Structuring non-fiction

You often hear people say of fiction writing that you should be true to yourself. I think that’s good advice. Generally speaking it’s easier to write what you’d like to read. However, when you are dealing with non-fiction I think this is the wrong approach to take. With non-fiction the audience is king, and taking that approach can completely change the tone and possibly even the subject of your book.

How you write and structure your book will vary depending on your audience. For example, if you are writing for academics (a text book, a thesis, etc) then you will need to have a very different approach. Academic works have a much higher ‘burden of proof’ whereby you essentially have to establish that it is not currently possible to disprove your writing. As such, your writing needs to cover all bases, and your research needs be all encompassing. Frankly, the writing style is less important than the research as the people reading your work will most likely have no choice but to wade through it and will be interested in the minutiae anyway.

But why saddle yourself with the same burden of proof if you’re not looking at writing an academic essay, but instead something like a magazine article or a self-help book? You have a different burden of proof: You just need to be plausible. You need to make your point and get out of there as soon as possible.

The approach I tend to use is outlined below.

1) Decide what your objective is. What is the ONE thing you want people to do / do differently as a result of reading  your book? Phrase it along the lines of: “I want to convince the reader to stop eating meat.” Don’t have any “ands” or other conjunctions in there. Distill it to a single thing.

2) Go back to step one and check that this is really what you want. If the reader did EXACTLY what you asked for would you be happy? If not, revisit.

3) Work out what YOUR AUDIENCE (not you and your buddies, but your audience) would need to believe in order to do what you want. What questions would they like answered? Keep this in bullet point form now. Eg,
~ eating meat is bad for you
~ eating no meat is tasty
~ eating no meat is cheaper
~ it is easy to eat no meat: No meat is everywhere

Each bullet must pass the “so what?” test, and must be essential to convincing your audience. If it isn’t, delete it.
For example, in the above list, “eating animals is wrong” isn’t in there. For the intended audience (meat eaters) this argument does not pass the “so what?” test.

This is what I meant earlier by “getting out of there as soon as possible”. Everything you include that doesn’t pass the “so what?” test dilutes and therefore weakens your ultimate message. I’m not saying you have to make your book as short as possible; I’m just saying make it as relevant as possible.

4) Work out how important each of these points are to THE AUDIENCE. Put them in the order of most important first. This might take them out of what you view as the logical ‘story telling’ order. This doesn’t matter. It’s non fiction, you don’t need to hide twists in the plot. What is important is keeping your audience reading until the end, and that means answering the first question they would ask first.
For example, there is no point leading the above off with a great recipe for spinach and ricotta cannelloni. Carnivores know that chicken tastes good, so won’t care that other things also taste good until they have a reason to think maybe they shouldn’t eat chicken. This is the realisation that can change the complete tone of your book. In our example the book we are writing to stop people eating meat becomes written as a book on how to lose weight and be healthy.

5) For each bullet point, start to populate the evidence, facts and arguments that make your point. Note, I’ve not done ANY research until this point. Now, I’m only going to do the research that makes my case. I’m not writing an academic paper. I don’t need to show a balanced view, or explore every single piece of human knowledge on the subject; I just need to convince the reader. Eg,
EATING MEAT IS BAD FOR YOU
a- eating meat is killing you (dramatic increase in rates of high cholesterol, heart disease, and cancer)
b- eating meat makes you fat (contains ‘bad’ fats, low sugar content means the body can’t convert calories easily so stores them as… fat)
c- eating meat makes you unattractive (causes appearance to age faster, also smellier and (see b) fatter)
d- eating meat makes you miserable (can’t process efficiently so causes toxin build up, impacting production of serotonins. Food intolerances can make you bloated and uncomfortable)

6) For each of those, write your prose. Back it up with research. Quote other people. Make a convincing and compelling argument.

As I said, this won’t work for an academic audience, and may not be appropriate for the piece you are writing. Fiction might be about the story you want to tell, but often times non-fiction is about what the audience needs to hear.

Oh, and I’ve made everything up in the above post about meat. In fact, I am munching on a chicken sandwich while writing this post.

2 thoughts on “Structuring non-fiction

  1. Sis

    Eating meat makes you miserable??!! THAT makes me miserable!!
    (The sums are getting harder by the way…)

    1. pigfender Post author

      Nah, I made it all up. Meat makes me very happy indeed (no double entendre intended).

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