This has been the summer of nonfiction. I’ve read more nonfiction books than I have in a long while and I’ve had an influx of writers coming to me wanting support for their nonfiction works—about relationships, globalization and business, the internalization of negativity, women and power, and, of course, Trump.
I will never profess to anyone that writing a book is easy, but nonfiction writers do have a leg up over their novelist and memoirist peers in that nonfiction can and should be formulaic. It’s all about your table of contents, and if you bang that out on the front end and feel good about the points you’re hitting, you have a strong template to guide you all the way through to the end. Yes, you still have to execute good writing and keep your reader interested in your topic, but there are a few tricks (ie, skills) that you can implement to attract agents and editors—and eventually readers.
1. Give your reader subheads!
Too often, writers I work with submit long excerpts or sample chapters chock-full of good ideas, theories, and expression, but with no breaks! Readers need breaks, and oftentimes line breaks don’t cut it. Subheadings are critical in nonfiction works. They helps you, the writer, break your own ideas into compartmentalized sections. They also keep you more organized and therefore on point. You might have four or five subheads in a given chapter, and the subhead title itself guides the reader toward the points you want to make in that section. It helps keep you and your reader on track, and it gives readers a natural place to break—whether for the purpose of stopping for a while (bookmark!) or digesting what they’ve just read.
2. Let yourself be a character in the broader story.
It’s not a rule that the writer be a character in their own nonfiction work, but if you fail to be the trusted guide, you’re going to have a much less readable book. Even if the book is not about you, you need to establish yourself as an authority. You have to tell the reader why you’re writing the book and what qualifies you to be the author. It’s okay if the only qualification you have is curiosity, but if this is the case, you want to pepper stories about yourself throughout the text. Don’t overdo it, of course. I’m not suggesting that your nonfiction work become a memoir. I am suggesting, however, that your reader will be more likely to stay with you if they have confidence in you, and that confidence comes from sharing, being transparent, and inviting the reader into your world (as it connects to the subject matter of your book).
3. Break up the text with other design elements.
Nonfiction writers don’t often know that there’s a wide world of extra elements they can include in their writing and in their books to break up the content and highlight certain thoughts and ideas. As a nonfiction writer, you can embrace images, graphs, and callouts, quotes that get pulled from the text and designed into the body of your book, as you’d see in a magazine. You can have sidebars that highlight interviews or recipes or case studies. I love it when nonfiction writers think outside the box. Lately I’ve been seeing listicles as chapters, experimental chapters in which a nonfiction writer might curate a bunch of relevant Tweets. Pay attention to how people consume content. Don’t feel that just because you’re writing a book, you’re bound to continuous text. You’re not, and readers love books that break up the reading experience with interesting internal elements.
4. Don’t be afraid to write a short book.
This is a big one, in keeping with the whole notion that people are consuming content differently. The short book is on trend, and more attractive that it was in years past. When I say short, I mean as short as 35,000-40,000 words, not much shorter than that. I’ve seen more and more nonfiction books that are under 200 pages. The design elements I mentioned in point 3 can also lengthen a book that has fewer words. So can wider margins. Let your content pack a punch. Don’t meander or write too superfluously. You can give your reader a good dose of wow in a pretty small package—and in our content-saturated culture, you’ll probably sell more books as a result.
5. Write in your own voice.
I come across so many writers who think that because they’re writing nonfiction, they must don their academic writing hat. Nonfiction needn’t be stuffy or rigid. No one sets out to write a boring book, but writers are often plagued by the voices of their long-gone professors. People get caught up in perfectionism and The Rules. Please, people, write how you talk with just a bit more polish and finesse. Have fun with your writing. Don’t be afraid to write in a colloquial style. People aren’t buying books because they want to read academic tomes. If we wanted that we’d go back to school. Be you—and be wary of working with anyone (agents, editors, writing groups or buddies) who insists that formal/grammatically uptight equals better. Not so. Write well, yes, but also be authentically you.