Happy Nonfiction day, authors!
It’s easy to think of nonfiction and fiction as two separate entities — one is a story directly from the imagination of the author, the other is based in facts. But at the end of the day, the goal for both is the same: tell a compelling story that will draw in readers. If you’re looking to try your hand at nonfiction, we’ve collected ten tips to help your nonfiction sing.
1. Have a plan
Nonfiction is not really the genre for pantsing—it’s best to tackle with at least a bit of a plan. Namely, you should nail down exactly what information you’re hoping to pass along to your reader and how you’re going to do so. What structure are you planning to use? What will your writing tone be? Knowing how you’re going to pass along your knowledge to your readership is key to getting started.
2. Know your genre
Like fiction, nonfiction exists in different genres and subgenres, but can mainly be divided into two categories: narrative and exposition. Knowing where your book will fit in the nonfiction market before you begin will influence how you write, and how you decide to pass your knowledge onto your reader.
3. Find your audience
Much like fiction, knowing your target audience before you dive into writing your nonfiction book can influence the content. Presenting new scientific research to your peers will have a wildly different tone than passing along this same research to a general readership. Knowing who will be reading your book before you begin is key to ensuring you’re using the correct tone, language, and structure for your book.
4. Tell a story
It’s easy to think of nonfiction as merely a book-sized way to relay facts to a reader. But it’s so important to make sure you’re telling a compelling story as well! You need to make sure the information you’re passing along to your readership is as interesting to them as it is to you, and the best way to do that is to tell them a story.
5. Play with POV and time
Just because nonfiction is a genre of facts doesn’t mean it has to be linear. If telling your reader the history of the shipping container will be more compelling if you start somewhere in the middle, do that! If retelling the life of a historical figure will be more interesting if you use their personal journals, switching to first person, absolutely include them. Like we said above, you want to grab your reader and have them invested in your story. Point of view and chronology are great ways to do that.
6. Bring on the detail
Small, specific details can bring more credibility to your nonfiction title, and it can also paint a more thorough picture for your reader and help you set the scene. For example, telling your reader the shipping container was a mustard yellow is one thing, but if you can include how weathered this container was due to its many days at sea, and how salt-stained the deck of the ship is, well that will draw your reader in.
7. Don’t get bogged down in jargon
If you’re writing a scientific or academic paper for an audience of your peers, you can probably ignore this tip—if your readers are going to be familiar with the specific language of your specialty, feel free to use it. However, if you’re writing your book for a more general audience, be sure to keep as much as possible in layman’s terms, and when you can’t avoid it, explain the jargon to your readership. It’s much more interesting to read emotional and compelling language than a mouthful of jargon, so use it sparingly!
8. Remember your facts and sources
At the end of the day, nonfiction is based in fact. So you’ll need to be sure that anything include in your book, unless expressly stated otherwise, can be backed up with research. With that in mind, don’t stop your research at one source. If the first encyclopedia you found on shipping containers (yes, I’m continuing with this example) alludes to shady ongoings between two sea captains but doesn’t give the whole story, start digging! Look for the stories beyond the base facts, but as always, be sure you can back up all of your claims.
9. Keep it tight
When you are writing about a topic you know thoroughly and are highly passionate about, it’s easy to go a little overboard. Just ask anyone I have talked to about Buffy the Vampire Slayer—you can’t get me to stop. But when it comes to writing a successful nonfiction book, you want to make sure you’re keeping your scenes tight and your chapters contained, otherwise your book can start to feel like it’s dragging. Much like fiction, pacing in nonfiction is incredibly important. You don’t want your reader to get bored while you’re telling them about the advent of shipping containers!
10. Keep reading and never stop learning
The two best ways to become a successful nonfiction writer is to read a lot of nonfiction and to write a lot of nonfiction. Practice does make (closer to) perfect after all. So read as much nonfiction as you can, especially within your specific genre—not necessarily on your topic, but in the same style you’re hoping to write in—and keep on practicing your craft. And to that end, keep learning about new and exciting things! You never know what kernel of knowledge will inspire your next great work of nonfiction.