Hannah Bennet and I haven't known each other long, but after talking to her for a bit, I knew she had a perspective on writing that we could all benefit from -- whether we're authoring a book, a report or a blog post. Et voilà! In this guest post, Hannah offers writing advice from her POV as a senior acquisitions editor. Based out of Hoboken, NJ, she's a board member with the Women’s National Book Association and the producer and co-host of the podcast Arguments About Nothing. Follow her at @helizbennett.
If you asked me for the most common pitfall in nonfiction writing, I would tell you that prospective authors often fail to consider the needs of the reader. It’s an odd thing to say—presumably, any author writing a nonfiction book is writing it for readers. They hope to entertain, educate, and connect to an audience. But in the excitement of telling their own passionate stories, in their fervor to research the most up-to-date articles, in the chaos of squeezing writing time into their busy lives, it’s easy for writers to forget who they’re writing for in the first place.
3 nonfiction writing tips
Nonfiction readers will buy a book with a clear aim in mind—their purchases driven by a particular passion or curiosity. That’s why my top 3 writing tips are all about that reader. The tips may seem on their surface quite basic. But if my inbox is any proof, even great writers sometimes forget the basics.
1. Answer this: Why should I read your work?
Most of us have an increasingly limited amount of time in which to read. While working, caring for our families, cooking, cleaning, and socializing, when were we supposed to find the time to read that book that’s been sitting on our nightstand for 4 months, serving at first as a gentle reminder, then as a quiet judgment, and finally as just one more thing to dust? And in those precious few hours of free time that we do have, are we reaching for a book, or are we turning on Netflix, listening to a podcast, or falling down a YouTube rabbit hole? The competition for our attention is fierce. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans read on average 12 books per year, but if that sounds high to you, we can thank a few overachievers. The median number was just four.
Not only that, but nonfiction writers are facing a crowded literary marketplace. No matter your topic, chances are there are already similar books on the market, one of which published this year and got a great Kirkus review.
And, when it comes to nonfiction, readers tend to have specific goals. They want to be inspired, they want to learn in-depth about a topic/person, they want to come out with something useful, or they want to be so fascinated by the subject matter that they can’t turn away. Otherwise, give it two pages, and then it’s on to the Great British Baking Show.
I don’t tell you all this to discourage you, but to make it clear why you’ll need a confident answer to the question: why should that busy reader choose your book? The answer can’t just be because your friends enjoy your anecdotes at cocktail parties (remember those?) and because you had fun writing it. By all means, please write it for fun—write often, and happily, and with abounding joy! Write what you want, for whatever reason. But if you’re seeking a traditional publisher, you should be able to solidly answer this question.
I see this pitfall most often in memoir and personal essays. Writing about your life may feel easy at first, but you still need a worthwhile theme, a thread, a goal. If I ask you “What’s your book about?” and your answer is “It’s about my interesting life,” then you need to dig deeper. What is the message you want readers to get? Why should they care about your interesting life, if they’ve never heard of you? What do they have to gain or learn by investing their time in reading it?
The answer to this question will serve as a driving force that connects each anecdote you choose to include, helping to solidify the arc of the story you’re telling. Without an understanding of the main thematic value of your book, you’re still just telling stories at a cocktail party.
Write for your own sake, write for writing’s sake. But if seeking to get published, have a clear understanding of why a reader is going to pay for that paperback.
2. Dive into details
Two of the most common notes I leave for authors in a manuscript are “Can you explain this further?” and “Can you give me more details?” Many nonfiction authors these days are forged in the writing fires of online magazines, blogs, and websites. As it’s important to be concise in internet articles, to avoid the dreaded TLDR, many article writers will simply state a fact quickly and move on. But nonfiction books serve a different purpose altogether.
It’s when a reader wants an in-depth, comprehensive look at a subject that they’ll shell out money for a book, where authors have room to include the details. Don’t just give those hungry readers the headlines—tell them how the information is useful, and why it’s important. Give them facts and figures, explain the research studies, cite the sources. Include that fascinating factoid that you had to cut from your HuffPost article.
Assertions without support are something to be wary of in any form of nonfiction writing, but in a book, imagine your reader to be even more curious. They cared enough about this topic to read a book on it, and they want the topic to come alive for them. If it’s history, they want the nitty-gritty details that will transport them to another time and place. Science? They want the studies and the stats. Business? Give them examples, so many examples. Self-Help? Don’t just tell them to do something—tell them why they’re doing it. Mind/Body/Spirit? No more general platitudes, for the love of Gaia!
So if you’ve spent many hours crafting concise blog posts, take this as an opportunity—you have the space to dive in.
3. Know your audience
So basic, right? Every “writing tips” blog everywhere will tell you this, but who am I to ignore the classics? There are a few reasons that editors ask for a section on the “Target Audience” in nonfiction proposals, and it’s not just about the marketing, although that’s an exceptionally important part of it. That section also tells us who you had in mind as a reader—and if your writing style doesn’t match your intended audience, it’s likely to be a quick pass.
If you tell me the target audience is retired folks, and then you’ve written the book in initialisms (OMG LOL!), there’s a clear disconnect between how you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. Likewise, if you tell me your audience is millennial women and femmes, and every example you included is about a cis man, it tells me that you weren’t paying attention to your reader. (You may laugh at these examples, but an editor’s inbox is full of wonders...)
Your intended audience will affect your tone—how much personality to put into your guidebook, how many jokes to make in your how-to manual, how simple or florid to make the language in your biography. But it will also affect the genre. When editors acquire a project, one question they ask themselves is “Which shelf in the bookstore will this sit on?” As a writer, it’s a great question to ask as well. Do you want this funny memoir to end up in memoir or humor? Do you want this in-depth portrait of a serial killer to end up in biography or true crime?
Who do you want to read this book? Write and research accordingly.
Final words of writing advice
Though there are any number of tips I might give you about great nonfiction writing, these basics will inform everything else, and that’s why I start here. Many authors have “a book they want to write,” but haven’t taken the time to think critically about whether it’s a book others want to read, or who those others might be. Assuming you’re seeking traditional publication, before you write your book, you need to know why someone would buy it. It’s your seemingly obvious but crucial first step.
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