Turning 400,000 words of notes into a non-fiction book.

Hello everyone. Where to begin. I have been wanting to write a non-fiction book for quite some time and have been writing, for several years now, my thoughts and insights. I have brought all of my writing into scrivener and have even finished, to the best of my ability, organizing the content, more or less, into different categories/chapters. Of course, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that I have at least 100 different categories/chapters. I love the program, have watched several tutorials, and am probably using 40% of its capacity, maybe more.
I don’t doubt the programs ability, I am at the present stuck with the prospect of how one ‘edits’ 400,000 words of notes into a coherent 125,000 word book? I just can’t seem to move forward at this point. Whenever I look at any given category I am at a loss as to how to edit or make sense of the content in a broader sense.
I have tried to articulate the organization of the book, devising an outline of sorts, but I still cannot wrap my head around transitioning between the two, a skeleton outline and a sea of words.
I am looking for people’s suggestions on how to move forward, and even more so, a back and forth exchange where I can push my issues further and see if I can reach some sort of resolution.
And maybe there are some scrivener techniques that I am unaware of, not using, that may, in fact, help a great deal. I give as an example the ability to search my writing for key words and group that written content together, but even there, key words are like needles in this haystack. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Condensing 400k words into 125k without losing the content means stripping out about 2 of every 3 words. Only saving every third sentence.

As I see it you have two alternatives.

The first is to delete 2/3 of what you have and not include it in the book.

The second is to ”kill your darlings”. You simply use your notes as Research and rewrite the actual book from scratch. In the end that is probably the only way. You won’t get a coherent text if you try to edit every 100 word document into 30 words.

Right, thank you for breaking it down for me like that. It has felt, as of late, that I am needing to somehow write from scratch, and in so doing, hopefully be able to hit upon the aspects of my extensive notes, I just wasn’t quite willing to think that through clearly because it seemed as if that would mean that all the work I have already put into all of my notes is somehow of no use. But maybe it will serve for a much easier ‘writing from scratch’ in the long run.
Thank you. And I am still looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts/suggestions.

As an amateur who has read/listened to a lot of writer’s advice, this is what I think would be my approach…

How you stitch together your notes into a narrative that someone can follow is as important, if not more important, than chronicling the facts that define a given event. So unless you’re putting together an almanac, you should consider the elements that drive fiction: main character(s), their ambitions, conflicts between people or setbacks for a person’s goals, how the setting affects them, sub-plots (“romance”/family, unexpected opportunities, tragic losses, community/world events) and how those sub-plots changed them or their goals…

In short, what’s your story’s main theme/thesis? Figure that out, and use the notes that inform that theme to tell your story.

There is another way, but not exactly what you may be thinking. It’s implied by this statement of lunk’s:

But when I read this, I don’t think of going through the work and editing out every two out of three sentences. That way you’ll never finish, or, if you do, the result will betray evidence of what has happened to your original concept.

What you do need to do - if you take this route - is to find one, two or at most three substantial sections of the book that are interesting, thematically coherent, and potentially “standalone”, and amount to approximately 125k. words or a little more in total, and cut out everything else and focus on the thoughts and ideas that that section or those sections contain. You may feel a sense of bereavement about what you have had to cut, but that will pass.

It can be done. Good luck!

Thank you for your reply. I was trying that approach the last few days, trying to figure out what the most important 4-5 points are that I am trying to make and see how that lends itself to organizing my thoughts better, and I haven’t given up on that yet, it is just not exactly clear how I leave out other content…

That’s basically what I meant but you formulated and explained it a lot better. :slight_smile:

To add on to the excellent advice you’ve already received, here’s my “If it were me” –

If it were me, I’d step away from that pile of 400k words for a period of time, because each of those words knows the axe is coming, and the sound of all of them clamoring to be included in the book would be too overwhelming for me to make much progress.

Instead, I would sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil, and take a stab at writing a few things:

  • My goal or goals for the book
  • A synopsis of the book
  • A TOC for the book
  • A paragraph describing what each chapter will cover and why the chapter is important to the book

I wouldn’t expect to be able to write the things above in sequence and have them be perfect right out the gate. I would expect an iterative process, in which, perhaps I consider my goal and the synopsis, then take a first pass at the TOC, then the chapter paragraphs, then tweak the synopsis, then a chapter I realized was missing, etc.

I specifically would not do this at the computer, because I’d need separation from those words. I’ve spent so much time with them already, that I’d expect to have internalized the important ideas by now. So I wouldn’t reference them. In fact, I’d try to trick my mind into forgetting that they’re there and just focus on the thing that’s important now: Defining the book I’m going to write.

Yes, it’s a very top-down approach, but I’ve already taken the bottom-up route and that left me with 400k noisy words and no book.

Once I had a reasonably complete draft of those things (synopsis, TOC, etc.), now I have a filter through which to view the words. I’d start digging through my material, specifically seeking sections of text that support the ideas that will be discussed in each chapter. The words aren’t driving the book, the structure I’ve defined on paper is.

I would need to be selective about what I pull in. In fact, I might want to focus on getting a chapter at a time drafted, so I don’t throw too many words plus the kitchen sink into each chapter and end up no better off. Or maybe I’d find that I’m disciplined enough to put in the words that belong and leave out the words that don’t. And maybe I have to write chunks of one or more chapters from scratch.

One way to look at it is that I’m not so much cutting material, as I am not including it in this particular book. Maybe I tell the words that I’m leaving out that they can go in the next book, just to keep them quiet. :slight_smile:

Again, I would expect this to be an iterative process. As I’m writing a chapter, I may realize that it’s trying to say too much, and really needs to be two chapters. The structure defined on paper is a guideline and subject to change, if that’s what is best for the book.

Anyway, that’s something along the lines of what I’d do to bring some structure to this endeavor, if it were me.

Best of luck!

I fall into the “write it from scratch” group. What you have been doing so far is research. Research is a different task, requiring a different mental approach. It is not at all surprising for the research to total many more words than the book’s target length.

I also agree with the “step away and write a synopsis and outline” advice. Once you’ve done that, you can split the research up according to the relevant chapter. Once you’ve done that review the research for the first chapter, construct a more granular outline, and write that chapter. (Which may or may not incorporate specific words from your notes.)


Thank you for the responses. I am super busy all day but will be reading them over this evening and will get back to you all.

I’d agree with both of these too, from personal experience. A few years ago I abandoned a nearly-finished academic book after a kerfuffle with the publisher’s conservative readers; I resigned my tenure, went freelance and planned to use the m.s. and its research base (nearly half a million of my own words in articles, lectures, seminar papers, notes and suchlike) to write a non-fiction (and therefore academically non-factional) book.

After wasting a year or so in extensive fiddling with the text I realised I should put it all aside in order to develop entirely different narrative structures; but I then wasted many more months playing with various tempting Mac software which simply confused things further.

A few years ago I finally hit on the winning combination of analogue A3 sheets and Scapple daily; a larger and very organic overview in Tinderbox; and - informed by all of these - what Abbott calls writing (and linking) `mini-analyses’ in Scrivener. (Abbott’s Digital Paper is intended for graduates - which I’ve not been for 30 years - but it has some great ideas). Overviews and re-writes (all very plural).

Come Armageddon I could probably finish the book with just the A3 and Scrivener.

All the advice above is excellent, in my view. But the key issue - I may be wrong - looks less like a matter of techniques or technicalities and more like a matter of decision-making. In a former occupation of mine, we used to call it a" wood-for-trees" problem. This occupation involved deadlines that were near-inviolable, where failure could at least theoretically threaten one’s employment. Yet still my colleagues and I often found it difficult to see the wood for the trees - to distil what was important from the research that supported but frequently encased and obscured it. At the climax of so much research work, the fear of making the wrong decision was great and sometimes almost paralysing.

More often than might seem sensible, it turned out to be better in the long run to choose what appeared to be important and interesting on the basis of the available information and then, at least, have something to say, even if that something was just possibly wrong, than not to do so at all. “Plumping” we called it with intentional irony, from the British use of the word meaning to choose a candidate in an election. Sometimes, it’s better to plump, because plumping can often deliver what turns out to be the best result.

I really appreciate all of the feedback. It seems like the majority of people so far believe the writing from scratch is the best option, and several people including some helpful outlining ideas, which I greatly appreciate as well. I had never considered my writing as ‘research’ before, I just always imagined it was the book, somehow, but that does make sense. And one thing I have to admit is in the last few months, as I have continued to write, it has seemed to me to be far more ‘coherent’, as if I was bringing together all my previous thoughts and writing together in a new way. Maybe that indicates that writing from scratch is the best approach at this point. It is just hard, since whenever I read through my ‘notes’, wherever I turn, I really, really like how it sounds, well, 80% of it. I guess that was why I also never thought of it as research, I was just so darn certain the book was there!!! But, everyone’s comments have helped to clarify a path forward, which I am grateful for. I will also try to sit down and do the outlining which a few people spoke about…theme or goal of the book, TOC, paragraph for each chapter, I think that could be very helpful for me at this point as well.
Thank you everyone…and please keep the comments coming, even if they voice the same things. It is good to know how other people view this and what others, themselves, have gone through.

I am not familiar with those other programs. Would you mind briefly telling me what you liked about each, or how you went about using them?
Also, if people have scrivener tutorials they know about and thought were very good, please link them. I am sure I could be doing a whole lot more with scrivener as well. Are people using Scrivener 3, the latest version? Like it, love it…

I will do my best with this over the next few days. I sort of tried it already but I think I had all of my writing in mind, instead of leaving it behind and thinking anew. Thank you.

Your brain has been hard at work behind the scenes…

It may turn out that large chunks of your research notes are usable. Hooray! But stepping back and re-evaluating is still the best way to decide if that’s the case.

Fiction writers are often told “kill your darlings,” but the same idea applies to non-fiction. Don’t let your attachment to a particularly appealing section drag down the book as a whole. In your case, with 400,000 words, it’s quite likely that some of them might spin out into articles, blog posts, maybe the start of another book. As you sort out the materials relevant to this book, it’s easy enough (yay, Scrivener!) to create folders or keywords for things that you’re setting aside for associated projects.

I often use Scapple for this sort of thing. As I visually cluster related topics from my notes together, it becomes clearer which ideas “fit” and which don’t.


I can completely understand this, but that is also the strongest reason to write it from scratch. The thing is, you want to write something that others “really like how it sounds”, not you, right? As Katherine put it, “kill your darlings” is just as applicable in non-fiction writing as in fiction.

So, like others have said, outlining and synopsis are wonderful tools, but at the core is the three key questions: What story is it you want to tell, why do you want to tell it, and to whom?

Scapple is the companion software to Scrivener - basically a digital whiteboard - very simple, very flexible. I use that or an A3 sheet of paper and pencil depending on whether I’m in an analogue or digital mood.

Tinderbox is much more complex and much more expensive and has a pretty steep learning curve. Some here love it, some have taken against it, but it is a way of organising notes which combines outlining with graphical interfaces and a very sophisticated system of linking and use of metadata (which helps enormously in my work with keeping track of conceptual, historical, institutional etc relationships). It can read Scrivener files, and can export its own documents as a Scrivener (readable) file.

I used it fairly superficially at the beginning of my adventure, but it was still extremely useful for keeping sight of - and developing - the larger picture, I dug in rather more deeply last year after I’d helped the software designer to edit the new edition of his own manual of use for it - The Tinderbox Way - and in so doing came to a better appreciation of its potential for my work. It might help you wonderfully, or it might be a dreadful distraction,

Yes: Scrivener 3 - love it: peerless.

I’ll have to check Scapple out. I like the idea of it. Thank you for your responses…

Right. I will begin doing this this weekend, along with trying to outline the progression of the book, TOC, etc. Thank you.