Remember writing essays in school with a minimum word count?
If you were like me, you’re guilty of turning “they said” into “they then proceeded to vocally exclaim…”
I can’t think of a worse way to learn to write.
I didn’t have 5 pages of thoughts about Paul Revere’s ride, but being forced to write that much made me write convoluted sentences packed with unnecessary words to pad my essay and hit the requirement.
What I didn’t learn in school is how to write something people want to read. That is the key to writing non-fiction, and it’s never covered in school.
Great non-fiction is short, simple, direct, and about the reader.
The Four Non-Fiction Writing Principles
1. Make it short
This is the most important principle. If you get this one right, the rest (usually) take care of themselves.
Keep your writing short on all levels. Short chapters (usually no more than 4k words). Short paragraphs (2-3 sentences). Short sentences (5-20 words). Even shorter words (less than 12 characters).
Brevity forces economy and effectiveness. When you put a space constraint on your writing, it compels you to focus on the essential and cut the rest.
The same applies with words. Short words force you to be clear. How many times have you seen someone use big words to mask their lack of true understanding? Hey professor, throwing in “obsequiousness” doesn’t make you sound smart—it just tunes people out.
One key point: make it as short as possible without leaving anything out. Short does not mean missing essential content.
2. Make it simple
Simple is very similar to short, but not the same thing. You can write something that’s short but complex. That doesn’t work well.
Simple words and sentences force you to write in plain English. Even difficult and complex ideas can be broken down into small words and short sentences. As Richard Feynman said, if you cannot explain your idea simply, it probably means you don’t fully understand it (which is bad, if you’re writing a book).
Simple words and sentences also enable you to be understood by far more readers. Non-fiction writing is generally about persuasion. You are writing to try to convince or persuade someone of something. The main technique to convince someone is to keep things simple. How can you persuade someone or convince them to do something if they don’t fully understand what you’re trying to tell them?
Simple also means getting rid of extra words. Any word not absolutely necessary to convey your point must go.
3. Make it direct
Most non-fiction writing is indirect in some way—passive voice, jargon, multiple clauses, heavy use of adjectives and adverbs.
Don’t do these things. If you’re doing them, stop. If you aren’t sure what they are, then do this:
Make each sentence a single, clear statement. Connect it to the sentence before and the sentence after. Do not put multiple thoughts in one sentence.
Make your writing as direct as it can be.
I have to explain passive and active voice, because most people don’t know what it is. Active voice means the subject of the sentence is performing the verb. Passive voice means the subject of the sentence receives the action. Even though they mean the same thing, the effect is very different. Example:
Active: Tucker wrote the book.
Passive: The book was written by Tucker.
Active voice is much easier for people to read because they can picture the sentence. You can see Tucker writing a book.
But in the passive voice, there is another cognitive step. You have to first imagine a book, then think about Tucker writing that book.
This small cognitive step makes a huge difference in how people respond to your writing.
That’s not the worst part of indirect, passive voice writing. Do you hate corporate bullshit writing? Almost all of it is in passive voice. It’s used by people in power to avoid responsibility. Example:
Active: I made a mistake.
Passive: Mistakes were made.
4. Make it about the reader
Ask yourself this question about everything you write:
“Why does the reader care?”
This is the hardest principle to apply, because when you do this, you realize that most of your writing is for yourself—not the reader. You see your writing for what it probably is: selfish, indulgent, and grandiose.
If that happens, don’t get down on yourself. That is common. Only every author ever has had that problem. All you have to do is stop writing about things the reader doesn’t care about and focus on what they do.
Short, simple, direct, about the reader.
Those are the four keys to effective non-fiction writing.
Easy to understand.
Not always easy to do.
These principles fly in the face of decades of conventional school training about writing. I was not taught these in school. In fact, I was taught almost all the opposite.
It took me a decade of professional writing before I figured out that these work.