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Avoid These Common Nonfiction Writing Mistakes

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According to writer E. L. Doctorow, “There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there's only narrative.” I agree.

While we tend to view fiction and nonfiction as opposites, the two are similar. Both require creativity, intentional storytelling, and an understanding of your target audience.

Your nonfiction story shouldn’t read like a dry Wikipedia entry. While you are limited to facts, you aren’t limited to boring. True events can be shared in a fresh and engaging way. Even though you’re documenting real people, you can still insert a little imagination into your storytelling without crossing into fiction territory.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to improve your nonfiction writing by sidestepping common mistakes. Let’s get started.

MISTAKE #1: NOT TELLING AN ACTUAL STORY

Writing mistakes to avoid

The human mind craves stories.

While you are limited to facts when writing a nonfiction book, you aren’t limited to boring.

Even if your book is a self-help book and a collection of personal essays, you can use stories to illustrate an idea and provide context. Whether you’re writing a self-help book, a travelogue, or some other type of literary nonfiction, your book will benefit from the addition of a story. The subgenre dictates whether you write a single, overarching story or sprinkle multiple smaller stories throughout.

Whatever story you write, be sure to include the basic five elements of storytelling:

  1. Plot - The plot is a sequence of events and is a crucial part of storytelling. You must show how one event leads to another.
  2. Setting - The setting describes the time and place. The setting gives you story a mood and helps your reader engage.
  3. Characters - The characters are the people in your story. Characters are used to move the plot forward. In other words, the events in your story don’t happen to your characters. Your characters cause the events to happen.
  4. Conflict - The conflict is the central struggle in your story. It can be an internal (mental) struggle or an external one. In a layered and nuanced story, there are both internal and external conflicts. Conflict creates tension in a story.
  5. Theme - The theme is the big idea of your story. It’s what your story is about (i.e. love, forgiveness, acceptance). Every story needs to have one over-arching theme.

Mistake #2: Not Putting Effort Into Storytelling

Because it’s nonfiction, you may be tempted to just share the facts in chronological order and not put any effort into storytelling. But if you really want to engage your reader (and, trust me, you do), you need to think carefully about how you tell the story.

Here are a few mistakes that will suffocate your nonfiction story:

  • Using passive voice instead of active voice. (ex. Passive voice: She was hit by the paper airplane. Active voice: The paper airplane hit her.)
  • Wordiness. Eliminate excess words.
  • Poor word choice. The thesaurus is the writer's best friend.
  • Using the same word too often. We all have crutch words and phrases. Eliminate them to make your writing more dynamic.
  • Poor readability. If your 12-year-old nephew can't read it, your writing is too difficult to consume by the average, casual reader.
  • Academic tone. Unless you’re writing a textbook (and even then), your book will benefit by using relational and conversational language.

Mistake #3: Not Knowing Where to Start Your Book

Starting at the beginning can be a mistake. Even if you’re writing a biography about a historical figure, you don’t have to start the book at birth. You can start at a formative event in their life and then flashback to their beginnings. This is especially useful if the subject matter’s early life is unremarkable or doesn’t fit with your theme.

You may find that it’s easier for you to write the start from its beginning and then rearrange it during the editing process. Let your gut and creativity dictate where your book should begin. But also be careful about adding too many flashbacks, which tend to slow down the pace of a story.

Mistake #4: Not Hooking Them From the Beginning

Writing mistakes to avoid

Your nonfiction narrative needs to hook the reader. There should be a reason why they picked up your book and decided to read it. Beyond name recognition, beyond a catchy title and book cover, there must be something that draws your reader to the story itself.

So, you’re the 15,139th person to write a biography about George Washington. Why should the reader invest in your book instead of the other 15,138 books out there? Your fresh perspective, the stories that you include, and the overarching theme will hook the reader and make them interested from the beginning.

Mistake #5: Not Remembering Your Audience

It’s crucial that you know who will read your book. Overwise, how will you connect with and create compelling content for that reader?

You can’t. You’ll be all over the place.

At the very least, you need to know the age of your average reader. This way, you can write directly to them.

But it’s also a good idea to know what your reader is hoping to gain by reading your nonfiction book. Do they want to be inspired? Do they want to know how to reach a goal? Do they want to learn something new? What do they already know about the subject?

Answering these questions will help you figure out who’s reading and why.

Mistake #6: Giving the Reader Too Much Information

TMI is a classic nonfiction writing mistake. We also see this in fiction, too, especially in the sci-fi subgenre.

TMI is giving too much information about a subject that the reader doesn’t care about. Your casual reader doesn’t care about the inner workings of carburetors if your subject matter is about Nikola Tesla. The only reason the reader would care is if those facts about carburetors are directly tied to a pivotal moment in Tesla’s life.

While it may be interesting to you, be careful that all of your information is used to enlighten the reader and move the story forward at the same time.

Mistake #7: Not Finding the Emotional Element

Every book needs an emotional tug to pull the reader in and keep them invested. This is known as raising the stakes. Raising the stakes introduces much-needed suspense into your narrative and makes the reader ask, “What's going to happen next? How will this problem be resolved?”

If the reader doesn't ask those questions, they may not pick up your book again. They may not even turn the page.

First of all, you need to define the stakes. In other words, give the reader something that they want. For a nonfiction book, the reader may want something for the protagonist or they may want something from themselves (which is often the case in a self-help book). You can raise the stakes by showing them the end goal for the protagonist or themselves but then introducing the conflict that will prevent them from reaching that goal.

Two ways to raise the stakes in your nonfiction story are:

  1. Implement a time limit or deadline to complete a goal and avoid doom.
  2. Describe what will happen if the protagonist/ reader doesn't reach their goal.

If you don't raise the stakes, you have a cutesy story but not a gripping, edge-of-the-seat narrative. You want your reader to be emotionally invested in what happens next, whether that's because they're living vicariously through the protagonist or trying to get clarification on a personal struggle.

Final Thoughts

Writing a nonfiction book gives you a platform to inspire, educate, and motivate others. But if you’re not careful, you could make a common writing mistake with your nonfiction narrative. Follow the above tips to improve your writing and pen a captivating nonfiction story.

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