The nonfiction style of writing is multi-faceted. On the one hand, you need to connect with your readers at an intellectual level so that you can impart your solution in a way that’s clear and unambiguous.
On the other hand, you need to connect with the emotional core of your audience to establish a relationship of trust.
How Do You Find Your Nonfiction Writing Style?
When you have a face-to-face encounter with other people, you rely on many devices to communicate your thoughts and ideas – you use the inflection of your voice, your choice of words, your gestures, your overall body language and so on to influence how your message is perceived by the other party.
The aggregate of all these devices makes up your communication style. Now, since the ways you talk, move and gesture are part of who you are, it requires little effort to connect with others at a personal level.
But when your communication is limited to a single modality – the written word – you have to work much harder to connect effectively.
This is the reason why taking the time to develop your style of writing is critical to becoming an effective nonfiction author. In this article, I’m going to cover the basics of what it takes to develop your written “persona” so that you can come across to your readers as effectively as if you were talking to them in person.
How Do You Identify Your Personal Writing Style?
There are two key aspects of your writing style: An internal and an external one. The internal aspect relates to who you are as a person. The external is based on the mechanics of the nonfiction genre.
The internal aspect is what allows you to convey through the written word the same type of nuance you’re able to convey when communicating in person.
In other words, it’s what allows your writing to “feel” human to others – the written equivalent of spoken language.
Elements of Your Internal Writing Style
You personal writing style is defined by 3 core, or foundational, elements.
These 3 elements are:
This is the element of your writing style that establishes the “atmosphere” of your work – in other words, the emotional undertones that allow your audience to connect emotionally with your writing.
For example, the mood that could permeate your nonfiction book may be, depending on your subject matter, one of hope, inspiration, compassion, humor, achievement, healing, etc.
The goal of mood is to help communicate your message to readers in a way that aligns with their state of mind, so that they can experience an emotional attachment to your message.
The tone of your written word expresses your overall attitude toward your message – which is not that dissimilar to the use of the verbal tone in spoken language.
Like its spoken language counterpart, your written tone is defined by your choice of words and the emphasis that you use in your communication.
For example, depending on the nature of your work, your tone could be conversational (e.g. self-help, pop psychology), formal (finance), serious (medical/health), informal (cookbooks), cheerful (fitness), sarcastic (politics), etc.
The way you express your written tone is through your viewpoint and your language, your choice of words and your punctuation (e.g. using exclamation marks to express enthusiasm or to make a significant point, the use of bold, italics and underline for emphasis, etc.).
Your written voice conveys your personality. Even though you express your voice, tone and mood based on your choice of words, the difference is that your voice is a reflection of “who” you are while your mood and tone are a reflection of “how” you communicate.
For example, if you attend a Tony Robbins self-help seminar and then read one of his books, you’ll be able to clearly “see” him through his words. His written voice will be as much a reflection of his personality as his spoken voice is.
And if you were to read self-help books from different authors, such as Wayne Dyer and Ekhart Tolle, in the same subject area, you’ll be able to clearly detect three distinct voices on the same subject.
When you write nonfiction, you want to develop a written voice that’s as close to who you are as you possibly can. You never want to create a fiction of who you are, or worse yet, to portray someone else.
Either case is inauthentic, which will translate into mistrust for your readers – the death knell of nonfiction authors.
External Writing Style Elements
On top of the above three core elements of your writing style, there are a number of other elements that are more technical in nature, and in many cases genre-dependent. I’ll cover three key external elements of nonfiction writing style below:
Once you’ve been able to nail down your mood, your tone and your voice, you need to focus on your sentence structure. How you write your sentences will mean the difference between uninspiring, hard to follow, or even cringe-inducing reading and inspiring, effortless and exciting text.
Although teaching you how to write good nonfiction sentences is well beyond the scope of this article, here are some best practices you can follow that will set you on the right path:
- Avoid the use of the passive voice as much as possible
- Avoid run-on sentences
- Avoid the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs
- Be concise. Avoid the use of words that don’t fulfill a clear purpose in your text and are there only for the purpose of embellishment
- Avoid the repetitive use of words in close proximity – for example, using the word “clearly” two times in the same sentence
- Vary the length of your sentences to avoid monotony
- Use punctuation marks correctly to avoid unintentionally changing the meaning of your message (read this article on the correct use of punctuation marks as a reference of what to do if in doubt)
Use of Literary Devices
Literary devices are techniques used by writers to add a desired emphasis to their message, to add clarity, to make a point, or to create a stronger connection with readers.
Here are some examples of the most common literary devices used in the nonfiction genre:
- Alliteration: A phrase made out of words that begin with the same sound. For some reason, our brains are wired to remember alliterations more easily than phrases that aren’t alliterated – e.g. the “Fabulous Four” is much more memorable than the “Great Four,” or the “Talented Four”.
- Allusion: An indirect reference to an external (usually well-known) individual, place, or event added for emphasis – e.g. “It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out how to…”
- Anaphora: The repetition of a word or short expression at the beginning a multiple sentences, typically used to convey a strong message to your readers. For example: “Fact: 1 in 7 people who take this drug experience… Fact: There’s conclusive evidence that this therapy protocol doesn’t work because… Fact: The FDA has issued a warning about this product stating that…”
- Hyperbole: a statement that’s purposely exaggerated for effect – e.g. “After this fitness routine you’ll feel so tired you’ll want to sleep for an entire week.”
- Metaphor: This literary device is used when you want to create emphasis by comparing two things that are unrelated but share common characteristics – e.g. “In the end your conscience will always be your internal compass.”
- Oxymoron: Using two words in sequence to express a contradiction, usually for emphasis and sometimes to add a touch of humor – e.g. “open secret, deafening silence, unbiased opinion.”
The final external element of your writing style which builds upon your three foundational elements is “word choice.” When it comes to communicating with your target audience, you need to ensure that you always use words that align with their level of comprehension.
Otherwise, your readers won’t be able to connect with your text. This is the reason why in nonfiction you truly need to know your audience as well as you know yourself.
You need to know where they are at so that you can communicate at their level. If you perch yourself up on the guru’s mountain top, you risk alienating your readers, appearing condescending or, even worse, incomprehensible.
On the contrary, if you use a choice of words that’s at a lower level than your audience’s, they’ll dismiss you as too simplistic or perhaps even as insulting their intelligence.
To get into the details of good word choice is again beyond the scope of this article, however, there are some good best practices for nonfiction that you should strive to follow.
Here are some examples:
- Always use words that you fully understand and know the meaning of
- Avoid “elegant” or unnecessarily complex words (i.e. words that obscure the message you’re trying to convey) – e.g. bifurcate (use divide), Ameliorate (use improve), Commensurate (use equal), Deleterious (use harmful), Expeditious (use fast), Indefatigable (use tireless), etc.
- Don’t use acronyms or abbreviations unless you know with certainty that 100% of your audience will know what they mean. For example, it’s okay to use the word “pip” if your book is targeted at experienced foreign exchange traders, but not if it’s targeted at beginners.
- Strive to eliminate unnecessary words. If the removal of a word doesn’t alter the meaning of your sentence, then keep it out – e.g. you don’t really need to use the word “thoroughly” in the following sentence: “I was thoroughly awake when she came in.”
- Don’t use language that makes you sound “professorial,” and by extension, never try to impress your audience. It’ll make your reading feel distant and disconnected.
- Avoid the repetitive use of “crutch” or filler words, such as “actually, literally, in fact, as a matter of fact, etc.” While they’re okay when used in isolation, they become problematic when used repeatedly.
What’s the Best Way to improve My Writing Style?
The fastest way to hone your writing style is to read lots of well-written nonfiction books in your niche (read bestsellers from large, traditional publishers because they have access to world-class editors).
Then, analyze how those authors choose their words to express their unique personality.
Finally, it’s time to let it all sink in through practice, practice and more practice. When it comes to developing your own writing style there’s no silver bullet – and definitely no substitute for rubber to the road!
All the best,
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, printing, distribution and marketing.