My first encounter with non-fiction was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. I was in college when I read it. The book infused in me some of Michelangelo’s spunk, a keen interest in his sculptures, and inspired me to travel to Florence six years later.
I’ve been writing non-fiction for the past five years – specifically, human interest stories for social impact or employee engagement.
It’s been a long and arduous journey with its fair share of heartbreak and of course some wisdom. For what it’s worth, here’s what I learned:
Start with one idea
Brainstorm over an overarching theme or moral for your story. With non-fiction, you often discover information as you progress. More often than not, you find your story pulling in multiple directions. A clear idea to focus on gives you a big picture and helps you separate the wheat from the chaff to move in a clear direction.
Establish an emotional hook
An extremely hard lesson to learn. If you need people to care about what you say or in social impact parlance, change the way they think or act, get them to care. No amount of stats or reportage will help you achieve this. But a few other things can.
Human interest stories. Start with your neighbor, or an unsung hero you know, or someone from an underrepresented/marginalized community, or even you. That’s what makes Humans of New York resonate with people the world over.
Real-world examples of people who set up or changed the way things are/work. Whether it’s learning to trust your instinct, like we learned from the firefighter’s example in Blink, or learning from genius in Mavericks at Work, showing rather than telling, inspires reflection and action. Impact stories have always helped me raise funds for emergency response, or donations in kind and emphasize program outcomes.
If you’re narrating a hero’s story, maybe a David V. Goliath story, speak to people closest to your protagonist. If it’s an issue or topic you’re exploring, speak to people at the heart of the matter or most affected.
Know what you don’t know, and pursue it through focused interviews or archival footage from credible sources.
A clear beginning, middle, and end
Establish whether your story arc depicts a hero’s journey or a cautionary tale or is a cliff hanger. Sometimes, your initial idea evolves and becomes a whole new idea, or just changes. That’s okay. Now that you’ve established what your story is, where it’s heading, and why, keep going. Outline scenes or sequences in a spreadsheet or create a mind map. This helps structure your writing. I find that after I outline, I begin freewriting/pantsing. Whatever you do, stay true.
Edit, edit, edit
Non-fiction is whipped into shape at the edit table. In fact, sometimes, that’s when your story emerges. Of all your data points and notes, focus on content that is personal, relatable, and/or evokes curiosity.
If there is one thing I cannot stress enough, find that common. Trust me, your readers will thank you for the surprise.
At work, I usually have a peer review or a developmental review system in place for content I create; I do the same as a reviewer. In the writing community, I understand beta readers, critique partners and developmental editors help you add finishing touches and raise the bar with your story.
So there you have it.
I’ve always believed that fiction and non-fiction are based on the same principles. The only difference is reality and make-believe.
Now that you know more, what do you think?