The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

What makes for strong nonfiction?

Traditionally, nonfiction has been a more stable business for authors than fiction because so much of it’s sold via books, magazine articles, newspaper feature stories, and even blog posts.

My mantra in this blog has always been to look at your proposed subject and ask: “What’s in this for the reader?” Unfortunately, people often write about pet subjects and focus on their involvement in them or on the offerings of a museum or other nonprofit without answering this question.

While we may decry Horace Greeley’s advice to a fledgling newspaper man that the reader’s self-interest is a major motivator when subscribers wade through hundreds of stories competing for their time, it’s probably still true.

In her latest Funds for Writers newsletter, author Hope Clark adds another mantra: GREAT NONFICTION = SIMPLIFICATION + CLARITY

As she puts it, “Most people love a strong, educational, how-to book that makes a difference in our lives. Nonfiction is quite popular and can be trendy if the message is strong enough and quite universal. But what makes for great how-to versus the average? What is the magic ingredient for a nonfiction, how-to book that flies off book shelves?”

Her advice reminds me of the UNITY, COHERENCE, EMPHASIS admonition we used to be taught in high school English classes prior to our first term paper assignment. As Knoji  puts it, “A good paragraph has the characteristics of unity, coherence and emphasis. In unity a paragraph must be unified on its structure. In coherence a paragraph must establish continuity within or towards the other paragraph. In emphasis the idea within the paragraph should be given importance and made to stand.”

As a former college journalism instructor, I always asked students to apply the WHO WHAT WHEN WHY WHERE HOW of news reporters to their feature stories and editorials. Basically, the reader needs facts s/he can use in a form in which they can be easily and accurately understood.

And then, before you put the final touches on the article or post, consider this: As the piece stands now, what’s the most likely unanswered question a reader might ask you after finishing this article? If there isn’t one, then you’ve probably covered the basics. If there is, either clarify the piece or add some additional facts.

Case in point about unanswered questions: Recently, there were news reports about an old variety of peanut that was brought to this country during the slavery days from Africa. Over time, it lost out to other varieties even though it had a very distinctive and appealing taste. Using just a few saved seeds, researchers carefully brought the variety back to viable production.

So here’s my unanswered question that the article writer should have addressed: When the peanut died out in the States, did it also die out in Africa where it came from and, if not, why didn’t U.S. researchers simply go there for more seeds?

Unanswered questions in the readers’ minds can easily kill the value of an article, especially in a how-to feature. Sometimes those come out of lack of clarity and sometimes they come out of incomplete research–or when the writer forgets to ask “What’s in this for the reader?”





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