The market for nonfiction books is alive and well. People love to learn about themselves and the world around them through art, biography, economics, history, journalism, philosophy, psychology, religion, science, etc. In the United States alone, over 281 million nonfiction books were sold last year.
The goal of nonfiction writing is to provide an accurate and truthful depiction of ideas, facts and events, but that doesn’t mean nonfiction writing has to be dry and boring, or that as a nonfiction writer you shouldn’t pay attention to style. Nonfiction or not, writing is still a craft. No one wants to read a lifeless, confusing, impenetrable book, even if it were full of brilliant ideas. Readers are hungry for information they can use, understand and relate to.
As a nonfiction writer, you should make it your mission to engage audiences, express your ideas clearly, write with authority and satisfy the reader’s goals for reading your book. Applicable to beginning and expert writers alike, these are the four keys that will instantly improve your nonfiction writing. So let’s take a closer look.
Engage Your Audience
Unless your book is required reading for a captive audience (textbooks we’re looking at you!), you’ll want your reader to willingly pick up your nonfiction book and stick around long enough to hear your ideas. For that to happen, you’ll need to pique your audience’s interest from the first page and keep the momentum going till the end.
People love to be entertained, so try opening with a relevant story, or else a quote from a well-known person. Stories and quotes both serve an illustrative purpose and as an ice-breaking introduction. You might also consider keeping your story going, or opening each chapter with a quote, as a recurring theme or unifying thread.
People also love to be active participants. Ask your readers questions throughout the book, and then answer them. It will help them feel like you’re talking directly to them. Use examples and case studies throughout your writing to reinforce your ideas and bring readers on the journey with you. Consider giving readers activity ideas, discussion questions and resource lists so they can easily act on the information you’re giving them even after they’ve put the book down.
Express Your Ideas Clearly
Readers want to read books they can understand, but you’ll need to help them out. Build your book using the right tools.
Start with a well-organized structure. Gently introduce your readers to your book and the subject at hand. Give each chapter a job to do with a specific set of topics to cover. Then bring the pieces together, wrapping them up nicely at the end.
As you write your book, remember that each paragraph and each sentence have their own job to do too. Write clearly, simply and directly. Support your ideas with details, but try to keep sentences and paragraphs on the shorter side. Remember that white space is your friend. It may be fine to wax poetic in fiction writing, but nonfiction writers should try to keep their writing on the straight and narrow side of the style aisle.
Write with Authority
As the author of a nonfiction book, you’re the expert on the topic, but you’ll need to demonstrate that. Your book should include a short biography with a list of your relevant experience and credentials; however, you’ll still need to adequately convey your expertise and inspire trust in your readers in other ways.
First, don’t let your choice of words undermine you. Don’t use words and phrases like “Maybe,” “I think” and “I believe.” Instead, use vocabulary that conveys certainty and authority when it’s appropriate.
Second, your writing should make it very obvious that you know what you’re talking about, that you know your subject backwards and forwards. Yet, if your writing doesn’t pop that way, then you need to do one of two things: either gain more experience on the topic or do some rewriting to let your expertise really shine through.
Caveat: Do be careful NOT to overload your book with jargon, especially if you are writing for a general marketplace. Industry buzzwords, terms that only insiders know, and obfuscating references or phrases will not endear you to your readers.
Satisfy the Reader’s Goal
Readers read nonfiction books with a specific purpose in mind. Examples might include learning a skill, exploring an idea and discovering why something happened. Would you be happy if you bought a book because you thought it would solve a particular problem, but the book didn’t even touch on your problem at all? Most likely, no. Happy readers are readers who have their expectations met.
As the author of a nonfiction book, one of your jobs is to consider why the reader would be reading your book and give them what they’re seeking. Be consistent in your message and what the book is specifically for. Your readers will thank you.
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