Write Better Non-Fiction By Asking These Three Magic Questions
How to make your non-fiction a page-turner and turn your readers into raving fans
If you’re a non-fiction author getting the idea on paper isn’t always your biggest challenge. The hard part is getting people to read the book to the end. We’re experts. We’re top in our fields. We know our work inside-out. But there’s more to good non-fiction than providing a list of how-to steps, or spewing history in chronological order.
Non-fiction authors should take a few tips from their sisters and brothers across the aisle. In fiction, we don’t have a choice. The story must progress. We’ve got to write the story so the reader cares what happens from beginning to end. And if we do our job right, we’ll make the reader late to work and stay-up well-past her bedtime.
We must build page-turning non-fiction books too.
Short attention spans are baked-in. We can blame smartphones, millennials, or the weather, but we’ve got to keep our reader’s attention. I believe short attention spans are a gift (I have one). When you’ve got a few seconds to hold your reader, her attention span forces the work to be clean and tight.
It might’ve once been in vogue to go on for twenty pages about wallpaper or table settings, but those days are over. We’ve got to grab our reader by the collar, lift her off her feet, and not let go until we write the end. This includes our non-fiction.
Three Magic Questions:
- What’s a secret only I know about this subject? This is your Golden Goose. Your secret subject is the hook for your non-fiction. This is the insider’s bit of information and 98% of the reason your reader will buy your book. Most of you book is Google-able. But this — only you can provide the Golden Goose. Figure out this bit of information and release it carefully, deep into the book.
- What are the basics my reader MUST know? This is the Google stuff. You’ve got to provide everything the lowest layperson must know to understand your book. Whether you’re teaching a skill, or discussing history, start at the beginning. You don’t have to cover it in-depth if you write an advanced book, but the basics need to be baked inside.
- How can I arrange this book so it reads like fiction? You won’t bend the truth, but you can use narrative techniques (finish chapters with open-ended questions, later to be revealed) to keep the work moving. Don’t vomit all your best information up-front. Sprinkle it. Tell us you’ll reveal something important later, but not too soon. Arrange the book in a way that reads like a story. Non-fiction written by journalists are fantastic examples of this.
Your Golden Goose
We’ve all experienced the Golden Goose. Sometimes it’s baked-in the title of a book. Others, it’s the subtitle, or more-subtle. You’re an expert in something. You’ve got a unique perspective no one else can replicate. Use this perspective to your advantage.
Maybe you worked inside the company for twenty years, or your grandfather lived next door to your subject. Perhaps you invented a new method in your spare time, field-tested it on your friends and got better results than anything on the market. These are your geese.
Tread carefully. Don’t forget your Golden Goose is the reason your reader bought the book. If you give all the information away in the first ten pages, you might as well throw the rest of the book in the trash.
Hook the reader with a fantastic set-up that leaves us wanting more in the upcoming pages. Is this manipulative? Hell yes, but we want to be manipulated this way. The Golden Goose is the thread throughout the book. Unravel it slowly and not only will your reader finish the book, but she’ll tell others to pick it up.
Don’t cook your goose.
The basics are both your potatoes and meat. An expert can skim this section, but she’ll understand why you included it. An amateur will appreciate these bits. Perhaps he picked-up the book, hoping to learn shortcuts from your Golden Goose, but needs the basics to get started.
To define your basics look at the top ten books in your genre. Make sure you include all the basics they cover and a little more. As I mentioned earlier, if you write an advanced book, you can skim the basics. You genre will define what needs to be covered here.
What you shouldn’t do is write your entire book about your Golden Goose without showing the reader how you got there. We need the basics or the backstory.
Build a Page-Turner
Fictions writers (and movies, plays, and short stories) use a three-act structure. There should be a beginning, middle, and end to your non-fiction as well. Once you decide the major milestones, write them on note cards and arrange them with an unsolved hook in the beginning, a progressive story in the middle, and a climatic ending.
Don’t give your best information up-front. It drives me nuts when non-fiction authors pad their books with multi-page outlines of what they’re about to tell us, then they tell us, then they summarize what they told us at the end. If you have to explain your work three times to fill a book, you don’t have a book. You’ve got an article. There’s a place for both types of writing.
Good non-fiction is timeless. We can read it today or twenty years from now and it will feel just as relevant. A non-fiction book is more than a top-ten list, or a 200-page business card, as many people like to promote. When you write non-fiction you’ve got an opportunity to move the needle on someone’s life. If you do it correctly, you’ll be defined by your non-fiction legacy (oh, he’s the guy who wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul).
If you realize you don’t have enough for a book, don’t write the book. Maybe you can write a bigger book with the same goose, but an expanded idea. There’s nothing worse than reading an article that was padded to 200 pages. Please don’t be that person. I read this types of books every month, and many of them are released by major publishers and sold in airports everywhere.
Give us MORE substance and we’ll be forever grateful. You don’t have to write a really long book, but you should provide us with a satisfying read that makes us better than when we started.