Steal fiction technique for better nonfiction writing

Nonfiction writers often believe they have nothing to learn from fiction. Fiction is entertainment, they say, and they deal in truth. Nope, no fiction for them.

It’s too bad, because straightforward just-the-facts style does little to hold a reader’s attention. It doesn’t even work for attention; it just sits there, self-important and expecting to be read. Fiction, on the other hand, is written for the senses and not only the five we usually think of. It’s also written for the sense of surprise, the sense of discovery, the sense of connectedness. That’s what makes a best-selling novel more compelling to read than a fix-it manual.

The craft in nonfiction writing comes from assembling words in ways that compel a reader to continue. For this, good nonfiction writers borrow from fiction, and good nonfiction writers read good fiction to pick up and appreciate technique.

Some fiction technique that’s beneficial to nonfiction writing:

Vary sentence length to control speed. Surprisingly, freight trains travel in long sentences. They start and stop in short ones. When you need to slow down for clarity, use short sentences. Short sentences are good, too, for emphasizing energy and drama. (Sometimes this technique is called “syntactic symbolism” – the construction reflecting the desired impression on the reader.)

Place words for emphasis. Strong words belong at the beginnings and ends of sentences and paragraphs. Of those two, the stronger position is the end because that’s where punctuation causes the reader to pause.

Seek original images in metaphor and simile. Everybody knows love is blind, but not everyone knows that love is a comfortable bed of nails.

Show, don’t tell. Use anecdotes to introduce and illustrate ideas and situations. People like to read about other people.

These are only a few techniques that a nonfiction writer can borrow from fiction, no matter whether she’s conveying information or creating an experience. Places to learn more: “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) and “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style” by Virginia Tufte (Graphics Press, 2006). Both are available through booksellers in real life and online.

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