Nonfiction – you can still tell a story
“The key is to create some kind of story arc. Anyone who picks up a non-fiction book is at Point A. Your job is to get them to Point Z: Informed, motivated, entertained, possessing new skills, ready to try something new… whatever your goals as the author may be. If you do a good job of taking the reader on that journey, it’s not boring.” – Jeff Haden
In “Was Your Favorite Book Written by a Ghost? Does it Matter?” in Forbes Magazine, Rodger Dean Duncan notes that many bestselling celebrity books and most speeches are written by ghostwriters. When he asked busy ghostwriter Jeff Haden how to keep potentially boring subjects from being boring, Haden said that one can deliver real information in a speech or nonfiction book by finding the story in the material.
While I was attending English classes that taught me how to write research papers and formal book reviews, outside of school I was enjoying the kinds of exciting, first-person feature articles that appeared in National Geographic and similar magazines. Why, I wondered, weren’t the English teachers covering the kinds of writing most of us would actually use in our lives?
Later, when I taught feature writing for journalism students in college, many of the English professors who saw writing as formal exposition, viewed feature articles as a lower form of writing. Sure, features can be fluff pieces, but they need not be.
I don’t know if the focus in high school and college English department has changed, but I thought it was a real shame to teach students the kinds of skills most of them would only use in a masters thesis, doctoral dissertation, or peer-reviewed articles for scholarly publications.
While statistics show that it’s usually easier for new writers to sell nonfiction than fiction, many people coming out of school think of writing novels, short stories and poetry as their dream careers rather than writing articles, essays and commentaries.
There’s usually less glamor involved in nonfiction, especially if you’re a ghostwriter. Perhaps, too, all that deadening classroom training in formal exposition from our high school and college English departments has got us all believing that nonfiction is nothing more than eyes-glazing-over material.
As a journalism instructor, I liked seeing students who listened to their advanced exposition instructors because those students knew the value of facts and the best means of proving those facts had a bearing on the case they were trying to make–even in a review or an editorial. But in feature writing, I needed them to relax and find a style that the majority of their readers would appreciate.
To some extent, social networking is drawing many writers away from the term-paper writing style they were taught in school. As Haden notes, “Over the last 10 or 20 years the use of email, blogging, etc has changed how we communicate in writing. People expect to read material that is closer to conversational than it once was.”
On the negative side, blogging has gotten some people used to the idea that their opinion about a subject is just as valid as facts. That’s a problem. But we can get past that, I think, and write nonfiction with solid facts and an interesting style.
We all love stories. As writers, we can employ storytelling techniques without dumbing down the material. Along that line, Jeff Haden and other successful ghostwriters have words of wisdom that will help us succeed.