August 30

How to Set Rules That Will Help You Write Journalistic Nonfiction

How to Set Rules That Will Help You Write Journalistic Nonfiction

Once you have decided to write a journalistic nonfiction book, before you write your first sentence, you must establish rules to follow.

As a working journalist you will have relied on the fact that media outlets (print, radio and television), had their own style guide and ethics policies for you to follow. (Yup, that was back in the day when we were editors, reporters, news directors, producers, etcetera. Today we're indie authors!)

Now, as an author of journalistic nonfiction, it’s important to establish your own writing rules or style guide for your own credibility and integrity. Here are the rules I created and followed for my most recent book, The Devil’s Gap: The Untold Story of Canada’s First Suicide Bomber.

Rule # 1: Handling Conflicting Research

I decided to have two reliable sources before the information became fact in the book. To be blunt, a better way of saying that is two sources that I trusted.


Early in my research, I concluded stories in The Kenora Daily & Miner News, the daily newspaper with the smallest circulation in Ontario, could not be trusted even though they were the local paper where the 1973 incident took place.

The reason to exclude any information within The Miner & News was this:

Many photo cut lines incorrectly identified members of the Kenora Police Department, including Sergeant Bob Letain who shot the “Kenora bomber” triggering the suicide bomber’s Dead Man’s Switch.

If the local newspaper couldn’t get the names of members of their own small-town police department correct, what else within the pages was wrong and couldn’t be trusted?

Other Authors

Another example of what should have been a treasure trove of information was the memoir by the local Crown prosecutor who was the lead in the coroner’s inquest into the incident.

He wrote about how the suicide bomber’s forearm flew across Main Street, through a plate glass window and ironically landed in a manicure display of Johnson’s Pharmacy opposite where the incident occurred.

Interesting and colourful, but I knew it wasn’t true because photographs in the Lake of the Woods Museum archives revealed the pharmacy windows remained intact.


Journalism Has Changed

Digging through newspaper clippings or video/film archives from 50 – 100 years ago is tricky because journalism has changed.

What I discovered in researching The Devil’s Gap and the six other books I have written/ghostwritten is that most reporting is done for the era.

In other words, looking back through the sands of time you’ll be amazed and maybe disappointed at what was acceptable journalism. And how many holes – missing factual elements – there are in older newspaper articles or radio/TV transcripts. What does this mean?

Trust what you read/research but #verify with another reliable source. #journalisticnonfiction #amwriting #asmrg

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Trust But Verify

Trust what you read/research but verify with another reliable source.

Most of my material came from the live radio broadcast of the bank robbery and subsequent suicide bombing as well as meticulous and thorough reporting by Don Dutton of The Toronto Star and Stephen Riley, editor of The Kenora Calendar weekly newspaper.

Riley had arrived in Kenora a few weeks before the event following a stint with The Belfast Telegraph, where he also was a stringer for multiple American newspapers. As a cub reporter with the weekly, Riley was a journalism rock star to me.

Set some simple rules in advance and you won’t bog down when you encounter conflicting evidence.

Rule # 2: Writing Targets

To complete the first draft of the manuscript I set a daily writing minimum: 1,000 words a day, every day, until the manuscript was completed.

If I wrote 1,200 or 1,500 words one day, I didn’t write 800 or 500 words the next to average my 1,000-word target over that two-day period. I continued to write a minimum of 1,000 words every day.

Setting a word-count budget is crucial to ensure you complete the first draft.

Of course, you know the most important thing about the first draft of a manuscript, right?

Answer: that it’s done!

Rule # 3: Develop a System

In the course of my career in journalism (weekly and daily newspapers, radio and TV) corporate communications, and freelance writing... and subsequently my work as author of three non-fiction books and as ghostwriter/researcher on four more, I developed my own “system” for tracking my interview notes, chapter drafts and so on.

Before you get too far into writing, you need a system to help you quickly and efficiently recall facts, figures, sources, and quotations.

I also recommend that you email your daily drafts to yourself. That's because technology is great – when it works.  Yet, there’s nothing more terrifying than when you can’t retrieve your writing from a computer, portable hard drive or the cloud.

The email will remain on your Information Service Provider’s (ISP) server until you delete it (or if you have set an automatic “time stamp” deletion – check this!).

As a result, you’ll create an automatic back up for your work with the daily emails.

Rule # 4: Have a Plan for Your Book

It’s also important to have a plan for your book – a rough outline of when and where you will introduce facts, figures and key elements of your story.

There are three parts of a book:

  • the beginning
  • the middle, and
  • the end.

Your journalistic nonfiction should be linear. Tell the story to the reader from beginning to end. However, you don’t need to start writing your draft with chapter one, especially if you have a precise plan for your book.

For example, I began writing The Devil’s Gap with the scene I had identified as the first chapter of the middle of the book, wrote to the end of the book and then returned to write the beginning. This helped me foreshadow characters and scenes because I knew exactly where I was going.

You may not feel comfortable doing this, but you MUST have a plan for your journalistic nonfiction book. That might include, a chapter-by-chapter outline, or some other plan that works for you.

Ready to Start Your Journalistic Nonfiction?

These are the rules that have worked for me, based on my experience as author of four journalistic nonfiction books, and grounded in my background and experience as a journalist. I believe adopting your own set of writing rules will also work for you.

Happy writing!

Curious about self-publishing (the new term is 'author-publishing') your journalistic nonfiction? Reach out and schedule a free, no-obligation discovery call and we'll be happy to provide some advice. 

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About the Author

Joe Ralko began his writing career as a reporter with daily and weekly newspapers before joining The Canadian Press news agency. His career path wandered briefly into corporate communications and then into freelance writing. He has written three non-fiction books and was the ghostwriter/researcher for another four. He self-published The Devil’s Gap: The Untold Story of Canada’s First Suicide Bomber in 2017. It now is available online in multiple formats: print, e-book and audio, which Joe also self-published and narrated himself.

Joe Ralko

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