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Writing long-form nonfiction can be difficult; there is a fine line between cramming as much interesting information into a book or article, and the resulting work coming out drier than a Gingernut biscuit. Originally, my field of study was journalism, and my lecturers often shared bits of advice that have stayed with me up until now. While I don’t often write nonfiction (anymore!), I love reading it and have discovered a few elements that I think make or break a nonfiction piece.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH!
There is nothing worse than reading a nonfiction piece that is vague and uninformed. Not only is good research beneficial for your reader, it’s important that you fully grasp and understand the subject you are writing about. I don’t just mean trawling through hundreds of scientific articles and research papers; get involved (if possible) in the area you are writing about, talk to experts, conduct interviews of people in the periphery of the subject. Reading other books on the same subject is also a great way to ensure you’re not just regurgitating information and not providing anything new to the reader.
When writing your nonfiction piece, consider taking elements from fiction writing and utilising them. In the research stage, this could be taking time to observe your surroundings, or the person you are interviewing. Take note of their mannerisms, their behaviours, the way they engage with the main subject you are writing about. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein does an amazing job of this, in the sense that there is intense characterisation that takes place amongst the main story of the cleaning service Sandra Pankhurst provides. The book not only provides insight to the crime scene cleaning industry, but also tells Sandra’s story with compassion, respect and impeccable detail. If you can take part in a ‘ride along’, seize the opportunity and be sure to take lots of notes! It will give you invaluable information that you can slot in amongst the facts.
FIND A PERSONAL ANGLE
Most of the nonfiction I have read and enjoyed have included a memoir structure, or personal aspect to the story. By writing from your perspective, you have the ability to create deeper and more meaningful connections with the reader. While studying journalism, the majority of the feature articles I was tasked to write had to involve a personal angle and my relationship with the subject. This meant that the reader wasn’t bogged down in the facts and statistics, and fully engaged with the themes and ideas presented. A great example of this, and one of my favourite books of all time, is Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Filled with anecdotes of her experiences working in a crematory, the reader ends up being both entertained by the stories she tells, but also has the chance to really consider what happens to their body after death. By the end of the book, I had a much deeper understanding of the rampant capitalism in the death industry, and the myriad of death practices from around the world.
WRITE CREATIVELY/STRUCTURE IS IMPORTANT
Creative nonfiction is hugely popular, and for good reason. As humans, we benefit from the structure provided by storytelling. It has been around for millennia. By creative writing, I don’t mean making up facts and falsifying the truth; I mean writing the story in such a way that it reads like fiction, but provides information to the reader simultaneously. I love it when a nonfiction book reads like fiction, as it seems to flow easier and makes it a more entertaining read. I tend to absorb more information when nonfiction is written this way. This aspect goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip, as choosing a personal perspective allows for the writing to include emotional, atmospheric elements that readers enjoy. Human interest stories are great at this – pay attention to the news and see if you can spot the stories that are intended to get you emotional!
Structure can also make or break a nonfiction book. Consider whether you want to use an essay collection style, or a full-length story-style structure. This will depend on what you’re writing about – larger-scale subjects will suit a full story, whereas memoirs and anecdotal stories will suit an essay collection style. Researching other books in your chosen subject will be important here.
Much like fiction stories, story structure can vary in terms of the sequence in which events are told. Consider whether you want to use the typical beginning-middle-end structure, or experiment with conflict and resolution, or even use flashbacks and multiple storylines. This can generate a feeling of greater substance within the story, and compel the reader to continue reading on to see if the ‘character’/subject gets the resolution they are aiming for or deserve. Understanding the theory of the ‘hero’s journey’ could be helpful in this situation if you’re not sure where to start with putting your research into a creative nonfiction piece. How you package your nonfiction to the reader will determine how interested they are in the story, and maintaining that interest.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to write your story. It doesn’t matter how you write it; if you feel it’s an important story, get it down on paper.
SOME GREAT EXAMPLES
The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper
Scrappy Little Nobody – Anna Kendrick
Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race – Lara Prior-Palmer
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed – Lori Gottlieb
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – Michelle McNamara
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Disaster – Sarah Krasnostein
Bossypants – Tina Fey
The Monthly magazine – has great feature articles!