5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Captivate Readers

5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Captivate Readers

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.

How to write a nonfiction book using fiction techniques

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!

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft
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  • Batmansbestfriend says:

    What I did, that actually seems to have worked for me (despite my initial apprehension), was to write the entire book so it would read as one continuous scene, even though the story takes place over approximately a three week period in multiple locations with multiple characters. Time in the story is continuous, flowing, and everything is happing simultaneously, before, or after some other event. The story starts and then goes…on the last page it stops. Everything reads with a sense of immediacy (some scenes more, some less) but it reads as though there are no stopping points…flowing from beginning to end. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, and so on. I know most boosk read that way, but mine cements it into the readsrs head in a way that they’re aware of it. The story flows as one continuous set of actions so much that I have even used that to my advantage to make subtile (authorial intrusive) jokes about it. I end oner chapter at a point and begin the next chapter, to the second, where the last left off and before the next chapter begins I start as though it’s the beginning of a second part of a “to be continued” tv episode with a recap of the reader was left “last time” by stating something to the effect of “in case you don’t remember, dear reader,…” and something about “the last time we saw our two characters…” It’s a joke, but iot keeps things interesting.

    I was worried that writing this way might get panned by readers, and might be annoying (all the little hints to remind the reader that everything is happening in relation, timewise, to everytyhing else), but I had my beta reader read the first chapter and they said “It’s like nothing I have ever read before” and meant that as a good thing. My beta reader reads 100 books a year on average so that means something. All that happened in the section they read was that the main character was introduced as they walked to work…that’s it…and they said they couldn’t stop reading, and had to know what happens next. A guy walks to work, and I kept it compelling, interesting, and got the reader to want to know the rest of the story based on that alone. I must have done something right.

    The point is, if you find what works for you and your story, go with it. Ignore the initial apprehension and GO WITH IT. Some stories just write themselves and you cannot be afraid to let that happen. Sure, you may have no idea that what you’re doing, as a writer, is working but you cannot spend all your time worried about all the other possibilities for telling your story and which one will possibly work better. If something seems to be working, let it work. If something else would work better, then let it “work better.” Don’t jump around and rewrite your story 10,000 times just because something might work better and don’t force something to work just because you like it more than what is currently working. Once you hit the point where you realize that something is working more than the alternatives, GO WITH IT and LET IT WORK.

    Also, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re unsure if something is working. Ask a reader to give you advice and don’t be afraid of being told “this sucks” (in so many words). If you haven’t ever been told “you suck” as a writer then you need to find some new readers. Every writer sucks at some point and knowing where and when that is is the only way you can grow.

    Don’t be afraid to let a story tell itself and don’t worry too much about being told your writing is terrible. It happens to the best of us. John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was passed on because le Carré “hasn’t got any future.” It was made into a movie in 1965. Lord of the Flies by William Golding was rejected 20 times before it was published. In 1963 and 1990 it became a movie and was parodied in a episode of The Simpsons (Das Bus) in 1998.

  • Roy Mize says:

    Every non-fiction writer who wants the general public to read their stuff should print this and tape it to their bedroom mirror. Took me years to recognize when to use and when not to use constraints that bound me when writing in the tech and business world.
    A new, and well educated, member of our weekly critique group reminded me recently. Her commentary on an intro I wrote took me to task because I had no topical statement. Her point was that every paragraph must have a thesis statement, especially an intro. And of course they don’t. Just as in good fiction, the writing must pique a reader. As for my intro, others found it flowed well and had interest to drive a reader further.

    The topic? The forgotten man who helped the Wright brothers achieve fight.

  • nithya.n says:

    it’s useful

  • Laura says:

    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.

  • Vicki says:

    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?

    • Alex says:

      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.

  • Annette says:

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

  • Kelly says:

    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

      • Kelly says:

        Thank you, Trish! I’ll check out.

        • Alex says:

          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!

  • Daryl says:

    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.

    • Alex says:

      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!

  • Christina E says:

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

  • 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.

    • Alex says:

      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.

  • Diana Osberg says:

    I write a travel blog (Mia Terra Blog: and a spin-off site Mia Terra Tours & Retreats, extraordinary adventures for writers, artists and creative souls ( 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.

    • Alex says:

      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.

      • Diana Osberg says:

        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.

  • 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

    • Alex says:

      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.

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