My freshman year in college, I chose my course schedule based on class titles and time slots. Early-morning sessions lost out to late-morning or afternoon alternatives.
After a few problems (don’t ask about calculus), I realized the professor might be the most important factor. By asking around, it was easy to discover who the good ones were. I started selecting courses based on the people teaching them rather than the subject matter, with the theory that the best teachers could make nearly any subject fascinating.
Incidentally, that’s why there’s a well-marked volume of Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances on my bookshelf to this day. Medieval French literature held no interest for me until I encountered the right professor.
Today, I use a similar strategy with nonfiction authors. I’ll pick up the latest book from Dan Pink, Marcy Roach, Michael Lewis and others, confident that I’ll learn something and enjoy the process.
Great communicators make any topic interesting. We can all strive to be more like those people.
Subject Matter Isn’t Enough to Sustain Interest
Sometimes I’ll pick up a book from an unknown author on a topic that interests me, only to lose interest after a few dozen pages. Subject matter isn’t enough.
That leads me to an uncomfortable question: Is it possible that you’re boring your readers?
“But Anne, I write about industrial pipe fittings,” you might say. “You might find it boring, but people who are really into pipe fittings will read my book because they love the subject.”
Fair enough. Maybe your topic isn’t laced with drama and passion for the average person. It’s important to know and address your specific audience.
But don’t forget: Even if readers find the subject fascinating, they have other demands on their time and attention. As writer, you are responsible for keeping that reader engaged – and it takes more than just a winning subject.
By all means, share your wisdom and your passion for the topic. As you do that, can you find a way to make it even more interesting and enjoyable for the reader?
A little effort to enliven your writing serves two purposes:
- It enhances the reading experience for your target audience.
- It expands the potential audience for your work. Good writing can win new converts to your subject.
Tiny Steps for a Big Impact
You don’t have to make a radical departure from your current writing style. Even minor changes and refinements can make a major impact on the reader’s experience. Here are a few strategies you might try.
Appeal to the reader’s curiosity. Find the unexpected example or unusual detail to describe an otherwise pedestrian or abstract subject.
Use figurative language. Metaphors and similes can help you explain complicated topics. Visual or sensory imagery enlists different parts of the reader’s brain, which makes the reading experience more enjoyable.
For example, let’s say that I’m writing about pipe fitting (which I know nothing about), and compare a connection to pulling on a pair of skinny jeans one size too small. Your brain perks up and provides memories of tight-fitting pants. You imagine feeling that squeeze. And as those sensory systems fire, you may be slightly more engaged in reading this post.
Tell a story. You don’t have to craft a three-act drama. You might describe a moment in time, or a confounding situation. Personal anecdotes can make the topic relevant. (This post started with a personal anecdote.)
If this advice feels uncomfortable, start small. Add a story here and an analogy there. Experiment and see what feels right. As you do so, try to put yourself in the place of your readers. Will this new content distract or add to the piece?
If it enhances the reading experience and the meaning, consider keeping it.
For more advice on enlivening your nonfiction writing, see my latest book, Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit with templates, worksheets and checklists for writing nonfiction. Check it out!