Do fiction and nonfiction writing have anything in common?
After all, their goals are fundamentally different. One wants to entertain, the other one mainly educates.
But take a look at Hunter S. Thompson’s work and you will know better. Thompson was a master at crafting tight, compelling fiction, and he used these very same fiction techniques to become one of the most highly acclaimed and fascinating nonfiction writers in history.
How to write a nonfiction book using fiction techniques
There’s no doubt: If you want to hook your audience, some story techniques come in extremely handy. It’s basic human psychology.
Take a page from your favorite fiction writer and adopt these five nonfiction writing tips.
1. Tell a memorable story
Humans have been fascinated by stories since the dawn of time. At lunch, we tell our newest stories to our co-workers; at night, we tell fanciful tales to our kids and then consume suspense from our flatscreens.
We remember stories much better than abstract rules, formulas or concepts. Your post or essay will be stronger and more relatable if you include little examples, experiences and comparisons.
For example, instead of saying “Spinach is healthy,” you could tell a story about a runner who improved his performance by eating a lot of spinach. Just two or three additional sentences is often enough to help your words hit home for the reader.
2. Bait your audience
Great fiction grabs you right at the beginning and doesn’t let your attention go until the end. Why not do the same with your nonfiction?
If your article is online, it’s in direct competition with thousands of other articles; your reader can choose from all of them instantly, and mostly for free. She could also just close her browser and go watch TV. In today’s multimedia world, attention is the number one commodity.
Does your first sentence make the reader want to read the second? Does your second sentence evoke curiosity for the third? Here are a couple of options for beginnings that I found worked best for my blog:
One strategy is beginning with a little personal or historical story. Take a look at the storytelling tips above and make sure to always keep the reader wondering what’s next. Before he knows it, he will be halfway through your article.
You could also ask a question that moves your audience. If you write an article about how to save money, how about a start with “Isn’t it frustrating that at the end of any given month, there is no money left in your wallet?“ That’s how you put yourself in the reader’s shoes, to make her identify with you and your article.
You could start with an interesting or funny thought, too. When you’re writing about the phases of the moon, why not begin the post like this: “Did you know that on the moon, you would only weigh 16.5 percent of your weight on Earth?”
By using one of these strategies, you have a better chance of catching your reader’s attention — and keeping it.
3. Use emotional language
Bad nonfiction pieces are overly factual and prosaic. (Think of the last academic paper you read. Snooze!) They often employ a certain “code” of complex sentence structures and foreign words to make them seem more credible and expert-like.
The antidote: use more imagery, more emotion and more personality. Metaphors are also an interesting way to add some spice. Instead of writing “double-digit percent fluctuations,” write, “a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs.”
The less abstract your nouns, the better. Any noun of something you’re able to touch physically is better than something you can’t touch. Palpable words draw the reader into your text more effectively, so he experiences them instead of simply reading them.
Certain words like ”confession” or “magic” are emotionally charged power words that hit your audience strongly. They make them feel your content. Power words can evoke vibrant emotions, and emotion will keep the reader’s eyes glued to every single word of yours.
So read some Hemingway or Dickens, reconnect with the emotional side of your writing, and stir up your audience’s feelings!
4. Say it simply
Have you ever given up on an article or instruction manual because its wording frustrated you? If you have great content, don’t encrypt it. Provide even more value for your reader by cutting the content down into easily digestible bites.
Look at any post on The Write Life: The content is top-notch, but it’s all packed into short sentences and easily understandable vocabulary. Ideas are broken down into detail. You see short paragraphs and a lot of white space. All the components of tight, simple writing are right before your eyes.
Many great novels are written in a fairly simple style. They impress with story rather than with wording. Take any novel by Charles Bukowski: Do you think his prose would have the same effect if it used long-winded, multi-clause sentences and a jungle of technical terms? Rather than trying to make a sophisticated expression, Bukowski conveys emotion and character.
Say it as simply as possible, but make sure your idea comes across.
5. Surprise the reader
Good fiction is full of surprising twists, but nonfiction often reads predictably, which is to say, dull.
Do it better and include an unexpected twist or turn when you can. It will keep things interesting and fun for your audience. Why do we watch dramas and why do we like our gifts wrapped up? It’s for the kick of the surprise that awaits us.
Keep readers on their toes by asking them a question and answering it in a way they wouldn’t have expected. For example, if you are writing an article about robots, you could ask: Which famous person drew early plans for a robot?
(Answer: Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoid machine in 1495.)
You could also make a statement and follow it up with a point that seems like a contradiction. Don’t forget to explain and reconcile your points. A surprising joke or a provocative comparison can keep the reader interested as well, provided it fits your style and the format of your writing. Be imaginative, just like a fiction writer.
Finally, how can you train yourself in the above techniques?
One way helps for sure: read a lot of great fiction. The storytellers’ styles and strategies will spill over into your unconscious, and before you know it, you’ll be a master at helping every reader fall in love with your writing.
What do you do to grab your reader’s interest? Share your secret weapons in the comments!
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock
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