Event Highlight

Journalist and Author Kim Ghattas Shares Insights on Nonfiction Book Writing

By Helena Hussey MIA ’24
Posted May 10 2024
Kim Ghattas (center) with research assistants Isabella Crispino MIA ’24 and Mohammed Shahrukh MIA ’24.

The award-winning journalist Kim Ghattas convened a workshop on April 26 to discuss the process of writing a book with students who aspire to do the same.

A contributing writer to The Atlantic and one of IGP’s Carnegie Distinguished Fellows, Ghattas is herself the author of two books. Black Wave, an analysis of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, was named a New York Times notable book in 2020. The Secretary, a New York Times bestseller in 2013, is an account of US foreign policy and the author’s travels around the world with then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Ghattas is now working on her third book, which will revisit Lebanon’s civil war as the origin story of the U.S.-Iran clash in the Middle East. Isabella Crispino MIA ’24 and Mohammed Shahrukh MIA ’24, who are working with Ghattas as research assistants on the book, helped run the skills workshop.

Throughout the session Ghattas took students through her process, offering suggestions for organizing research, connecting ideas, and writing a narrative. She emphasized how important it is to do deep thinking and identify a book’s fundamental foundation early on – before one begins to string sentences together to form a story.

You need to find your own process and understand your creative mind. Some people start with bullet points, some people just start writing.
— Kim Ghattas

“You need to find your own process and understand your creative mind,” Ghattas said. “Some people start with bullet points, some people just start writing.”

Ghattas said she personally found the latter approach to be “impossible.” Instead, she developed a system that entails getting all of her thoughts and ideas on paper first, and then over time organizing her thoughts into groups and rows, so that she can visually see the flow of her writing. 

Ghattas spoke at greater length about how she compiles research and manages the actual process of book writing. She recommended that students use traditional techniques like corkboarding – arranging and rearranging index cards on a bulletin board – or online tools like Scrivener and Devonthink

She said maximizing productivity is always a concern.

“One technique that I found very useful is the Pomodoro technique,” she said. “Whatever the task is, set a timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer rings. After the bell rings, take a five-minute break and then start again. If you do this for a whole morning, you know that's two hours of very focused work and then you take a longer break.”

Because procrastination is inevitable for some, Ghattas talked about how writers can utilize it as part of the writing process.

“Procrastination is not always bad. You just need to know the difference between procrastination and cogitation,” Ghattas explained. “So sometimes you procrastinate because things are maturing. You reframe your thinking. You make it useful – procrastinate by reading more about the topic and writing down notes so that you don't drown in the research.”

The event concluded with a Q&A session, where Ghattas answered questions about the editing process for nonfiction books, how long-form articles differ from book writing, and about crafting book proposals.