9 Tips for Writing Nonfiction that Sings

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Writing and selling nonfiction is an excellent way to gather by-lines. I’ve had numerous editors tell me they receive more fiction than nonfiction even when they use less of it. To see your work published send them nonfiction that sings.

Pick a topic that interests you. Whether you want to write essays, articles or how-tos, don’t write to a trend that doesn’t intrigue you. Instead, chose topics that interest you. You’re going to need the enthusiasm to see you through research, writing, and multiple rewrites.

Do your research. The book I turned in today had 191 items in the bibliography. Some projects have required even more. To write nonfiction rich in detail, you are going to have to be willing to take the time to do the research.

Avoid the info dump. Once you’ve done your research, you’re going to want to include it all. Even essential details can weigh a piece down if you dump in too much info at once. Instead, feed the facts to your reader a little at a time.

Play. One way to make your work sing is to make it fun to read. This can mean making it poetic or funny. Sometimes it means including charming or amazing detail. Titles that rat-a-tat-tat. Dialogue that dances. This isn’t appropriate in all writing but when you can? Have fun.

Tension. Want to keep your reader on the edge of her seat? Use word choice, foreshadowing, cliffhangers, and carefully chosen details to create tension. But you have to keep it honest. Don’t create false tension by making things out to be dire when they aren’t.

Satisfying Ending. A song that just ends makes you wonder what happened. The same is true of nonfiction. How-to create a satisfying ending depends on what you are writing. You might want to make readers want to take action. Or you might want them to be glad they took the time to read your work.

Cut the excess. When you are done, cut every unneeded word. One friend cuts 30% of everything she writes. In a piece of this length, I’ll cut at least a word per line. In the book I just finished, I cut 1600 out of 16,800 words. Cutting is easier on a print copy.

Read it aloud. When you are done, read your work aloud. This is a great way to spot repetition and phrases that bring you to a stop or trip you up. Cut and smooth until it melts in your mouth like butter.

Know when to quit. Sometimes you try all of these things and the piece falls flat. It doesn’t sing. It’s just there. Maybe you just need to think it through, or you need time to process the experience the writing is based on. Or the idea may simply not be a good one.

Even when you choose your topic carefully, some things just won’t come together. And that’s okay. Part of making your work sing is knowing when to put something aside.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins May 7th, 2018.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--This post about making nonfiction writing sing? Well, it sings. The post got me reading because my NaNo from 2017 doesn't really sing, and the post kept me reading because of the poetry woven in and out of your suggestions.

Thanks for hitting the spot at the exact right time.

Margo Dill said...

This is an excellent article, Sue. I think people hear nonfiction and think: how could it sing? But you have really hit some important and great points here. Thank you for being our nonfiction expert. :)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Excellent advice, Sue. :) I'm curious about your statement on cutting. Why is it easier on a print copy? I've never tried that because I usually reshape sentences and transitions in the progress of cutting, but I'm going to give it a shot right now. I have a piece I need to cut 400 words from.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you! That's the sort of word play I have a lot of fun developing.

Ooo, expert. Can I put that on a business card?

I had to cut 250 words to get a chapter down to 1650 on Monday. A word here and word there just wouldn't do it. On a print copy, when I'm done with a page I can look back and see if I've accomplished anything significant. Does that make sense?


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