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Some of the best non-fiction writers, in terms of sales at least, seem to be able to write in a really engaging and easy to read style that makes their work hard to put down. For example, author/journalist Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and others) comes to mind as someone who is very fun to read, even if his claims are occasionally dubious.

My question is: Has there been any work or writing directed at trying to dissect the process of writing really engaging, bestseller-quality nonfiction? I'm sure someone has dissected the process of writing good hooks, at least...but I don't know where to turn for this kind of information.

If you don't know of any specific references regarding how to write engaging non-fiction, I'd still be very interested in advice that anyone can offer on this subject. I particularly liked the advice in the accepted answer on this question, which indicated that in fiction, lack of context and mystery can work well for "first lines."

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6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

IMO, everything you need to know can be found in Kathy Sierra's "Crash course in learning theory" article. If you end up wanting more (references or otherwise), she has a reading list in the comments.

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This is great! Thanks! I get the sense some of this advice would be useful even for writing fiction. –  Philip White Dec 20 '10 at 0:07
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A trick Gladwell frequently uses (not unique to him, of course) is to use insider jargon to make you feel like you know something that only experts know. For example, if not for Gladwell, I would not know that diaper developers call the spill they are called upon to absorb "the insult." And if not for an early-90s issue of Car and Driver, I would not know that automobile designers call the way a car's finish changes appearance as light moves across it "travel" (except at IIRC Ford, where they call it "flop").

Also, you can boil down a lot of engaging non-fiction to finding a narrative and hanging your facts onto it. In stories of scientific progress, for example, there are obvious narratives: mystery, a sense of the secret being revealed bit by bit. This works even though the people who discovered or invented the individual pieces might not have been aware that they were working toward the goal; as the writer, you pretend that progress is inevitable, and omit all the facts that don't lead to your thrilling discovery simply because they're not part of the story. Take particular care to note the roadblocks and how the participants in your story overcame them, or better yet, how a roadblock stopped someone cold but the thread was later picked up by someone with a fresh perspective. Dig for the tantalizing hints that correlation is causation (this happened, then something else happened, therefore the first event caused the second) and that there is some kind of grand plan, if only humankind's collective unconscious, behind it all.

There's a smug aphorism to the effect that "writing fiction is harder than writing non-fiction, because fiction has to make sense." In reality, non-fiction has to make sense just as much: readers want to understand the motives of the murderer as much as they want to hear the lurid details of his crime. Your job as a non-fiction writer is to turn ordinary people, some of whom may be quite boring but who nevertheless play pivotal roles, into compelling characters, while not neglecting the facts. You must make the whole story hang together in a way that real life does not (including a satisfying sense of closure at the conclusion)... while remaining true to reality. It is a difficult line to walk successfully, and surely not every real-life story is suited to such treatment, so selection of your topic is also important.

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I don't think I've heard the aphorism said that way. The one I've heard--which is more accurate--contrasts fiction with real life. The task of writing non-fiction is indeed harder yet, as not only must it make sense, but the author is not typically at liberty to fabricate sensible things to accomplish that. Historically accurate storytelling is perhaps the most challenging kind of narrative. –  C. A. McCann Feb 19 '13 at 14:01
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Read books on screenwriting.

I liked Jon Franklin's "writing for story," but it's a bit old. That kind of advice doesn't date. Same content, essentially: The Elements of Story, by Francis Flaherty. See also Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing, although that's more about fiction than narrative non-fiction. (and a book you should look at before ordering on line--I thought it was worth the money but not everyone does.)

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Here are some things that grab my attention in good nonfiction:

  • A slow revelation of facts that raises questions at the beginning of an article or passage and answers them toward the end
  • A balance of factual information with anecdotes that bring the information to life
  • Judicious background information that enhances the relevance or importance of the information, but does not draw attention away from the main point
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Totally an opinion here but I have to agree with MGOwen's answer above. Just to elaborate and maybe add a bit to it,

  • Humour is one of the things that makes the most boring facts eminently readable as well as memorable. One of the way that Bill Bryson incorporates it in his books is by presenting the facts with very relatable and atleast to me inherently funny examples

Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe

  • Another way that I find particularly absorbing is to involve the human element as an integral part of the facts itself and not just to focus on the facts.

A particular example of this is Simon Singh's - Fermat's last theorem - which essentially being a book about mathematics - makes it a lot more interesting by giving a picture of the mathematicians themselves and their lives . It talks not just of Andrew Wiles, who cracked the theorem but of events and circumstances of relatively obscure mathematicians like Evariste Galois who was killed but spent the night before his death putting down everything he knew on paper so that it would not be lost.

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Humour can help.

For example: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

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Totally agree. Love reading that book! So much so that i have read it more than a few times :-) –  InSane Dec 20 '10 at 8:18
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