5 Tips for Writing Engaging Nonfiction
I'm open to reading almost anything – fiction, nonfiction – as long as I know from the first sentence or two that this is a voice I want to listen to for a good long while. It has much to do with imagery and language, a particular perspective, the assured knowledge of the particular universe the writer has created.
- Amy Tan
One of the most important things a writer can do when crafting content is to employ various methods to keep the reader engaged. In fiction, there are lots of ways to do this – employing subplots, using intense emotion, adding mysterious bits of foreshadowing, and so on. But for nonfiction writing, it can be a little more difficult to find ways to keep a reader engaged with your work. However, do not despair! Nonfiction writing can be just as exciting and involved as fiction writing; you just need to tweak some of the tips a little.
Whether you are writing an article, an essay, or a book, it’s a good idea to always try to make your writing speak to the reader – if they feel involved in your topic or your “story,” they’ll want to keep reading. At the heart of it, engaging the reader really is all about involvement.
Add a Narrative
One way to involve the reader is to try to add more of a narrative to your writing. Depending on the intended audience and subject matter, this can be more or less applicable depending on the situation, but if you can, a narrative element helps – essentially, tell the reader a memorable story. It’s easier for people to remember a narrative or story as opposed to abstract concepts, dry statistics, and dull facts. Adding a more human component can help liven up your writing. Include experiences (of others or things you experienced yourself), examples to illustrate facts or important points, and generally try to illustrate your writing for the reader. One of my favourite nonfiction writers, Erik Larson, is very good at nonfiction narrative writing, and I can tell you that I remember stories and information from his books much more than I do other nonfiction books that have a drier tone.
Grab Your Audience’s Attention
Ideally, you want your audience to be hooked right from the first sentence! The first sentence should want to make them read the second sentence, then the third, then so on and so forth. In my opinion, the best way to do this ties into the tip above – incorporate some elements of a story. You can use a personal experience (perhaps how you became interested in, involved with, or drawn to the subject matter), or you can use a historical story. Look at these two potential openings below, and decide which one makes you most interested in reading further:
The Lusitania was a British ocean liner that was in operation during the early 20th century. The ship was briefly the world's largest passenger ship, and the Cunard Line launched Lusitania in 1906, at a time of fierce competition for the North Atlantic trade. When RMS Lusitania left New York for Britain on 1 May 1915, German submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic due to WWII. The German embassy in the United States had placed a newspaper advertisement warning people of the dangers of sailing on Lusitania. On the afternoon of 7 May, a German U-boat torpedoed Lusitania, 11 mi (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland and inside the declared war zone.
The smoke from ships and the exhalations of the river left a haze that blurred the world and made the big liner seem even bigger, less the product of human endeavor than an escarpment rising from a plain. The hull was black; seagulls flew past in slashes of white, pretty now, not yet the objects of horror they would become, later, for the man standing on the ship’s bridge, seven stories above the wharf.
The first opening was one I composed myself, using only dry facts. The second is the actual opening to Erik Larson’s book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Obviously, the second opening does a better job at placing the reader inside the scene, inside the context of the story, helping to get them involved in the subject matter and the narrative overall.
Engage the Reader’s Emotions
What makes a hard-to-read nonfiction piece? Overly factual, dry and dense prose. Often times, academic writing in general will seem to use a style of complex sentences and abstract writing to make the writer seem more like a knowledgeable expert in their field. As former TEC editor Melissa explains, this type of writing often ends up being more gobbledygook than enjoyable reading!
The way to ensure you do not fall into the “gobbledygook” trap is to use more of…well, everything. More imagery to illustrate ideas and scenes, more emotion to involve the reader, more personality to keep them energized and engaged. Use more concrete language as opposed to abstract ideas and descriptions – this helps the reader more easily visualize what you’re talking about.
Keep it Simple
This tip has truly stood the test of time – you may remember it from your own schooling (or perhaps the acronym most often employed to help students remember it: KISS, or, Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Don’t feel pressured to “dress up” your content with fancy, multi-syllable words that will only obscure your meaning. Make sure your writing is easy to read, to understand, and to absorb.
To help you achieve this, try to stick to shorter sentences, and explain things in detail – don’t always assume your reader will have a ton of prior knowledge of the subject on which you are writing. Keep the writing tight, simple, and easily understood.
Keep the Reader Guessing
In a novel, there is always the potential for a surprising twist, or a shocking secret element the author can introduce to keep the reader on their toes. However, nonfiction writing is limited to the facts, or at least, reasonable deductions drawn from the facts. This can make the writing seem somewhat predictable.
If you can, and the facts allow for it, try to use the elements of the story to create an unexpected twist or surprise for the reader later. Hold back an important detail, or reveal a fact that wasn’t known until later! It will keep readers guessing and keep them engaged, and you’ll keep them reading.
If you can’t seem to arrange the facts to allow for some element of unexpectedness, you can try to incorporate surprise by positing questions that you know have somewhat surprising or unexpected answers. You can also state some of your facts, and then state another fact that is in direct contradiction to add a small element of surprise.
In the end, remember to be imaginative in your writing – what elements do you enjoy in the books you like to read, and how can you incorporate them into your own writing? Keep these tips in mind, and create your own! This will help you remain conscious of your writing and not to get caught up too much in the abstract and “gobbledygook” that can sometimes plague nonfiction writing.