5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Keep Readers Turning Pages

writing techniques
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

Do fiction and nonfiction writing have anything in common?

After all, their goals are fundamentally different. One wants to entertain, the other one mainly educates.

But take a look at Hunter S. Thompson’s work and you will know better. Thompson was a master at crafting tight, compelling fiction, and he used these very same fiction techniques to become one of the most highly acclaimed and fascinating nonfiction writers in history.

There’s no doubt: If you want to hook your audience, some story techniques come in extremely handy. It’s basic human psychology.

Take a page from your favorite fiction writer and adopt these five nonfiction writing tips.

1. Tell a memorable story

Humans have been fascinated by stories since the dawn of time. At lunch, we tell our newest stories to our co-workers; at night, we tell fanciful tales to our kids and then consume suspense from our flatscreens.

We remember stories much better than abstract rules, formulas or concepts. Your post or essay will be stronger and more relatable if you include little examples, experiences and comparisons.

For example, instead of saying “Spinach is healthy,” you could tell a story about a runner who improved his performance by eating a lot of spinach. Just two or three additional sentences is often enough to help your words hit home for the reader.

2. Bait your audience

Great fiction grabs you right at the beginning and doesn’t let your attention go until the end. Why not do the same with your nonfiction?

If your article is online, it’s in direct competition with thousands of other articles; your reader can choose from all of them instantly, and mostly for free. She could also just close her browser and go watch TV. In today’s multimedia world, attention is the number one commodity.

Does your first sentence make the reader want to read the second? Does your second sentence evoke curiosity for the third? Here are a couple of options for beginnings that I found worked best for my blog:

One strategy is beginning with a little personal or historical story. Take a look at the storytelling tips above and make sure to always keep the reader wondering what’s next. Before he knows it, he will be halfway through your article.

You could also ask a question that moves your audience. If you write an article about how to save money, how about a start with “Isn’t it frustrating that at the end of any given month, there is no money left in your wallet?“ That’s how you put yourself in the reader’s shoes, to make her identify with you and your article.

You could start with an interesting or funny thought, too. When you’re writing about the phases of the moon, why not begin the post like this: “Did you know that on the moon, you would only weigh 16.5 percent of your weight on Earth?”

By using one of these strategies, you have a better chance of catching your reader’s attention — and keeping it.

3. Use emotional language

Bad nonfiction pieces are overly factual and prosaic. (Think of the last academic paper you read. Snooze!) They often employ a certain “code” of complex sentence structures and foreign words to make them seem more credible and expert-like.

The antidote: use more imagery, more emotion and more personality. Metaphors are also an interesting way to add some spice. Instead of writing “double-digit percent fluctuations,” write, “a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs.”

The less abstract your nouns, the better. Any noun of something you’re able to touch physically is better than something you can’t touch. Palpable words draw the reader into your text more effectively, so he experiences them instead of simply reading them.

Certain words like ”confession” or “magic” are emotionally charged power words that hit your audience strongly. They make them feel your content. Power words can evoke vibrant emotions, and emotion will keep the reader’s eyes glued to every single word of yours.

So read some Hemingway or Dickens, reconnect with the emotional side of your writing, and stir up your audience’s feelings!

4. Say it simply

Have you ever given up on an article or instruction manual because its wording frustrated you? If you have great content, don’t encrypt it. Provide even more value for your reader by cutting the content down into easily digestible bites.

Look at any post on The Write Life: The content is top-notch, but it’s all packed into short sentences and easily understandable vocabulary. Ideas are broken down into detail. You see short paragraphs and a lot of white space. All the components of tight, simple writing are right before your eyes.

Many great novels are written in a fairly simple style. They impress with story rather than with wording. Take any novel by Charles Bukowski: Do you think his prose would have the same effect if it used long-winded, multi-clause sentences and a jungle of technical terms? Rather than trying to make a sophisticated expression, Bukowski conveys emotion and character.

Say it as simply as possible, but make sure your idea comes across.

5. Surprise the reader

Good fiction is full of surprising twists, but nonfiction often reads predictably, which is to say, dull.

Do it better and include an unexpected twist or turn when you can. It will keep things interesting and fun for your audience. Why do we watch dramas and why do we like our gifts wrapped up? It’s for the kick of the surprise that awaits us.

Keep readers on their toes by asking them a question and answering it in a way they wouldn’t have expected. For example, if you are writing an article about robots, you could ask: Which famous person drew early plans for a robot?

(Answer: Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoid machine in 1495.)

You could also make a statement and follow it up with a point that seems like a contradiction. Don’t forget to explain and reconcile your points. A surprising joke or a provocative comparison can keep the reader interested as well, provided it fits your style and the format of your writing. Be imaginative, just like a fiction writer.

Finally, how can you train yourself in the above techniques?

One way helps for sure: read a lot of great fiction. The storytellers’ styles and strategies will spill over into your unconscious, and before you know it, you’ll be a master at helping every reader fall in love with your writing.

What do you do to grab your reader’s interest? Share your secret weapons in the comments!

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

Alex Limberg is the founder of Ride the Pen, a creative writing blog that dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Make your story great with his free ebook (download here) about “44 Key Questions” to test your sto... .

Ride the Pen | @ridethepen

Find Your Freelance Writing Niches

Featured resource

Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work

If you’re not satisfied with your income from freelance writing, you need to start specializing. This ebook by John Soares will show you why and how.

Comments

  1. I have also seen it go the other way: I had a client for whom I first edited nonfiction, who then came to me after writing her first spiritual novel. That novel did much more than “entertain,” and I think her experience writing nonfiction helped her put together a compelling narrative that guided the reader into deep facets of the human condition. Anyone who engaged the novel on its own terms could not help but come away thinking about questions of ultimate meaning.

    Whatever you happen to be writing now, I encourage you to remember that your ability as an author goes way beyond your current project. Never “write off” any genre as outside your field. You never know where your writing career may lead you!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editing and Author’s Coaching
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • That’s a good complementary point, taking a look from the opposite point of view.

      Although you need different skills for different kinds of writing, there are certain basic talents that serve you well in several writing disciplines.

  2. I write a travel blog (Mia Terra Blog: http://miaterrablog.net/) and a spin-off site Mia Terra Tours & Retreats, extraordinary adventures for writers, artists and creative souls (http://www.miaterratours.com/). I make my stories personal. My readers respond most enthusiastically when I write about myself, my feelings about experiences I have when traveling, and particularly about the mistakes I make on my adventures. When I reveal my human side, my weaknesses and moments of emotional angst, it not only helps my readers identify with me, it helps them find the courage to go on their own adventures. I use the things that are my greatness weaknesses to help my audience learn about the world and how they can be a part of it.

    • That’s a great and very courageous strategy. Opening up about personal experiences and failures is an awesome way to bond with the reader, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

      The paradox is that on one hand, in your articles you have to care about the reader much more than about yourself (use “you” instead of “I,” etc…).

      On the other hand, the one thing all of us humans share are the same emotions. When you tell about yourself, the reader recognizes similiar situations from his own life and identifies with you hardcore. He is on your side now.

      • You’re right, it can’t all be about me. I set a personal example, then I turn it around as a call to action, an invitation to step into the wide world and explore, even if that exploration is only in a corner of their community they’ve never been to. I encourage my readers to get out and do something different, change their perspective, challenge themselves and sometimes be uncomfortable. As writers, we need to broaden the way we view the world, ourselves and our work in order to grow both personally and professionally. That can be done most effectively by venturing outside of our comfort zones, whether it’s across town, across borders, across the ocean or across cultures.

  3. I am an aspiring writer, for the moment only blogging I have found this post most educative.My blog is about my own daily personal experiences and encounters which is about telling my own life story. My hope is that those who read my posts can find interesting that they will want to continue to read.
    I will certainly try to adopt these 5 techniques to improve my posts.I see my blogging as the training to one day write a book. Istill have a lot to learn still. Thank you for this informative post.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mabel, I’m glad you found it helpful.

      Blogging is a great training for writing, because you can go public right away and get feedback and motivation (if you have an audience, that is…).

      Consider guest posting as well! Not only will you gain readers, but you will also get high quality feedback for your writing from the editors.

  4. Christina E says:

    Meh. Seems like basic writing advice for /any/ subject to me…

  5. Great writing tips Alex!

    To grab my readers attention I usually start off with a question that requires a bit of thought on their part, drawing them in to the topic and engaging them on a direct, 1-on-1 level.

    • Sounds great, Daryl!

      A little question can go a long way, if it’s of interest to your readers.

      All the best for your blog!

  6. Thanks for the invaluable tips. Oftentimes, I see myself lost. I have been writing book reviews and resumes and also participate in blogs and discussion forums. Still, I’m looking for something more substantial. At a certain point, I do want to start my own blog and write about my life experiences. The truth is that I need to breakthrough, and this article gave me insights on how to take the first steps.

    • Kelly, if you haven’t already, you may want to check out the earlier entry, “How to Start a Blog.” Good practical information!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services
      epiclesisconsulting.com

      • Thank you, Trish! I’ll check out.

        • Hey Kelly, building your own blog to promote your “brand” and train your writing is a good idea. Be prepared for a lot of work without getting anything back initially though.

          But it’s important to just go ahead and take the first step (getting a URL)!

          Like Trish suggested, check out the earlier entry. You can find a lot of hands-on info about blogging on this very blog. Or just google it and spend some time filtering out the best sources – there is a lot of quality info out there, you just have to find it.

          Good luck with your endeavors!

  7. This is helpful as I am try to write an ebook and enlarge an essay to 2000 words.

  8. Thanks so much for these tips. They are most helpful. This does bring up a question for me, however. I write a lot of business related nonfiction and I always tell a story about my personal experience, first, then follow with tips. In blog posts, I use a lot of “we” and “us” rather than “you” and “yours” because I’ve been there and am still one of them. I think readers expect and accept that level of informality in a blog post. But, what about in a book?

    Is it ever okay to use the “we” and “us,” thereby making ourselves one of the gang when writing a book?

    One of the things I love about the nonfiction of late is that it has become less formal and much more personal and relaxed. But how personal is too personal and how relaxed can we be without turning off our readers or seeming to be all about us?

    • Hi Vicki,
      If you are writing a book, I think the appropriate language really depends on what kind of book it is and what your readers expect.

      For example, if a book is published in a “scientific” context, the language has to be very different from a book published in the “Dummies” series (“Chemistry for Dummies”).

      Sorry, but as I haven’t seen your book, I can’t help you more with this.

      Trust your guts! You sound like you have been writing for a while, so I’m sure you know what to do.

  9. You’ve inspired me to read fiction! I’m working on a book “Stop Competing With Porn”. Fiction would lighten things up. I wrote as a journalist for years, book writing is a new skill I’m developing.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Keep Readers Turning Pages” […]

  2. […] 5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Keep Readers Turning Pages – Learn 5 splendid techniques that will keep readers turning pages when you write non-fiction. […]

Speak Your Mind

*