The fundamental theorem of nonfiction writing

Writing is easy. Planning is hard. Research is time-consuming. Ideation comes from experience.

Those four thoughts, taken together, are the fundamental theorem of nonfiction writing.

Imagine a book chapter. (It’s not very different if it’s an article or a blog post — the same thing applies.)

Ideation can often happen quickly. One moment you don’t have an idea, the next moment you do. But that happens only from long experience with the topic. If you have the experience, you get lots of ideas. If you don’t have the experience, any ideas you have are boring and derivative.

Research takes time. You can outsource it to researchers, or you can do it yourself, but finding content worth including is time-consuming. Original research — interviews, data collection and analysis — is even more time-consuming.

Planning only works if you’ve done the research. It’s the hard work — figuring out what ideas and researched content belong in the piece, and in what order.

Writing is easy if you know what you want to write and you’re a good writer. It comes, not at the beginning of the process, but at the end.

Financial consequences of the fundamental theorem

  1. No one wants to pay for ideation, but it’s among the most valuable things a writer can do. Good writers find a way to charge a lot for it, even if they hide those charges in some other category.
  2. People don’t want to pay for research either, but it sucks up the hours. You should spend most of your time on research, and you should get paid for it. If your client supplies the research, make sure it is worth including. Even existing research takes time to fit into a framework.
  3. People won’t pay for planning, but you can wrap it into the writing cost.
  4. People will pay for writing. However, if a writer charged only for writing time, but was compensated for all the time spent, they would have to charge a prohibitive rate. Fast writers shouldn’t get penalized. Charging for writing time is deceptive — it’s like paying an architect only for the time spent drawing lines.

If you don’t understand the fundamental theorem, your results will stink

Writing without sufficient ideation is boring and undifferentiated.

Writing without sufficient research is tedious to read and not believable.

Writing without planning is poorly organized and repetitive.

Every good writer knows these things. Clients need to understand them as well.

If they don’t understand, send them a link to this post. Because until they understand, you’ll never get paid what you’re worth to create a quality result.

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One Comment

  1. Yes, writing without sufficient research is tedious to read and not believable. I’d also argue that it tends to be superficial and anodyne. I can’t tell you how many business books I’ve put down over the years because they were meh.