6 Tips for Writing a Nonfiction Essay
6 Tips for Writing a Nonfiction Essay
tips for writing a nonfiction essay

I’ve noticed that almost all the ‘creative nonfiction’ workshops I see advertised are really about writing memoir—writing about your own life and the people you’ve known, the events you’ve experienced, perhaps how you worked through something difficult. Occasionally, I see an ad for a workshop on travel writing. What I don’t see advertised are workshops on how to do what I’ve made my living doing for years now—tips for writing a nonfiction essay that expresses an opinion or explores an idea.

But that’s what most bloggers are doing, much of the time: expressing their thoughts on a topic. It’s also what students do when they write a paper for school. If your company has discovered that you are a good writer, they may ask you to write for the company newsletter or to write a “white paper” explaining the company’s position on something. All of these forms of nonfiction writing are similar in their form and requirements.

Here are my guidelines for writing the creative nonfiction essay:

1. Do your research. You may just be expressing your own opinion, but the Internet is overrun with people regurgitating opinions that they’ve acquired from others and have never bothered to fact-check or look at critically. Don’t be that person. The only people who will be interested in reading such stuff are those who already agree with you and don’t think critically either. If you are writing to convince or inform someone else—your teacher, perhaps, or readers who may not know much about the topic—you need to make a good argument, and you need a solid base of facts for that argument.

Note: I’m amazed by how many of my student author clients—even in graduate school—have not read the reading assignments. It’s only too obvious to me, and it will be to the professor as well. Do your homework!

 

2. Use impeccable sources. Your sources of information must be reputable, trustworthy, and impartial. For instance, I write a lot about health issues. I don’t quote from sources that are trying to sell a product or from personal websites put up by people who are convinced they were cured of something by using the latest fad treatment. Instead, I go straight to PubMed for the latest research published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s okay to quote from the people who have an agenda as long as you are clear that this is the case; in fact, it can make a paper more interesting if you discuss the different “sides” and then give your reasons for why you find one side more compelling. And that leads to my next point:

 

3. Avoid polemic. Trust me, your own feelings will come through your writing. There is no need for name-calling or personal attacks on those who hold different a different view; in fact, that will weaken your argument. Sarcasm, it’s said, is the refuge of those who don’t actually have a good counterargument to put forth. So are insults. Be aware of when you stop arguing about the issue and have gotten personal about the “other side.” You make a much stronger case when you can rise above the personal and stick to the facts, and you won’t come across as insecure or whiny or vindictive—or ill-informed.

 

4. Avoid jargon. This is a hard one when you’re writing for a company or particular specialty, because they love their jargon! The problem with jargon is that it holds no meaning for those outside the group. Words are symbols that convey imagery to the mind of the reader, but jargon does the opposite: it can make the reader stop and become confused or even be insulted—exactly what you don’t want! Use plain English as much as you can, and if you have to use jargon, explain what it means the first time you use it. (And expect to fight about this with the client if you’re writing for someone else.)

 

5. Structure your essay. This is the hardest thing for most of my student clients. They may have great ideas, but they don’t know how to organize them. I suggest this basic format:

 

Introduction: what I’m going to talk about, the point I’m going to make, the question I’m going to explore and answer.

First idea: what it is, what it means, the evidence for it, quotes to back it up. (Note: a good rule is to always explain a quote in your own words too, either before or after the quote. Don’t just stick random quotes in without explaining how they fit your point.)

Second idea: same as above.

Third (and fourth, etc.) idea: same as above.

Conclusion: summary of what was said, my final conclusion about this topic.

 

Don’t jumble all your ideas together; they won’t have any power. In general, you want to start with a fairly strong point, put your weakest argument(s) in the middle, and end with your strongest point. As my ninth-grade English teacher put it, you rock the person back with your first punch, let them recover a little with your second punch, and then finish them off with your best shot.

 

6. Make sure it flows. Here’s my favorite trick for checking your essay for flow and completeness: On a separate piece of paper (or on the computer), write down the thought expressed in each paragraph. If you can’t reduce it to one thought, fix the paragraph. There should be only one idea per paragraph. (Supporting ideas can be in the same paragraph or in the paragraphs just following.) Then read through this list. It should be obvious where there’s a gap in the argument or when you started repeating yourself.

Nonfiction writing does require more work upfront and more attention to structure, but once you get these skills under your belt, a whole new world of writing possibilities will be open to you.

 


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJody Bower,
PhD, has made her living as a nonfiction writer and editor for 30 years. Her book, Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story, is now available from http://questbooks.com/ and other online booksellers.

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