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Nonfiction Writing Tips: How to Tell a True Story in a Creative Way

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Successful nonfiction writing calls for more than just conveying information to your reader. Not only do you need to know how to deliver that information, but your writing should also be clear and easy to read. And just because you’re writing nonfiction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage your reader with a gripping story and impactful language. These nonfiction writing tips will help you steer clear of some of the most common mistakes made by nonfiction authors, who may think that all they have to do is present the facts.

Ask yourself "Why are you writing? Who are you writing for?"

If you only follow one nonfiction writing tip, it should probably be this one. According to The Creative Penn, the single most common mistake among nonfiction authors is failing to identify the reason they’re writing the book in the first place. Besides wanting to write a profitable bestselling book, why are you choosing to write about your topic? What is it you want to say, and perhaps most importantly, who is the audience you’re hoping to reach? Imagine the ideal reader for your book, and exactly what you hope they will get out of reading it.

Choosing too wide of an audience can make it harder to cater to their interests with your writing, but choosing too narrow an audience can, of course, make it hard to find readers for your book. You’ll want to have this figured out before you start writing, but it’s also information you’ll use to market your book later on. So take the time to figure out your mission in writing your nonfiction book, and keep your target audience in mind as you write.

Remember you still need to tell a story

Many nonfiction authors may believe that narrative structure isn’t necessary for a nonfiction book. Instead of simply listing a series of facts or events, successful nonfiction tells a story. In its most basic form, this can mean a three-part structure, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

It can include characters, and character development. You can even utilize dialogue. For example, if you’re writing a book about a certain period of history, you’ll probably want to identify a core set of characters that drove the events in question. A book about the American Revolution will be much more interesting if it takes the time to paint a portrait of Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, than if it simply describes a series of events and battles.

In fact, telling the story through their eyes is a great way to get the reader absorbed in your narrative, and add a humanizing element to the facts, while also giving you an opportunity to describe the events or information.

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Draw in your readers

You might assume every reader that picks up your book has already decided to spend money and time to learn about the topic you’re writing about. In some cases, this might be true. But your opening is your chance not only to convince them your topic is worth reading about, but that you’re the best author from whom to learn about it. Once again, this is a cue that nonfiction writers can take from the most successful fiction writing.

This can mean starting with an anecdote, a surprising fact, or posing a question for your audience to consider. The idea is to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read more.

Use emotional, impactful language

Aspiring nonfiction authors might believe that drama and emotion are best left to fiction writers. They might also simply believe they don’t need to think much about word choice. But the right language can bring drama, suspense, and tension to whatever story you’re trying to tell, whether it’s fiction or not.

Successful nonfiction books don’t read like an academic paper or a textbook. They use simple, impactful language that the average reader can understand and appreciate. It’s the difference between saying “the situation worsened after collapse of stock prices in 1929” and saying “life for Americans turned desperate after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.”

Start with an outline

By laying out this outline or a table of contents first, you can make sure the structure of the book and the sequence of information holds up well. Sorting this out first will allow you to be sure of the order before you start working on transitioning between chapters and how your ideas connect. 

Learn from your favorite fiction

If there’s a pattern in these nonfiction writing tips, it’s that nonfiction writers can learn a lot from great fiction writing. Most tips for fiction writing can and should be used in nonfiction writing. Like fiction writers, nonfiction writers will appeal to readers by paying close attention to word choice, narrative structure, and characters.

Knowing your goals and your audience and telling your story on a human-level, using captivating language and character development, will build the best foundation for an engaging story that will both educate and entertain readers while establishing you as a reliable authority on your subject.

As Mark Twain said:

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.” 

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Tim McConnehey

Tim McConnehey is the founder and owner of Izzard Ink Publishing where “self-publishing does not mean publishing by yourself.” As a collaborative publisher, Tim and the Izzard Ink team have helped authors sell hundreds of thousands of books around the world, including partnering with local publishers on four continents.