The professional publishing world of nonfiction writing can be pretty tough. One day you might feel like you are on top of the world, with editors praising and adoring your latest manuscript. The next day you might experience the other side of the coin, with your editor trashing every page you submit. These seven nonfiction writing skills will mitigate those lows and help make you a better author.
One pitfall that nonfiction writers fall into much more often than fiction writers is the time indicator. These are phrases and words that set the story in a certain time, like “it was”, “when”, “back then”. The reason for this is that nonfiction writers are aware of the factual nature of their writing, while fiction writers know that they’re just making up a story.
But time indicators stunt the pace of your writing every time they appear. The narrative does not necessarily have to be about the past. If it is about an event in the past, it is possible to write it as if it is in the present. It is also possible to set the time of your narrative once or twice to guide your reader through the chronological reality. Continuously referring back to the event is unnecessary, and something too many nonfiction writers do.
Just because your story is set in the real world doesn’t mean it has to be as boring as an average day in real life. You are writing nonfiction, not a Wikipedia page. Give your writing some flair. While writing every scene, ask yourself: would I enjoy reading this?
The moment a nonfiction manuscript devolves into a collection of facts, rather than a committed effort towards building a narrative that readers can enjoy, is the moment your editor will pull out the dreaded red pen.
Keep it exciting. And no, we’re not saying that your story should turn into the latest Michael Bay thriller. Don’t confuse excitement with explosions and sex appeal. Excitement can be captured in the subtlest details, making the world in your story come to life.
For example, let’s say you are writing a medical self-help book and you’re relaying a conversation between a doctor and patient. What does the room smell like? Does the doctor wear eyeglasses? What colour are his eyes? Does he look at the patient or keep staring at his notepad or the computer? Where is the light coming from? How is the patient feeling during the exchange? These are all elements you’d find in a fiction book. They belong just as rightfully in your nonfiction book too.
It can be tempting to start with the most major event, especially when it comes to nonfiction. After all, why would readers want to read about anything other than what the title of the book promises? It isn’t like writing fiction where you are expected to write a full narrative and story.
But there’s the mistake: you are. Nonfiction should still have the fundamental elements of storytelling, and this includes withholding the biggest meat of your story until at least after the introduction. But if you insist on including the point of your book in the beginning, it’s advisable to start a few paces before the climax, describe the climax, and then backtrack.
The best books, both fiction and nonfiction, survive the tests of time. This means that regardless of whether 10, 50, 100, or 500 years have passed, the book still successfully teaches the same lessons that it taught when it was new.
Which means you’ll want to add a consciousness about references to your bag of nonfiction writing skills. If you refer to events that are popular in the last year or two, you might not feel the need to describe that reference or explain its context. However, how much will that make sense next year or even five years from now? Will readers see your work as something of its time, or will it be evergreen? Solid nonfiction writing skills include choosing the right balance between including pop references that are important for your story, and when you should forgo the pop reference and stay evergreen.
This one is as relevant for fiction as for nonfiction writing skills. Not every sentence has to be brilliant. The issue is that editors – and readers – don’t want you to stop trying to write great lines. But they also don’t want every single line to be memorably great. It’s like a movie. If every scene in a movie was a tearjerker, you would end up emotionally exhausted halfway through, with half of a bad movie left to watch.
Brilliance should be sporadic. Lines that make readers stop to blink and take a breath should come unexpectedly, and should hit right when they least expect it. There is value in the unloved normal sentences that we never remember. They act as the scaffold that supports the brilliant lines so they can dangle and shine.
You have probably heard this one a thousand times before, but no list like this would be complete without a nod to the classic rule. There is much advice out there that your bucket of nonfiction writing skills should include “show, don’t tell.” We think about show and tell a little differently. We want you to learn the difference between show and tell, and when to use each. We will not tell you that you must show and avoid tell. There is a valid role for each method. It’s called storytelling, after all.
You decide whether to show or to tell by asking yourself how important the scene is to your overall story. If it is a pivotal part of the story, you will want to pull the reader in and show them the action. When you show with your writing, you demonstrate for the reader how a particular thing is done, how it happened, how it appears, or what it feels like.
If the scene is more transitory, a means of getting the character or subject or the story from one place to the next, you can tell. When you tell with your writing, you generally use simple, concise language that conveys the necessary facts.
The Lord of the Rings is known for being the father of modern fantasy, and Tolkien is regarded as a genius in various fantasy circles. But let’s be real: have you ever actually tried reading those novels? They might have worked for the standards set back then, but today, the modern audience would never have the patience. And one big reason for that is the pages and pages worth of info dumps.
Info dumps are self-explanatory. They happen when an author believes that the reader needs to know a lot more before they can continue with the ongoing narrative. So, the author finds a way to dump pages worth of backstory or explanation in a single go. Maybe a character will pick up a history book and read through an entire chapter, or maybe they get a visit from a wise old man whose purpose is simply to explain an entire world’s backstory.
Nonfiction writers often believe they are immune to the info dump accusation. After all, when you are recounting a real life event, the reader has to know all the details, right? An info dump is less about the purpose of the information and more about its delivery. Dumping all of your information, history, and backstory in one go is lazy writing. Learning how to avoid it is one of the key nonfiction writing skills.
Figure out more interesting ways to slide information throughout your pages. Think of it like this: information is like spices. No one wants to eat a bowl full of salt and pepper in the middle of their meal. We want our steak peppered and spiced perfectly with every bite.
These nonfiction writing skills all boil down to a single issue that all nonfiction authors need to keep in mind: just because you are writing nonfiction doesn’t mean you are not writing a story. Facts and real life events do not have some sort of privilege that fiction doesn’t. Just because the events you are writing about happened in the real world instead of Narnia doesn’t mean that they have to be dull.
It is still your job as the author to entice readers into reading and finishing your story. And once you take this to heart, you will make any nonfiction editor’s day a thousand times easier. And your reader’s day a thousand times better.
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. 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 (it's a long story), 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, and 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 and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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