Writing

What Makes Good Non-Fiction?

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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Recommendations

15 Non-Fiction Books That Won’t Put You to Sleep (+ 1 That Might But is Still Worth Your Time)

It’s National Non-Fiction Day today! To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you all some of my favorite Non-Fiction stories, on a variety of subjects.

I love Fiction, but there has always been a special place in my heart for learning too. A good Non-Fiction book doesn’t just educate though, it also entertains and gives us a new insight into the world around us. The books below are some of my favorites because they all accomplish that in one way or another, though I tried to grab from a variety of topics. I hope you find something new to learn!

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

This is one of those books that I wish everyone in the world would read. The Noonday Demon is, almost literally, the “Bible” of anything and everything to do with Depression. And it’s constantly being updated. The book is long (almost a third of it is the index too, whew!) but the chapters are broken up into relevant topics so that the reader can skip around to find what they need. The chapters cover causes, treatment, social stigma, diversity, even the politics that effect the treatment, diagnosis, and social policies regarding Depression in our world. I’ve struggled with mental health my whole life, so I thought I knew everything before I picked up this book: I was so wrong. I learned an innumerable number of things about Depression, as well other disorders that can go along with it, that I never would have learned had I not picked up this book. If you’ve struggled with similar issues as well, you’ll likely find yourself reading through this book and thinking “woah, me too!” to yourself over and over. If you love someone with Depression, there is no better book out there to educate you on what they might be going through and what you might be able to do to help. I wish every person, and especially every single doctor, would read this book. I think we would start to see a dramatic change in our world.

(Topics: Mental Health, Medicine, Politics, Social Justice)

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

Starting with one of the most fun Non-Fiction books on this list, The Disappearing Spoon is a fascinating read. This book tells stories of history, science, heartbreak, failure, bizarre discoveries, all told through the lens of an element on the periodic table. It sounds boring, but I promise it isn’t. Each of these stories is immensely readable, written with heart, and I always learn something ridiculous or wild. This book really makes science and the history of scientific discoveries fun and funny and interesting and I love this book for the unique perspective it brings to all that. Definitely recommend. This is one of my favorites.

(Topics: Science, Scientific Discovery, Scientific Failures, History)

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Full disclosure, Jenny Lawson is one of my favorite authors. Even choosing between her two books was difficult for me, her first book Let’s Pretend this Never Happened was also great. But there’s something about Furiously Happy that just makes me…furiously happy. This book is about mental health, Lawson’s life, raccoon taxidermy, and giant chickens. It is dark and sad and profound sometimes, never afraid to reach into the deepest parts of our souls. Other times it tells some of the funniest stories I’ve ever read in a memoir. Furiously Happy was there for me during a very hard time in my life and I will always treasure and recommend it so highly. If you are struggling and want to feel that someone else knows what you’re going through, this is that book. And if you’re struggling and you want someone to tell you a weird story so you can laugh and not think about it? Also here. I hope you guys enjoy this one as much as I do.

(Topics: Mental Health, Humor, Life Stories)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

If you’re squeamish at all, look away from this book now. The Hot Zone follows Richard Preston, a former employee with the CDC and US Military, as he tries to fight the Ebola virus. This book takes us from outbreak, to how they research the disease, to close calls we’ve had in the US, as well as his own personal trials happening behind all of the insane situations he found himself in. The Hot Zone is a tense book and full of graphic, clear descriptions of a lot of awful things. But it is also immensely educational, full of heart from a perspective that carries so much knowledge and empathy, and a seriously intense thrill if you’re as weirdly fascinated by these deadly viruses as I am. (If you’re a fan of scientific NF, Preston’s second book, The Demon in the Freezer, talks about his work with smallpox and its eradication. I also enjoyed it.)

(Topics: Virology, Medicine, Science, History)

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Vargas

Dear America is one of the most well-written, powerful NF books I’ve read in a long time. I read (listened to) it in one sitting, driving home from visiting family, and hearing Vargas’ life experience from his own words was awakening and a call to action. If you want to learn more about the immigration process in the US and how it works, this is the book for you. If you want to understand what life is like for thousands of ‘undocumented citizens,’ as Vargas declares himself, this is the book. The policies and actual processes in our country could not be farther apart from each other and this book is a wake up call to change, but also an eye-opening and relatable story of someone’s life told by an author who feels like a friend. Vargas shines in this memoir.

(Topics: The US, Immigration, Social Justice, Life Stories)

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kold, MD

Another book I wish more people would read, I stumbled upon The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kold, MD a couple of years ago and I am so glad that I did. This book talks about a lot, but mainly it talks about how trauma, of any kind, really does affect our bodies and minds much more than we think it does. And also in ways that we could never imagine. From aches and pains to chemical imbalances to the way we eat, this book talks about how our bodies hold onto trauma and how we can guide ourselves into healing. Not just in the physical sense, but with a holistic mindset that makes this book unique. The Body Keeps the Score has been well received by scientists and doctors all over the world and I hope to see its principles show up in our world even more as the years go on.

(Topics: Trauma, Mental Health, Physical Health, Medicine)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Of all the books on race in America right now, this is the one I chose. There are many, many more that deserve to be on this list, but Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliant, succinct little gem in Between the World and Me has become one of the most talked about, purchased, and (hopefully) read. I love the way Coates talks and speaks his truth in his writing. Race is a heavy subject to talk about, especially from a first-person, experience-based POV, which this novel takes, but he handles each turn and piece of truth with grace. Reading this book is an opportunity for us to also take in this information with grace and ideally lead ourselves to deeper introspection about how the world functions around us when it comes to marginalized groups. Between the World and Me is personal, deep, inspiring, and well-deserving of its spot on this list. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

(Topics: Race, Social Justice, Life Stories, The US)

Rising Strong by BrenΓ© Brown

I love BrenΓ© Brown. Everything she’s written has inspired me and changed the way I think about my own emotions and boundaries, but this book is my favorite from her catalog. Rising Strong is about a moment we all face in our lives: getting back up when you’ve been knocked down. The book focuses on how we can choose to be vulnerable and learn from these moments, lean into these moments even, instead of pushing them away and losing valuable information about ourselves along the way. Paired with personal stories from her own life, Rising Strong is an incredibly readable, very well-researched piece of Non-Fiction and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to do some self-reflection.

(Topics: Vulnerability, Shame, Self-growth, Mental Health)

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higgenbotham

If you were as captivated by the HBO mini-series Chernobyl as I was, then here you go! This is the book that series was based off of and it has a reputation for being descriptive, readable, and incredibly well-researched. While some of the passages can be number heavy, the majority of this book reads like an immersive, highly detailed story from minute to minute. It’s crazy to me that we are only just now getting “clarity” on a lot of what happened that day in Privyet, Russia. Higginbotham does a great job of not only giving an immersive experience, but also educating the reader on Chernobyl’s lasting effects and legacy. A fascinating read.

(Topics: Science, Man-made Disaster, History, International Relations)

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

One of the creepiest, most moving, best-written pieces of True Crime that I’ve read in a while, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark follows the late journalist Michelle McNamara’s driven journey to find the Golden State Killer. I could barely put this book down. Told in alternating timelines, since the book was published posthumously, about McNamara’s search for the killer and parallels in her own life, all building up to one of the most insane endings to a criminal case that I’ve read in a long time. I wish McNamara had been around to see it, she deserves every accolade for this book, for her work, and for her tireless dedication. If you’re a True Crime fan (or even if you’re not), don’t miss this one!

(Topics: True Crime, History, Life Stories)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A personal favorite of mine, We Should All Be Feminists is another one of those books that I would force everyone to read if I ruled the world. *cough* I MEAN, that I wish everyone would choose to read of their own volition, of course. But I digress. This book is just so close to my heart. Inside these pages is Adichie’s signature style of writing that makes her principles all the more powerful, simple and so clear all at the same time. She excels at taking complex and emotionally-charged topics and bringing them back down to earth, grounding them in practical reality and in the women you know and love. We should all be feminists, and this little gem is one of our most powerful calls to action. If you haven’t read this one, don’t miss out.

(Topics: Feminism, Women’s Issues, Social Justice)

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay has a handful of books that all could’ve ended up on this list, but Hunger is the book that has stuck with me the most since I read it. Hunger is about just that- our bodies, our relationship to our bodies, and our relationship with the food we put into our bodies. As someone who has struggled with many aspects of this multi-faceted problem in our culture, Hunger is a much needed, eye-opening, experience-validating story in our modern world. It’s an intense read, especially if you struggle with these issues, but reading through it and sitting with the thoughts it brings up can be transformative if you let it. Gay writes with such heart, personal vulnerability, and love and I would recommend this book, and almost any of her other work, to anyone.

(Topics: Body Image, Mental Health, Self-growth, Life Stories)

Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski

This is one of my favorite little Non-Fiction books that I don’t see talked about enough. But then again, its topic: women’s sexual health, isn’t talked about enough either. Come As You Are is essentially a love letter to your lady parts, as weird as that sounds. It is a book about how diverse our bodies can be, how our bodies work, and what we can do to better understand our bodies, desires, and inner workings, and what that understanding can do to enhance our sex lives and…well, just our lives in general. There is so much information in this book and so much validation if you are a woman who has ever wondered, “Am I normal?” The only drawback in this book for me is that it is primarily aimed at and researched for cis-gender women. The author does address this and the reasons why, but I do look forward to it being updated with new information as it becomes available for trans women and non-binary folks. Sexuality is complex and though this book only touches on so many of the important issues of our time, this book also taught me how much we still have left to learn.

(Topics: Sex, Sexuality, Social Taboos, Science, Women’s Issues)

Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller

So many of us need to read this book and don’t even know it. In the age of online dating and hook-up culture and generational shift between styles of dating and marriage, Attached takes a psychological approach to some of the reasons our relationships may not be as fulfilling as we want them to be. When I studied psychology in school, we learned about Attachment Styles, which are essentially the style in which we are taught to look at and behave toward relationships with each other. Trust or distrust? Secure or insecure? Attached takes us through each style, what can cause a person to fall into one set of habits or style, what can help us break out of them, and what patterns lead to the deep, healthy, connection we’re all searching for. I know, I know, it sounds like a self-help book about “why you’re still single,” but its not. It’s a scientifically-studied, psychology-based explanation of how our style of connecting to people forms over the course of our lives, and how it can impact those relationships. I learned a lot. I reflected a lot. This book was a fascinating read and also a very practical tool for anyone wondering about these issues for themselves.

(Topics: Relationships, Psychology, Self-growth, Practical)

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

This was just…a fun read. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World covers just about what it sounds like it covers– Genghis Khan’s life and the impact it had on the forming world around him. However, it’s very likely that you don’t realize just how much of an impact there truly was from his actions, family, and choices. I learned a crazy amount about the forming cultures surrounding Khan, and even how some of his actions affect the way we do things today in the Western world. This book was fascinating, I knew almost none of this before I jumped into it and Weatherford does an incredible job of writing something that is both educational and readable. This is History intensive, but it’s great reading too.

(Topics: History, Science, Comprehensive)

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A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

This. Book. Is. Huge. And dense. But it is 100% worth your time and effort. If you’re a big history buff and you read a lot of that kind of thing, this will probably be a breeze for you. For me and everyone else though, it does take some dedication. It’s long and it is so chock full of fascinating facts and information. This book is the history class that all of us should have gotten growing up in the United States but didn’t. When this book was written, its purpose was to be an account of the history of the United States in as un-biased and universally-focused a way as they could manage. I think they accomplish it pretty well. Anyone who wants to be informed about the beginnings of and contributions to our country’s history should pick this book up. And anyone who’s got a friend or a relative that could use a little history lesson about how the world is a big, wonderful, diverse place, that was built by all of us together, well…Christmas is coming soon, and this might make a great gift! πŸ™‚

(Topics: History, Politics, Race, Economics, Religion, Social Justice, and pretty much a little bit of everything else too, tbh)


Haha and on that note, I’m going to leave you. I have learned so much through books, both Fiction and Non-Fiction. I hope you find something you love in this list! x

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