Each author’s writing style can be as unique as his/her DNA. Still, in the many manuscripts we assess, and others we edit, are common nonfiction writing mistakes. Yes, your editor can and will catch them, but you’ll become a better writer and you’ll get more value from your editor when you stop making them.
Many nonfiction books make an argument, present a point of view, and set out to influence or change the mind of the reader. No problem there. However, you will sound more credible if you let your facts and arguments stand on their own, without inflammatory statements like these:
“Any imbecile will have to agree that…”
“It is alarming to me that…”
“Every good and reasonable person will…”
“It is unbelievable anyone could not agree…”
A good clue you’re falling into this trap is an abundance of exclamation marks. Do a quick search of your manuscript and see how many you’ve used. More than one or two in 50,000 words? Go back and read those sections. Don’t just remove the punctuation marks, take a good look at the words you were working so hard to emphasize. Are they undermining the credibility of your message? Make a change.
Consider the difference between these two approaches.
Before: “Do the facts really matter? Yes, they matter very much.”
After: “Do the facts really matter? Yes, and here’s why: …”
When you author a book, you’re doing so both because you are an authority and because you want to increase authority. The first doesn’t give you the right to assert your authority without an explanation. And if you try to do this, you’ll fail at achieving the second.
It’s very easy to talk from the perspective of your own specialized knowledge and that of your company and your team instead of taking the time to understand what your audience currently knows. Don’t fall into the trap of using the inside jargon of your company – such can alienate your readers. Speak to the knowledge base of your readers and inform them as to how you can help them solve a problem in a manner they can understand.
To you reader, if you use too much jargon it will seem like you’re rambling. There’s a difference between rambling and providing well thought out, substantive, concise, and compelling information. However, effective content does not say too much when too much should not be said. Don’t overdo it with your sales pitch. Among the many types of writing mistakes, this one can definitely drive away your readers quickly.
This is one of the writing mistakes that should be caught by your editor. Notice in the last sentence “that” was used correctly. However, let us inform you that we don’t generally make the mistake in this sentence using “that” – your editor should catch that one as well.
“Things” is simply one of those generic words that do not rise to the level of particularly inspiring wordsmith quality. Many other words may be used instead, including concepts, qualities, features, options, attributes, and others.
I had no idea I was such an enthusiastic user of the word “but” until one of my beta readers for Rock Your Business pointed it out. “You’re driving me crazy!” she said in her email response. I’ve since taken note of a heavy preponderance of this conjunction in other manuscripts I’ve assessed. I’m all in favour of making connections between phrases and ideas, but it might be too much of a good thing. Do a count in your manuscript for how many times you’ve used the word “but”, and then fix it up. You can often replace with “however”. I was interested to find that I could simply take the word out and the new sentence, phrase or paragraph works just fine. Possibly even better.
The other thing about the word ‘but’ is that it suggests an either/or situation. “You can enjoy your cake, but the calories may make you fat.” It means the promise of the first half of the sentence (enjoy your cake) is impossible to deliver because of the second half (it may make you fat – which you won’t enjoy). Life is full of ambiguity, possibility and duality. It is possible to have your cake and eat it too. J Removing the word ‘but’ except where it is absolutely necessary will tighten up your message and open up the world for your readers.
This goes beyond simple writing mistakes and into the land of psychology. If you’re writing a how-to book, whether it’s about adopting a low-sugar diet or ways to build a rocket ship, you may be tempted to use “should” often. “You should stop buying sugary drinks and instead drink only water.” Seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? However (but), your brain is responsible for keeping you out of trouble. When your brain registers “should”, it adds resistance to whatever comes after. It doesn’t believe you want to do the thing, otherwise you’d be telling it that you want to. “You want to stop buying sugary drinks.” Now your brain has something it can get on board with and help you make happen. “Should” is an admonishment, a judgement, and is easily taken the wrong way. Try replacing “should” with “want” and notice the difference in how your advice feels.
Calls-to-action are one of the bread-and-butters, so to speak, of effective writing. This is especially true if you’re writing a business book and you want your readers to take some action. Perhaps you want them to call you or hire you. You want to think about this if you’re writing memoir, too. You’re an author, yes? Would you like your readers to leave you a review? Insert a strong call to action.
There’s no reason to leave out a call-to-action in any portion of your manuscript where you wish to elicit a response. You’ve given your readers the information they need to hear. Now let them know the next step to take!
Don’t leave the next step in the process to the imagination of the reader. You may even include more than one call-to-action. Perhaps you leave one at the end of each chapter, and another again at the end of the book.
Make sure your call-to-action is not too weak. Provide specific and descriptive action phrases that tell readers exactly what they’re getting. “Call us today at (XXX) XXX-XXXX to request a free consultation”, or “Download Your Free Report Now!”
After reviewing the above list, you may have found one or more writing mistakes you have been making on a consistent basis. If so, you have an opportunity now to correct those writing mistakes and improve the quality of your work.
Now that’s worth celebrating.
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books and an author, editor, and ghostwriter. She also manages communications and media for the Alliance of Independent Authors. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray, Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up.
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