CD. Be sure to find their reading rooms, even if they look like little closets with small desks and glass doors.

Online Research

The more complex your subject, the more likely you are to conduct the research offline. Normally, online research is for basics or surface information. It is not for detailed or complex subject matter. The Internet is great for fact checking, but you should not confuse or deceive yourself into thinking that you will find something unique by querying Google on your subject matter. The reason for this fact is simply that you and I do not have the patience to page through to the 2 millionth reference listed to find something no one has read in fifty years.

We are still creatures of touch and we function best in our research efforts when we can reach up and touch a set of books or use our eyes to glance through rows of stacks rather than wasting time waiting on the clunky Internet connection to page through. After all, your eyes can see 200 book titles in a matter of a couple of minutes or you can spend hours flipping through the sites. As you become a polished writer, your research efforts will become streamlined and you will know where and how to cut your time.

The exception to this general position is when you are submitting nonfiction to an online company for online access or publication. In such cases, you will want to do some online research so that you know what your competition references and so you can determine if you can access better information somewhere else. If you are writing for an online company, however, do not be afraid to quote other online sources as references for your material. Online companies expect and like references that their clients can quickly access at the moment they are reading your material.

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