7 Rules for Writing Non-Fiction

7 rules for writing non-fiction

Over the years I’ve come across a few common issues that can be easily rectified. Authors can’t always control every aspect of their work, but they can darn well try. Here are 7 ways in which non-fiction writers can help themselves to better sales.

1) State Your Source

Citation is very important. Easily accessible evidence strengthens your argument. It doesn’t matter how you go about it as long as it’s there for the reader to find.


One study discovered unicorns eat their own, genitals first.1
1‘Cannibalistic Unicorns’ (1895), Sharles Farwin

Rulebreaker: Carolyn Bernstein’s The Migraine Brain

2) Declare Your Bias

It’s difficult to present arguments with impartiality and it’s likely you’ll be accused of some kind of bias by critics so it’s best to declare it so there’s no doubt or accusations later.

Rulebreaker: Nick Ross’s Crime: How To Solve It – and Why So Much of What We’re Told Is Wrong

*Ross’s abhorrent views on rape and the biased way in which he interprets data in the following article proves this book cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of crime in the UK: It’s heresy, I know. But not all women are victims. And not all rape is rape: It is a view that will outrage many, but Crimewatch creator NICK ROSS insists it is a debate we must not flinch from.

3) Play Devil’s Advocate

Try to confer a sense of balance when discussing an issue, even if you have a polarised opinion on it. Challenge and evaluate your own arguments. Look for potential weaknesses. How might others criticize you? Covering all aspects can provide background information to readers with little knowledge of the topic being explored.

Rulebreaker: Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One

4) Decide Your Mode of Address

Do you want to be formal, informal or a combination of both? Formal writing styles can be stiff and off-putting. Examine your sentence length and structure to avoid rambling and confusion. Decide how much personal information to include, whether it’s appropriate and relevant. Ask yourself if something feels too personal, or could make your readers squirm for the wrong reasons.

Rulebreaker: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong & Heather Wood Rudulph’s Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style

5) Research Your Slang

Colloquialisms are fine as long as they’re either explained or understood by the majority of your intended readers. That said, always check if those terms are perceived as intensely offensive in nations where your book may be sold.

Example: spastic, United Kingdom

Rulebreaker: Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four

6) Address a Wider Audience

Unless you’re working with a smaller, specific audience in mind, make sure your writing is understandable to the average person on the street. The more people who can connect with your work, the better. Dry academic speak isn’t very appealing and will earn you few fans. No one’s going to recommend that to their friends. Always question whether you’re boring readers, whether you’re writing in more detail than necessary. Ask your readers questions. Invite them to be part of the discussion. Be interesting, informative and add a little humour, sarcasm or irony every now and then – but don’t overdo it. Too many desperate, unfunny jokes aren’t flattering.

Rulebreaker: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women

7) Check Your Layout

Consistent and readable formatting is incredibly important for both ebooks and the dead tree variety. Type, font size and colour – are they easy on the eye? Is there enough white space? Are the photos, diagrams and graphs relevant and legible in all formats? These issues are more of a problem in non-fiction than with novels.

Rulebreaker: Here’s a list.


Sigh. Now I just need to take my own advice.

What have I missed? Are there any rules you’d like to add?

Image: Cevdet Gokhan Palas/Getty

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