Writing Nonfiction: The Ins and Outs of an Engaging Nonfiction Book
WRITING NONFICTION: THE INS AND OUTS OF AN ENGAGING NONFICTION BOOK
Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know.” Indeed, his words resonate with the power of universal truth. Writing compelling nonfiction books is about infusing passion into a topic that would surely seem mundane in the hands of a lesser writer.
Unfortunately, for many writers, finding either a topic or a passion is difficult enough, never mind pairing them together.
While it could be said that writing nonfiction is just about presenting facts, the truth is that compelling nonfiction writing is an entirely different endeavor.
It is entirely possible to mesh the engagement of fiction writing with the factual information of nonfiction. As such, any successful nonfiction writer must consider the following ins and outs as they produce a great piece of nonfiction.
Find a Vision
The most common mistake that novice writers make is casting too wide of a net. This common phrase implies attempting to tackle a topic too wide for the work. Doing so, in turn, causes writers to lose control of the scope of their project. Without a clear vision, it is virtually impossible to narrow down a topic to a manageable size.
Seasoned writers sketch out their entire thought process. Then, they look back on what they plan to cover. More often than not, they realize their scope is too broad. At that point, they may see the need to trim content. Also, they may choose to split their topic up into two or more volumes.
Writing coach and featured columnist Nina Amir has this to say about focus: “It’s time to strategize for the next ten years.” Indeed, all successful nonfiction writers have a line of thought that will take them well beyond the book they are currently working on. Nina goes on to say:
“You may have heard me – or someone else – suggest having a word for the year. This word describes the essence of who you want to show up, what you want to experience, or what you want to achieve during that year.”
Having an overarching vision can make each piece of nonfiction writing fall within a consistent narrative. This narrative allows readers to go on a journey along with the writer and not just collect facts and information.
Develop a Voice
The first question that writers must ask themselves is “why?” In other words, writers must be clear on their purpose for writing a book. After all, if a writer does not know their intent, they will never hone their message. Moreover, without a clear message, it is practically impossible to find a voice.
Understanding the message leads to creating a narrative that can convey it. Without a message, there is no voice. Ultimately, voiceless nonfiction books may result in a collection of facts and figures that do not paint a picture. In the worst of cases, the book may be a series of disjointed facts that do not lead the reader anywhere.
In this regard, writing expert Sarah Chauncey offers the following insight:
“Fiction writers can create a voice, or play with different voices, but as a nonfiction writer, your writing should sound like you. Your vocabulary, your cadence, your syntax, your dialect. Your verbal idiosyncrasies.”
This line of thought makes it clear that a nonfiction writer must find their own voice. It is that voice that conveys the message to the reader in a captivating way. Thus, the reader can glean the writer’s persona. This connection is what drives compelling nonfiction writing.
Give the Readers What They Want
Giving readers what they want is a journey into introspection. Unless the writer can read their readers’ minds, the most effective way to glean what readers want is by switching places. All great writers can write from a third-party perspective. In other words, great writers can anticipate what their audience wants to hear. They write in a way that resonates with their intended audience.
It might seem somewhat counterintuitive to think that a writer can produce content while thinking like a reader. Nevertheless, sensing the way readers perceive content is crucial to successful nonfiction writing. As such, writing an excellent nonfiction book is about defining your target audience. In the words of Nina Amir, “If you’ve started writing your first nonfiction book without defining your target audience – stop!”
Undoubtedly, defining a book’s target audience is a pillar of any successful publication. Consequently, writers should strive to create a person for whom they write. This person would be their “ideal” fan.
To build this persona, elements such as demographics, socioeconomic level, education, and income all come into play. For instance, if a cookbook is aimed at busy people, using complex and lengthy instructions would not make sense. In the end, it is about adding value by solving a reader’s problem or satisfying their curiosity.
Do Your Homework
As Mark Twain said, “Write what you know.” However, it is impossible to know everything about everything. That is where research comes into play.
Nonfiction writers must also be capable researchers. All too often, writers attempt to position themselves as experts by making various claims. However, credibility is a huge issue to face. As such, research enables successful writers to back up what they are saying.
To bring this point into context, Molly Blaisdell at the Author Learning Center states the following:
“The first and most important part of writing nonfiction is the research. Reliable source materials are of utmost importance. Always choose original sources first; expert interviews are much more reliable than secondary sources such as journals, databases, and books.”
The primary purpose of conducting research is to improve the author’s credibility. Naturally, there is room for making claims. That’s a logical part of the nonfiction writing process. Nevertheless, claims are only claims unless expert opinions and quantitative data back them up. Often, official statistics are the best way to support a claim.
There is one caveat when it comes to research: confirmation bias.
“Confirmation bias” is a phenomenon in which researchers look for information that can back up a conclusion instead of basing a conclusion on the information available. The issue with confirmation bias is that the conclusion itself may contain flaws.
Hence, even though the information supports the conclusion, the conclusion itself is not an accurate assessment of reality.
Build a Consistent Narrative
The narrative is the story that a writer tells. This narrative is the result of a writer embracing their personal voice. This voice then meshes with a message to the reader. As a result, the reader can then see the writer’s voice paint a picture throughout a book or book series. In the end, a narrative makes a clear and coherent argument that transcends a single point.
While creating a narrative is much easier in fiction writing, nonfiction writers must build their personal narratives as well. For example, a consistent narrative could be the result of embracing a particular ideology or philosophy. As the writer develops their narrative, the reader ought to see the author’s point of view unfold in front of them. Otherwise, authors risk dumping a collection of data without any flow to it. The result may be a stale description of factual information.
Todd Pierce, a regular contributor at The Writer, underscores the importance of a solid narrative in nonfiction writing by stating that “…rich details to create scenes, narrative materials to build engaging set pieces, and perspectives to construct accurate points of view” are all crucial to effective nonfiction writing.
The key to building a compelling nonfiction narrative is providing as much detail as possible. Therefore, creating a mental image in the reader’s mind is critical to conveying the right message. To achieve this, the author must provide as many accounts, facts, and information directly from those in the know. This data provides the richness that nonfiction topics deserve. The depth of details enables readers to go from a data dump into a world of knowledge they have been eager to enter.
Set Manageable Targets
Authors are more like marathon runners than sprinters. As such, successful nonfiction writers are keenly aware that writing great content is not about getting through it as fast as possible. Great content takes time to develop.
While it is true that some writers can work at a faster tempo than others, the fact is that writing excellent nonfiction content requires a dedicated approach.
Setting manageable writing targets means that authors ought to aim to write what they can reasonably manage per day. In other words, this means creating a schedule that they can realistically follow. Often, that schedule might imply writing 500 to 1,000 words a day. In contrast, it would be unreasonable to think about writing 10,000 words a day of productive content.
Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway remarked in a 1954 interview, “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you, and it is cool or cold, and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Hemingway’s comments allude to something paramount in successful writing: routine.
Successful writers understand the value of routine. Routine enables writers to get into “the zone.” This comfort zone enables creativity to flow. When creativity meshes with factual information and data, outstanding nonfiction emerges.
John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize winner and renowned for The Grapes of Wrath, offered this advice in 1962: “Lose track of therefore 400 pages and write just one page a day.” This advice is exactly the same as what marathoners say about completing a grueling race: “one mile at a time.”
All too often, novice writers start with gusto but eventually run out of gas. Thus, setting a reasonable pace is one of the essential elements to producing compelling nonfiction. In the end, writing is not a race. It is about creating quality content consistently.
Outline a Roadmap
Writing without having a proper outline is like going on a trip without a map. Of course, seasoned writers can hit the keyboard and produce great work. However, the operative word here is “seasoned.” Experienced writers know the value of outlining their ideas. While outlining gets easier and faster with time and experience, the fact is that successful writing is about planning everything in advance.
Failing to do so is a cardinal sin of inexperienced writers. They go about putting their ideas into text without having a clear picture of where they want to go. Eventually, they get stuck as they do not fathom where to take their book next.
Without a clear roadmap, a book may become a collection of random thoughts and ideas that do not lead anywhere. This lack of cohesion is why some writers claim their book is “unfinished.” No matter how much they work on it, they cannot seem to get to the end.
The Rutgers University Learning Center offers this pearl of wisdom:
“Outlining will help construct and organize ideas in a sequential manner and thoughtful flow. Doing so allows you to pick relevant information or quotes from sources early on, giving writers a steady foundation and groundwork when beginning the writing process. Most importantly, developing these ideas will help create your thesis.”
Outlining is the process that enables authors to find their voice, hone their vision, and refine their message. Authors that attempt writing without a clear outline quickly find that staying on track can be virtually impossible. Consequently, coming up with congruent outlines makes the difference between quality work and run-of-the-mill content.
Take It One Step at a Time
For inexperienced writers, it can be easy to get ahead of themselves, which is often the result of trying to capture every idea that comes to mind. When this occurs, ideas can easily get muddled as the text emerges. Thus, it is crucial to take things one step at a time.
Consequently, thinking about a nonfiction book in terms of individual chapters breaks the work down into manageable chunks. Hence, outlining plays a vital role in ensuring the text flows naturally.
Each chapter should work as an individual piece. Regardless of the topic, each chapter should provide an introduction, an argument, supporting details, and a conclusion. That conclusion should link to the next one so that readers want to keep moving forward. This compulsion is the key to creating a consistent narrative. When chapters are disjointed, readers won’t have a compelling reason to keep moving. If anything, they may only skim through the facts and put the book aside.
Also, details should intermingle with the thesis to paint a picture in a clear and straightforward manner. After all, ambiguity will undoubtedly spoil any book’s message. Crafting unclear or embellished sentences will not succeed in making the writer look smart. It will only lead to the reader losing interest.
Writing top-quality nonfiction content is a combination of skill, talent, and hard work. Writers that take the time to hone their craft eventually develop a sense of excellent writing.
Since writing is an art, it is a question of each individual developing their own style. In the end, the goal is to let each writer’s voice shine through the words on the page.
Also, writing is about taking a structured and measured approach that can lead to clear and concise ideas. Ultimately, it is this structured approach that allows authors to let their imagination soar. This approach enables authors to create a consistent narrative that leads readers to feel engaged with the text.
Outstanding nonfiction content is the kind that transports the reader into the mind of the writer. However, this cannot occur unless the author can peek inside the mind of the reader.
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