There are just two things you need to write authoritative and compelling nonfiction:
- to be an authority,
- and write in a way that interests and informs your reader.
“Obviously,” you say? Well, yes and no. The problem is that many books are published by authors with little first-hand knowledge of their subjects or experience in their businesses or fields of study. This undermines the most oft-cited goal of publishing a book—to establish themselves as authorities.
Being an author won’t make you an authority, but authorities have the key ingredient for writing good books.
As a developmental editor, I ask this question of every manuscript: Is this a book, or is this a bibliography? Bibliographies are collections and descriptions of the work of others and reflect little original thought or new content. Books—as a value proposition for the reader—add to the conversation surrounding a topic and submit for consideration new ideas.
- If you’re writing a book on a general topic, you can ask yourself: Am I writing this book because I’m interested in the subject or because I’m an expert on this topic and see a need and market demand for more information about it?
- If you’re a business person, you can ask yourself: Have I been doing this long enough to have developed a unique perspective, and will this book reflect my unique selling proposition?
- If you’re an academic, you can ask yourself: Do I have the depth of knowledge and experience to have developed a unique perspective and/or methodology that can add to the educational material available on this topic?
- If you’re writing a memoir, you can ask yourself: What is it about my experience and journey of personal growth that will resonate with readers?
If you can clearly identify why you are the right person to write your book and why this is the right time, you’ve settled the authority issue. Now it’s time to focus on whether the content and presentation are compelling. But that begs the questions: compelling to whom?
Writing compelling nonfiction requires you to identify your ideal reader and understand their needs and communication style. To be compelling, an author must empathize with their reader.
For example, if you are a psychologist writing a self-help book for people struggling with depression, you need to understand that a lot of backstory and references to academic papers aren’t going to be well received. Your readers are in pain. They want help, and they want it now. You must demonstrate that you can help them and then do it.
On the other hand, if your ideal readers are other psychologists, and you’re writing a book to help them grow their practices and better treat patients then stories about how you built your practice and references to academic papers or other quantifiable data are what they expect and need to get the most value from your work.
Same author. Same topic. But different approaches and content.
Excellent developmental editing is about far more than organization and genre conformity. It’s about the author(ity), the reader, the approach, and the content.
Beyond that, there are a few other things developmental editors look for when evaluating the effectiveness of an author’s written communication skills and its potential value:
- Thesis, Structure of Argument, Supporting Evidence, and Overall Persuasiveness: Are there any logical fallacies, leaps, or content gaps?
- Perspective and Authority: Is this a book or bibliography? Does the author have a unique, compelling perspective?
- Properly Cited Sources: This reflects your understanding of and commitment to the ethical and legal standards professional writers adhere to and is part of risk management.
- Tone and Voice: One challenge for writers of prescriptive nonfiction is not coming across as bossy know it alls. In the end, the writing should reflect the intent of the author and their style.
- Language Use: Is it precise or sloppy? Is there jargon where there shouldn’t be, or is it missing when it should be there? (This is where knowing your audience and having a clearly defined purpose for your book is critical. In the example above, you would not use jargon for the first group but would for the second.)
- Engagement: Does the manuscript address a real need and do it in a way that engages the intended audience? And does it communicate in a way that connects with people of all communication styles?
- Readability: Do the basic structure, images, charts, call outs, and other visual elements enhance or detract from the message?
- Length: Is the length of the manuscript appropriate for its genre, your goals, and will it meet the needs and expectations of your ideal audience?
- Risk Management: What potential is there for claims of defamation, plagiarism, breach of confidence, copyright and/or trademark infringement and financial, reputational, and other types of brand risk? (Nonfiction authors are at higher risk for several types of claims. I recommend consulting with a qualified attorney before publishing your book.)
- Does the reader win in the end and how? Books—even memoir—are not about the author; they are always about the reader.
Authoritative and compelling nonfiction connects the author and reader. It makes the author look good and the reader feel good and can remain relevant (marketable) for many years.
About Cristen Iris
Cristen is a ghostwriter, book collaborator, developmental editor, and speaker. Her clients include a GRAMMY Award ® winner; a debut novelist with a six-figure, world-rights book deal with HarperCollins; social justice warriors; competitive athletes; physicians; attorneys; academics; and entrepreneurs. She is a published essayist and business columnist and specializes in high-concept nonfiction and memoir. Her clients are ambitious, make-things-happen kinds of people. Learn more or contact Cristen at cristeniris.com.
Cristen address this topic in our weekly teleseminar series October 10, 2018.