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Types of Nonfiction Writing: Article, Project, or Book?

Types of Nonfiction Writing: Article, Project, or Book?
Before you begin writing you must have a clear understanding of what type of writing you are setting out to accomplish. This is far more important in nonfiction writing than in fiction or creative writing. Creative writing, for example, is often accomplished using what is known as free form or stream of consciousness. When you set out to write a nonfiction work it is best that you not attempt to write it in a creative format unless you are planning failure and rejection. Nonfiction writing is marked by its structure, which we will cover in another article, so it is best to know and plan the type of project you are about to work on.


Generally speaking there are two types of articles, short articles and long articles. You will need to decide which you are going to write unless you have already contracted a purchase in which case you will need to know what your editor wants from you.

When you don't know your buyer, write long articles. When you don't know your subject very well, write short articles. The reason for each is, when you don't know your buyer, you write enough to endure a strong edit. And when you don't know your subject very well, you write short enough to well research your material and produce it succinctly as if you are an expert.

Short Articles

Short articles are normally 500 to 700 words in length and are written in a manner similar to blogs. For the most part, short articles are extremely focused on only one point or subject and contain paragraphs with three to five sentences. A seven or ten sentence paragraph does not belong in a short article.

Another characteristic of short articles is the simplicity of language and content. Short articles are not normally written in medical journals or other professional writings which demand a good amount of detail or specialty information. The language used in short articles is most often dictated by the journalism mantra, "the average reader reads at a fourth-grade level." This is the level of complexity that you will target. When writing a short article, imagine that you are explaining something complex to your nine year old child. If you can successfully explain your subject matter to a nine year old, then you have found the language for your article.
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Nonfiction Writing.

Remember, part of the point in writing a short article is to keep the subject matter focused and simplified. You are likely explaining something in bite sized articles. Stick to your point and keep your language simple. Don't attempt to write a one paragraph sentence like Proust or a complex one like Bellow. Short, nonfiction articles do not require the art of writing, they require articulation.

Long Articles

Long articles average from 700 to 3,000 words in length and are written in a manner similar to books. Long articles can handle complex subjects and a higher level of language than short articles, more along the eighth grade or tenth grade reading level. We will cover style a bit more in A modern structure is one that will hold the attention of today's reader.

Hemingway, Proust, and Bellow wrote in more literary times, and in many ways, more educated times. We live in a time of lower literacy levels and higher exposure to technology. Even among highly literate people, the information we digest is overwhelming. So simplicity and ease of our mental digestion has become more important in how we read. For the long article, nonfiction writer this means that we must adjust to the reader's needs in order to be successful and communicate to them effectively.
In high-brow circles what I am talking about is referred to as post-modern, that is to say, basically a style without rules. But the last thing this editor will ever tell you is to toss out style or writing rules. For those who think you can become a successful writer by throwing down text that reads like your cell phone's text messages, you are in for a rude awakening.
The modern structure for long articles, and basically everything over 700 words, is to title and subtitle your article or book throughout. In other words, if your nonfiction article is slated to be 3,000 words, then somewhere between 500 and 700 words you will cut to the next subtitle. To do this successfully, you will need to structure your long article in a similar manner as you would a book. This will put a front end requirement on you, but you will do better in your writing efforts if you rise to the requirement.
As a nonfiction writer, the risk to you not attending to the front end requirement of planning and structure is that you will see your article severely rewritten, perhaps into something you would not have written. The other risk is full rejection from your editor. The short of it is, take your subject matter and bust it up into small segments and go from there.


Project writing is always nonfiction and always complex and long. Think of project writing as a collection of long articles or a miniature book. Project writing includes such things as instruction manuals, human resources manuals, course materials, technical manuals, medical reports, or a company's annual report.

You will never begin a project writing that is less than 10,000 words. If it is less than 10,000 words, then it is a collection of articles or an essay. Almost all project writing is nonfiction work that is specified by the editor or buyer and is sought out in a public manner.

It is possible to plan your material as a project, but to do so you will have to have a very specific purpose and plan in mind. For instance, if you wanted to produce an online course on how to endure and succeed during hard economic times, then you would structure your writing as a project. You may later decide to publish it as a series of online courses, or you may decide to throw it into a chapter format and self-publish it as an e-book for people online who are in search of financial solutions. The point is that to preplan to write your material as a project, you must either have an assignment from a buyer or you must be very focused as to how you will market it online or as a published book.


Most e-books and traditional nonfiction books begin at around 30,000 words or 80 typewritten pages. A book that is 100,000 words is considered a giant of a book; and it is expensive to produce if you self-publish. Today's busy reader most frequently buys books that are 30,000 to 50,000 words, or 80 to 125 typewritten pages. These numbers will help you to keep a realistic perspective when you step out to write your book; it's not as big of a mountain as you may have imagined.


If you opt to self-publish (as is the current trend) rather than submit to a large publishing house, then you will want to keep in mind the following about your manuscript:

  1. The 30,000 to 50,000 word manuscript will return the most for your invested time, effort, and publishing dollars.
  2. If you have a complex and bulky subject, consider breaking it into several books rather than cramming everything into one. Unless you are extremely succinct and can slice and dice your facts, you will do much better with several regular sized books.
  3. The size of the book is dictated by the reader, not the writer. How long will they hold it in their hands and pore over it? Are they reading on the subway on the way to work? Does the subject matter help them to make their lives better? These are considerations to weigh when writing.
  4. When you are ready to publish, be ready to make a small investment in your book; that's why it's called self-publishing. For example, if you price a 120 page, 6X9" trade book that is perfect bound and printed in color at Lulu, you will be quoted a price of more than $22 per copy whether you buy one copy or 1,000 copies of your book. The same book at Shulamite Publishing House will run you around $8 per copy if you buy 1,000 copies of your book.
  5. When self-publishing, remember that everything the publishing house has to do to prepare your manuscript will cost extra. If you hand the house a ragged manuscript, then you can expect them to require you to have it professionally edited before publishing. For this, you can learn how to do it yourself, hire a freelancer or pay the house to do it. But even houses that specialize in self-publishing do not embrace sloppiness. Be prepared to give a publisher your manuscript in a standard formatted Word.RTF file.
  6. If you self-publish, remember the house that publishes you does not handle your promotional material, advertising, book signings, or bookstore appointments. It is likely they will offer you these services as options at the time you publish, but the idea behind self-publishing is to circulate your work to your own personal circle of influence and your community. Most people influence their world at a rate of 2,000 to 5,000 people directly. You should prepare yourself to talk to your personal community, church, synagogue, or association and prepare them to buy your book. If you work closely with the publishing house's editor, you can time the publishing so that you can offer your community a "pre-publication order" opportunity. This will help you create the capital to partially pay for the publishing; but before you enter into a contract with your publisher, you will want to have the cash to pay for the initial order.

In the nonfiction world of writing, there are a handful of types of book writers.
These include:
  • Ghostwriters. Those who write other people's books for them based on what the other person tells them.
  • Biographers. Often ghostwriters, sometimes noted on the cover as "So-and-So with Such-and-So" with "Such-and-So" being the writer.
  • Experts. Those who are writing out of their personal experience or their professional background.
  • Researchers. These are writers who have an interest in a particular subject and set out to expose everything they uncover on the subject. Usually this is motivated by humanitarian purposes; improving the condition of mankind, and so forth.

For most nonfiction writers, you will decide to write a book based on your personal area of expertise. Some of you will write a book because someone hires you to write for them. But, in the beginning, you will have the greatest opportunity for success if you stick with what you know, your personal area of expertise.
Remember, life experiences fall into the expert's category because no one can diminish your personal experience. If you keep this in mind, then you realize that most of us can write as experts in many areas common to the human condition. Some of these include: love, relationships, work, family, and if you consider yourself a spiritual person, your relationship with God.

If you think back through these areas of your life, then you may be able to quickly identify a book that you could write with knowledge and authority. Examining these ideas and subjects is part of how writers determine which type of nonfiction writing they are about to embark upon. Taking a closer look at these areas will help you to decide if you are writing an article, a project, or a book.

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