The internet is filled with information designed to help writers produce great fiction, but when writers want to know how to write engaging non-fiction, the info stream dries up.
I don’t understand that: Knowing how to create non-fiction that draws your reader in is critical to the purpose of most non-fiction pieces. If a reader gives up on your piece because it’s too esoteric or they can’t weed through stilted or lofty language to get to the point, then your article, essay, or post fails in its purpose.
Non-fiction should be just as entertaining as fiction. Since I write for several outlets that require adherence to AP style, I realize that there are restrictions on usage and technique. And if you’re writing for a specific media outlet you may have additional style rules to follow: A piece for The Atlantic is going to read much differently from a piece for techdirt.
However, most good editors will give you leeway to inject some of your personal style into a piece, and this is critical. But knowing how to write in a way that is both professional and entertaining is the key to getting this kind of editorial carte blanche in the first place.
Something I think is critical to good non-fiction writing is variation. This means using synonyms and equivalent phrases to help your writing move the reader along. Here’s an example of how to write with variation from a soon-t0-be published article for the Center for Digital Ethics. The words in quotations have been replaced with synonyms to help smooth reading:
When a 12-year old African American boy defended comments regarding Barack Obama’s lack of love for America and his video went viral, his account was locked by Facebook for “suspicious activity”. Likewise, black (African American) Christian conservative and Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain’s account was removed(blocked) for “abusive content”, but then restored (unblocked) minutes after an article was published revealing Facebook’s arbitrary censorship of her account.
Variation is especially critical if you’re writing blog posts or for a client that requires SEO optimization as you’ll have to repeat keywords throughout the piece. Having variation in the rest of your language will help balance the keyword “load” and make the piece much more readable.
Keep a thesaurus handy or set a tab on your browser to thesaurus.com so you don’t interrupt your writing flow to look up a synonym. Another fantastic, yet surprisingly little-known tool, is a phrase finder. Not only will this help you write interesting prose, but it can even serve as an idea generator. And, if you get tired of your trusty thesaurus, try a synonym finder like this one. It has to be good, since the very name (synonym finder) is a variation on thesaurus!
So now you have some tools for your “how to write great non-fiction” toolbox. Gather them together, test drive them a little, and then join me next week for Part II.
See you on the next page!