Kate wrote and asked, “How can I make my nonfiction memorable?”
I can think of a handful of tips…
1. Rely on “story.” How many times have you sat through a church service, listened to a good sermon, and left without remembering the pastor’s points, yet having his illustration stuck in your mind? The world revolves around story. It’s why you can turn on a TV anywhere, 24/7, and find stories. It’s how we come to understand ourselves and our world. So offer your reader a story, not just solid content. Give them a story that illustrates your points, and your writing will be much more memorable.
2. Pick up the pace. After you’ve written your chapter or article, go back through it and cut all unnecessary words. Ask someone you respect to look it over and suggest cuts. If you move the reader along quickly, you’re more apt to keep him or her reading. In particular, trim your adjectives and adverbs. Newer writers tend to think it will make them look mature or thoughtful if they lard up their text with adjectives (“The bright, yellow, cheery sun shone on the green, verdant, rolling hills as…we…Zzzzzz…..”). It doesn’t. It just takes the punch out of your writing.
3. Use short sentences. Yeah, you can call it the Curse of USA Today, but short sentences cause the reader to stay with you. They also force you to break complex ideas down into simpler thoughts, thereby making your work more easily memorable.
4. Create a strong lead. Think through your opening words. Make sure they draw your reader into your topic. You want your lead to arouse curiosity, hook them into your topic, and set your scene.
5. Work on your writing flow. Make sure your first sentence flows logically into your second sentence. Then make your second sentence flow into your third. Follow that by making sure your first paragraph flows into your second paragraph. Nonfiction can’t always rely on characters and setting to move the action along—it’s your content and story that keeps them reading. So don’t rely solely on the greatness of an idea to carry a book—the fact is, there are some fabulous ideas buried in truly awful books, so they’re apt to be ignored. Great nonfiction writing has a flow to it that keeps the reader moving forward, turning pages, learning new things.
6. Establish conflict. No kidding. A nonfiction writer needs to establish conflict right away, perhaps even faster than a novelist does. Readers are buying a nonfiction book for one of three reasons: either they want to learn, they want to be entertained, or because they have a question or problem and they want an answer. So, unlike a novelist, you can’t dwell on conflict. Nobody wants a book that defines their problem for them. If I’ve got a problem with, say, my kids or my money or my marriage, I don’t need someone to tell me it’s bad—I already KNOW it’s bad; that’s why I’m looking for a book that will offer me a solution. So set the stage by revealing what the conflict or problem is, then move on to…
7. Offer strong solutions. Readers don’t buy books that ponder problems. They buy books that offer great solutions to problems. So offer solutions. Tell me what the answer is to my problem. (And if you don’t know, you’re not writing the correct book.)
8. Give details, not generalities. We’ve all had the experience of feeling like we got cheated by a book that over-promised and under-delivered. Don’t cheat your readers or they’ll never buy anything from you again. Give the reader the details. Tell them exactly what they need to do different in order to live more effectively. Don’t hold back by thinking you’re going to give the rest of your wisdom in book #2—it won’t happen. Don’t withhold good information because you want the readers to come hear you speak at your seminar—if they don’t like your book, they won’t show up. GIVE THEM ANSWERS TO THEIR QUESTIONS and you’ll be on track to create a good book. My friend Bobb Biehl used to say that writers are like TV repair men. We walk into lives and jiggle the wires, trying to find something that will make it work. But you MUST jiggle wires, since no TV ever got fixed by telling people to keep on doing the same thing that hasn’t been working. So give me details—suggest some wires to jiggle.
9. Use story to illustrate your points. And I should add that a good story doesn’t need to be explained—it illustrates your point so well that additional words are unnecessary. But your stories will stay with your readers. (I once illustrated my point about “learn to have fun with your kids” by telling how Patti and I used to take the kids on pajama rides. We’d get the kids ready for bed early, put them under the covers, wait a moment…then burst into the room yelling “Pajama Ride!” We’d bundle them into the car and take them to Dairy Queen. A simple illustration that demonstrates having fun doesn’t take a lot of preparation. Years later, I still have people ask me, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote about taking pajama rides?”) I contend that most of us think in story, so it’s the story that makes your writing memorable. I should be able to read your story and know exactly what your point is. A story that needs a lot of explanation is simply the wrong story.
10. When you’re not sure how to make it memorable, rely on your five senses. In other words, steal a bit of wisdom from novelists—get your readers to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something. That forces a reader to engage with your text, and draws them back into the content of the book.
I’m a huge nonfiction reader. I love history, true stories, and anything that educates me. I probably lean more toward being changed by content than being entertained by interesting characters in unique situations. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good novel. But I’m just naturally drawn to nonfiction books because I enjoy learning and changing. So “nonfiction” does not equate to “boring” in my world. As a writer, you should make it sing…or you should leave it alone and go back to writing failed screenplays.
Wow, pajama rides. You’re a cool dad! Your kids are lucky.
It’s true. We used to do pajama rides with the kids, just for fun.
This one has ‘got me’ Chip … it is looking through a pane into my soul, explaining me to me .. I only read for inspiration or information (and attempt to write reciprocally) .. I have not read fiction for a long time .. it is these 10 pts that take me from the pyjamas (spelling US vs British??) and into the pages (to mess with metaphors) – THANKS
You’re welcome, Soul Supply. Glad you found it helpful.
I love all your specific points, Chip, on good nonfiction writing. Printed this one out to reread . . . often 🙂
Thanks, Lynn. Merry Christmas!
What a useful post! Thank you for it.
The only odd note (for me) was #8, which seemed to assume all nonfiction books are how-to tomes. Some of us write nonfiction that educates readers, broadens their perspective maybe, doesn’t aim to fix their problems.
Good point, Lynette — so you still have to give specifics and not generalities. (Though the majority of nonfiction is still problem/solution format, I enjoy reading history and memoir best.)
Fabulous advice! Thanks!
Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you, this was very helpful!
Glad you found it helpful, Susie.
As a non-fiction writer, I found this article very succinct, practical and memorable. Thanks, Chip. Any future articles like this will be greatly appreciated.
Yeah, I need to balance things a bit, Ed. I’ve been awfully focused on fiction for a while.
Thank you for these pointed words, these memorable words. Using this as an outline, one could learn non-fiction (or fiction for that matter) writing from scratch. Story, flow, simplicity… The pattern for great writing.
Thanks, Judith. And yes, it’s sort of an overview for nonfiction creation.