Before we can start editing our nonfiction, we need to know what kind of nonfiction we’re dealing with so we can meet the expectations of the genre.
In fiction editing, we have to keep in mind, for example, the different needs of contemporary women’s fiction compared to futuristic science fiction.
In the same way, the different varieties of nonfiction are handled differently depending on their genre or form. Ideally, you will have identified what form you’re using before you start writing. But in my experience, many new writers just start writing, and they don’t think about what form they’re using until they’re done. Which is fine.
Part of what we do in the initial read-through is identify what form the author is using or intended to use. The different types of nonfiction can be viewed as a spectrum, from forms which use little storytelling to ones which are entirely storytelling:
Academic or Technical Writing
Includes textbooks, computer manuals, and religious books for scholarly readers
Books aimed primarily at scholarly or technical readers are usually focused on straight information. They may use true or invented anecdotes to make specific points, but for the most part they are plain collections of facts. They can be written in either a formal or a conversational style and do not attempt literary-quality prose. These books can have complex vocabularies and will often be as long as they need to be.
Includes self-help, how-to books, and religious books for general readers
Books are considered prescriptive when they tell you what to do or how to it. These are often based on the author’s direct experience rather than on research. For example, Elizabeth Zimmerman’s books about knitting are based on her actual experiences with needles and yarn. These books are usually aimed at a general audience and are therefore best written in an informal or conversational tone. The vocabulary will be kept to about a high-school reading level. Depending on the publisher, the length may be constrained to around 60,000-80,000 words.
Includes investigative journalism and other books based on author research
This category has two subsets. Some writers directly do academic research or investigative journalism and then report their findings. All the President’s Men is this type. Other writers do secondary research, by reading books and academic journal articles by a variety of scientists or other experts, and then synthesize new information from that. This often entails studying multiple fields to see how they influence one another. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an example of the latter type. The writing style of either may range from formal to casual depending on the author’s voice. Storytelling is mostly limited to anecdotes or a plain recitation of historical facts, as in John Adams. The vocabulary requirements and length constraints can vary widely depending on the audience.
Uses novel-writing techniques to tell stories of true events
Memoirs like Angela’s Ashes are a subset of narrative nonfiction. In this category, the events described are factual, but fiction techniques are used to increase the story’s intensity. The aim is less to deliver facts than it is to create a powerful emotional experience, as one would do in a novel. Writers in this genre have been known to bend facts to their purposes, sometimes with disastrous results, as in the case of the book A Million Little Pieces, which though originally presented by the author as memoir turned out to be mostly fiction. The writing style of narrative nonfiction can range from journalistic to casual, but in memoir, the writing style should be personal. This genre also allows for and even encourages very literary styles. As with expository writing, vocabulary and length will depend on audience and story.
Completely made up stories with a lesson included
A parable is a fictional story that is used to deliver factual truths. Even though the story of the mice in Who Moved My Cheese? is entirely made up, the book is shelved in the nonfiction section because it is primarily informational, and the story is the vehicle for delivering that information. Books like this are made up completely of storytelling, but a simple narrative summary format predominates. Parables are not fully dramatized as novels and narrative nonfiction are. The writing style is usually conversational but can also take on an old-fashioned, fairy-tale style. Parables are short, usually 50,000 words (200 pages) or less. They are written with simpler vocabularies to reach a wider audience—about a ninth-grade reading level.
Once you know what kind of nonfiction you’ve written, you can look at other books in the same genre and get a feel for its conventions.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Yes, I totally loaded this post up with Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on a link and buy something, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I’ve only linked to books I believe will be of value to you, which is why I didn’t link to the memoir that isn’t. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”