By Quentin J. Schultze
I have written over a dozen nonfiction books and am working on a few more. I also lead workshops on writing nonfiction books for publication. Here are a few of the tips that I cover in workshops.
#1 Engage Your Readers as Listeners
Read your writing out loud to “readers.” See how they respond. Good nonfiction engages readers as listeners. Moreover, it’s easier to tell if people are engaged with your prose by looking at and listening to their reactions to an oral reading than it is trying to gauge their immediate responses to silent reading. Friends almost always will tell you that your writing is great, but how do they really feel about it? When you read out loud, avoid sounding preachy or academic. Don’t try to impress listeners. Just read in your natural but lively voice. Soon you’ll discover what actually engages readers and what doesn’t. You’ll become a better writer as well as a more adept oral interpreter of your own work. After all, most nonfiction book readers “hear” the writer when they read silently—just as they hear fictional characters’ dialogue. I learned the importance of engaging readers as listeners by reading short sections of my work to my college students. Their faces never lie.
#2 Title Your Chapter Drafts in Parallel Form
Perhaps each of your chapter titles should begin with a verb or a noun. Maybe each chapter title should be one word or a short phrase. In any case, be consistent in order to maintain the same voice and perspective across all chapters. For instance, two of the chapter titles in my public speaking book are “Addressing Challenges” and “Crafting Artfully.” I wanted to encourage the reader to imagine herself or himself “doing” the subject of each chapter. A chapter titled “Challenges” or “Art” would not fit that cross-chapter purpose. Parallel titles will keep you focused and organized. Without them you’re more likely to confuse yourself and your readers. Note how I titled each of the tips on this page.
#3 Discuss Your Writing with Writers (and Authors)
Authors need one another. Writing is personal, but learning about writing is communal. Every author depends on the work of earlier writers. This is true for style and content. We all need feedback from other writers as well as from readers. Discussing our ideas and manuscripts with other writers helps us to discover what works and what doesn’t—and why. Join a local writers group (e.g., through a bookstore), read one another’s drafts, and offer kind but honest feedback. If possible, invite some published (but humble) authors into the group. Eventually, sitting at your keyboard or staring at a notebook will not seem so lonely, intimidating, and baffling.
#4 Address a Proven Topic in a Fresh Way
Publishers lose money on most books. They know that very few books become bestsellers. But even if publishers can’t predict big winners they can try to avoid big losers. How? By reducing their risk, especially by rejecting both overly innovative manuscripts and manuscripts that address unproven topics. Publishers prefer a modestly unique approach to a market-proven topic. The one major exception is extremely timely topics.
#5 Thematize Your Work
What’s your book’s theme? State it in one complete sentence to keep yourself on track. Do this for memoir, too. Unless you’re a well-known author, your memoir is not likely to be published. Why should readers care about your life? To get published, you need more than your personal story. You need thematic significance. Again, your best chance of getting published is by developing a novel approach to a a timeless topic such as parenting, love, health, faith, work, success, failure, and friendship. The modestly unique theme of my public speaking book is that the purpose of all good speaking is serving the audience—not serving the speaker.
Thanks for reading. I hope these suggestions serve you well.
Read tips 6-10.
— Quentin Schultze