A perfect spot to write a manuscript. Image © Jain Lemos.
It’s time for Part 18 of my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books, and writing a manuscript is what brings the other visual elements together. As I mentioned before, I highly recommend hiring a dedicated, proven author to develop the book’s narrative. Sometimes writers are engaged after images have been shot and other times they are on board before principal photography. Either way, as the producer, you need to make sure the writer has a clear direction for the copy and understands how their manuscript will be organized within the pages.
It wasn’t so long ago that lengthy, running text was developed for documentary books. However, today our reading habits have changed considerably and non-fiction writers run the fear of readers commenting that their prose is tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). That’s why I think many books can benefit from a divide-and-conquer approach to the text. Start by breaking up chapters or sections into more manageable and reading-approachable pieces. There are many techniques for doing this, for example: subheadings, summaries, ledes, scene setters, side headings, side bars, quotes, testimonials, lists, fast facts, FAQs, footnotes, historical transcripts, location details, opposing view digests, anecdotes, background info blocks, recipes and DIY instructions.
The writing style also needs to be written for purposes of ordinary conversation and communication. Nothing is worse than a pompous voice. Rest assured that great scholars, writers and well-bred speakers use simple and understandable words with correct sentence structure. There is a simple, broad classification of writing styles: dry, plain, neat, elegant, florid and bombastic. For documentary books, the elegant style accomplishes much. It uses every enhancement to smarten the words yet avoids any excesses that degrade the story’s meaning or intent.
Encourage writers to produce as much material for your journalistic book as they possibly can. Provide them with a detailed outline or specific topic blocks. Do your own research and prepare a list of resources for them to access. It’s best if you can spend a day with the writer before they begin so you can discuss ideas and determine a direction. I like to see a drill down approach to the manuscript. Some readers want more details on particular aspects of the subjects covered and they should be able to access that information either within the book or in a reference section.
For books that include an introduction by a prominent person, you may run into cases where the person wants to contribute but doesn’t actually want to write anything. The best way around that is to have you or your writer do an interview and transcribe their words.
Finally, there isn’t a writer on the planet who can’t benefit from an editor. The rules of grammar are made to be broken (I do it continually, but not because I know better!). We like light, engaging voices to read. But ultimately good writing comes down to what words are selected and how they are placed.
There are lots of other little parts of the manuscript, like flap copy, copyright pages, bios, dedications and bibliographies that need to be prepared. Don’t forget the photo captions because my next topic is Writing Captions. Honestly, not every manuscript is a winner. Just look at these 8 prize winning hogs who definitely didn’t deserve to win. Except maybe Sandy.