Avoid Ambiguity in Your Nonfiction

Today’s post applies mainly to academic, prescriptive, or expository writing. Narrative nonfiction, especially memoir, can leave room for ambiguity. But if your book is meant to instruct, it needs to be clear.

The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.—Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

The Curse of Knowledge manifests in various ways. One is that if you understand a subject thoroughly, you may find yourself unable to describe it in a way that’s meaningful to a newbie.

Explanations are clear and unambiguous. Continue reading

Ensure Your True-Life Anecdotes Are Really True

We finished the Voice section of the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist, and now we move on to Information. You might think the information would come first—and it does, when you’re writing. This part of the editing process is an opportunity to double-check your facts.

Writers and motivational speakers often use true-life anecdotes to illustrate a topic, and this is a great tool. But of course it’s better if the true-life anecdotes really are true. Too often people don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Any anecdotes presented as true stories have been verified. Continue reading

Use Story to Make Your Ideas Stick

Folks like Copyblogger who teach copywriting often emphasize the importance of story. That’s because a story gives our hearts and minds something to hold on to. Stories make ideas sticky. But the thing is, the story has to be in your work for the right reasons.

Anecdotes are engaging and relevant.

Like flashbacks in narrative nonfiction, anecdotes used to illuminate informational nonfiction must be engaging. That is, they should have entertainment value as well as informational value. We want interesting stories about fascinating people.

Such stories should also be relevant to the point and not just thrown in because someone told you to “start with a story.” Continue reading