Are you a writer this month? Maybe participating in #NationalNovelWritingMonth? Or maybe you’re more of a reader, and you’re joining in on the Non-Fiction fun for #NonFictionNovember? Or hey! Maybe you’re both! And if that’s the case, then this article was written for you.
I love Non-Fiction. A good Non-Fiction book moves just as quickly and action-packed as a good Fiction novel, and a bad one can make you regret ever sitting down to read it. Or at least lead to a good nap. But there are some great things about good Non-Fiction that make it stand out from the rest.
Good Non-Fiction doesn’t need all of these things, per se, but every Non-Fiction book I’ve read and loved has been or had at least a handful of these attributes and they are part of what makes them unique and so, so readable.
Let’s do this.
Good Non-Fiction is accessible.
This one’s pretty straight-forward. Unless you’re writing for a specific audience of super geniuses, or just experts in a specific field you are also an expert in, Non-Fiction should be accessible to anyone who decides to pick it up. Put simply, make sure you think about your audience’s pre-existing level of knowledge about the subject you’re writing about and don’t over-complicate the way you speak about it. Most people respond most positively to a style that’s somewhere in between “instruction” and “casual conversation with a friend.” If your audience can’t make sense of what you’re saying, you’ve lost them before you can even teach them anything.
Good Non-Fiction finds the human element.
Regardless whether you’re writing a memoir or a history of the country or a scientific examination of the smallpox eradication, when you write, make sure that you are focusing first on the relatable, human experiences within your subjects. We learn and grow best when we feel and care about something, it motivates us and compels us to learn more: use this! Turn your numbers into people, homes, sister’s who still speak to you, but don’t just write about the numbers. We don’t feel empathy for numbers. Add warmth to your prose by focusing on your project’s “characters.” What are they thinking and feeling? What do you want your reader to think and feel about them? Make your reader feel something and they will absorb the ideas you’re also trying to get across.
Good Non-Fiction tells a story.
Like finding the human element, telling a story is an essential piece of reaching the reader that you want to inform. For the same reason we remember a song better than a random string of numbers (867-5309, ring any bells?) we remember things that happen in related sequences, ie. stories, better than we remember random information that is given to us. It’s biology! Telling a story through the information you’re trying to convey in your NF book also brings a myriad of other benefits to your writing: heart, empathy, greater understanding of the subject. Those who can master the use of storytelling in their technical, non-fiction writing will find it is to their enormous advantage. Plus, stories are just easier and more fun to read!
Good Non-Fiction is experienced.
You don’t have to be the world’s top expert with every certification to write good non-fiction, but you do need to hold some authority in order to garner trust with your reader. If you’ve sold millions of albums, people are going to want to read about your life in the music industry. If you’ve been working in a field your whole life, people will want to read about what that was like and what insider tricks you may know. Even if you’re just writing about yourself or something inspiring that happened to you, you are an expert on you and those experiences have given you a unique point of view that can be valuable to your reader. Whatever you’re writing about, make yourself an expert. Put in the work. Do the research. Make sure your research is correct and double-checked. And remember that authority doesn’t need to fit the traditional mold: if your life or work or experiences have given you knowledge that not everyone might have, remember that that can be enough. But keep your reader in mind. You want them to trust that you know what you’re talking about and that they can take that information out into the world with confidence.
Good Non-Fiction is inclusive.
None of us is an island and none of us can speak for every human experience on the planet; writing with these facts in mind can truly expand the relevancy of your non-fiction book. It can be easy, especially when you’re an expert in the topic you’re writing, to fall into a solely-instructive mode. Good non-fiction not only communicates what the author knows, but also what the author doesn’t know. One of my favorite non-fiction books takes a whole chapter to talk about emerging research in the field, unsubstantiated but possible theories, and differences in opinion within the field. Reading this chapter made me think of the author as someone who thought about every single facet of this topic and made a thoroughly informed, educated thesis from it. That is so impressive to me, and more importantly to most readers. Especially if you’re writing something social, but even in the sciences, taking other points of view or theories into account can impress upon your reader that you want them to be informed: not just persuaded to agree with you. Good research and good non-fiction doesn’t live in a vacuum. It is nuanced, multi-faced, and inclusive of all groups that are affected by a given topic.
Good Non-Fiction keeps it simple.
You should never dumb things down for your reader, but you should focus, clarify, and simplify every idea you want to communicate. Good Non-Fiction almost always does this to some degree. Even something as simple as using metaphors or examples can make a complicated topic seem much more manageable. This “keeping it simple” trick can even make its way into the structure of your book: clarifying what each chapter is about, making sure that each chapter is focused on its purpose, make sure that they go in the order that makes the most sense to teach your topic- and so much more. You don’t have to go out of your way, but really examining how a lay person would approach your book and making adjustments accordingly can make a world of difference to your readers.
Good Non-Fiction is is free of judgement.
Have you ever read smug Non-Fiction before? Where it feels like the author is condescending to you? Yeah, me too, and it is so annoying. If you want to communicate with someone, especially something technical or complex, you can’t judge your reader for not knowing what you’re trying to teach them– before you teach it to them. That’s why they’re supposed to buy your book, right? Share knowledge with joy, with excitement that someone else gets to learn it for the first time, and that excitement will infect your reader too. They’re here to learn and you have the privilege of getting to share something really cool: enjoy it, make the most of it, appreciate it. Readers can tell.
Good Non-Fiction asks more from the reader.
Lastly, good Non-Fiction asks the reader to do some of the work. As hard as you work to simplify your ideas and communicate clearly and with heart and enthusiasm, if your reader doesn’t have to participate in some part of the process it won’t stick with them the same way. So ask something of your reader. Raise the bar on what you expect from them. The best way I’ve found to do this is to literally ask questions. Make your reader think about the context of what you’re teaching them in their own lives, in the real world. Tell a story about something in your own life or the life of one of your characters that will reach out and grab the reader, something they can relate to. At the very least, good Non-Fiction asks its readers to decide what they think and feel, and any time you can give your reader such valuable introspection on a subject- you’ve succeeded. Bonus: they win too!
To check out some of my personal favorite Non-Fiction books, check out my list here!
Happy reading, friends! x
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