My writing only seldom appears on this publication. However, those who have paid close attention will have noticed that my most common indictment is for the crime of wasted paper and wasted time. To make a point should only take so long. I allow authors modest space to provide emphasis and even, begrudgingly, personal flourish. Too many non-fiction writers seem to think that they aren’t writers unless they’re writing, and vomit black ink onto their pages, behaving as if they were working under production quotas. In response to the disturbing trend of not making your damned point, I will make a few of my own. Concisely. Authors, please take notes.
Your personal, unique voice is in what you say, not how you say it.
The assault of intensifiers, triple-adjectives, color commentary, out-of-place five-dollar words, and gee-whiz-isms has been damaging to your credibility. It is no longer my default reaction to take strong language in a non-fiction text seriously. Instead, I assume that the author is compensating for the weakness of an argument, or an insecurity, and I hope to be proven wrong. Sadly, I’m usually right, and I’m not the only one. If you think that your unique voice as a writer is embodied in your above-described assault, try calling to mind the names of all the friends you’ve won over with your pedantic speech. I’ll wait.
When I am assaulted by a book in this manner, it’s usually when I’m being told how significant something is. This is an easy problem to fix. If you feel like you need to assault your reader, stop, take a deep breath, and see what you can do to better contextualize the point you’re trying to make. The language you use to set the stage for your argument should convey the significance of what is at hand. If you’re telling me that a chemical got into the drinking water, don’t give me a linguistic spectacle about how terrible it is. Instead, make the people who drink that water relatable. Teach me about the health effects of the chemical. Instead of deriding the people responsible, tell me about the critical safety measures and protocols in place, which ones were ignored, and let me come to my own conclusions about the bad actors. Do these things with the fewest words possible.
Reading non-fiction shouldn’t feel like being in stop-and-go traffic. You’ve convinced someone that they should publish your book. You’re a smart person. Those big words. Those adjectives. That’s not you. Your intelligent, deeply-held thoughts and beliefs are enough. Believe me: we readers will accept and appreciate you as you are.
Please stop filling your books with examples and anecdotes.
When a concept gets to be a little too abstract, an example can be instructive. Sometimes a story is helpful for showing how a problem impacts real people. I love stories and examples, but they are more often abused than otherwise. Here are some rules to follow:
- If examples or stories are taking up more than half of your chapter, then just make the chapter about the example or story.
- If examples or stories are taking up more than half your book, then just make your book about the stories or examples. I have read some excellent books that did precisely this, with one chapter per example or story. I enjoyed these books because I wasn’t filled with the false hope that there would be a return of substance.
- You only get one example or story per topic. If that’s not enough, then either you didn’t do a good job leading up to the example/story, or you need a better example/story.
- Do not use a story as an excuse to set your “unique personal voice” free. Your writing should be about the voices of the people in the story now. Stay out of it.
- Please don’t end a story in the middle, only to have it start again where it left off 200 pages later. Sometime I’ve seen authors try to recap what already happened, but now I’m reading something I’ve already read… again? So you can make a point you probably should have make 200 pages ago? Spare me.
- To the point of conciseness; I will end this post here to let my suggestions sink in. Look for Part Two in the near future.