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Nine Nonfiction No-nos

45559_robert82_far_from_everywhereI have to admit upfront—I only picked the number nine because I like alliteration. I’m not a hundred percent sure I can provide nine writerly things to avoid in nonfiction, but here’s my valiant (I hope) attempt.

1. Confusion. People read nonfiction primarily to learn something, to be informed, to increase their understanding. Confusion prevents any of that from happening.

2. Sloppy thinking. Writers of nonfiction need to create a clear line of thinking that readers can follow. Skipping steps or making unfounded leaps to an unearned conclusion will make readers skeptical—either about the writer’s ability or the subject’s accuracy.

3. Disorganization. Skipping from one point to another without some logical order waters down whatever it is an author is trying to say.

4. Outdated or incorrect statistics. Supportive data is not supportive if it is wrong or no longer relevant. When writing nonfiction, an author must do the research and check it twice to be sure it is up to date.

5. Unclear examples. If an author uses an example to illustrate a point, it should do so in an unambiguous way. Questionable examples can undermine the very point the writer is trying to make.

6. Yawn-inducing content. Even in blog posts, writers must aim to write about interesting subjects in an interesting way.

7. Unimaginative prose. No less than fiction, nonfiction needs to use strong verbs and nouns. The author should vary the sentence structure. The writing itself should be high quality—beautiful or compelling, entertaining or riveting.

8. Deceptive or untrue. Readers looking for an expert’s opinion or knowledgeable advice need to trust an author. Consequently no writer should knowingly fabricate information in order to make his argument look stronger. Neither should he use inflammatory vocabulary that will purposefully lead readers to an incorrect conclusion. Sadly, political campaigns all too often resort to this kind of writing—which may be one reason people sigh with relief when an election is over.

9. Plagiarism. Other writers can inspire. A book or article can prompt ideas. But no author should take another’s work and pass it off verbatim as if it is his own.

Nine no-nos weren’t as hard to identify as I expected. If fact, I can think of one or two others, but I’ll save them for another day and give you a turn to add ones you think belong on the list. We can rename the collection Ten Turn-offs or Eleven Errors or something. 😀

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Filed under Nonfiction, Writing Rules

Ideas

I’ve read my share of author interviews, and inevitably the question comes up: Where did you get your idea for your story? I used to think that was a question interviewers used because they couldn’t think of anything else. 😆 But just this past week, an author (whose debut novel landed on the New York Times best-seller list) created a frequently asked questions page on her site, and she included “Where did you get your idea for …”

So I relent. Apparently people really are interested in where story ideas come from. I have a writer friend, in fact, who has expressed some interest in writing short stories but generally says she doesn’t think she could because she doesn’t know what she’d write about.

I’m familiar with the problem. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us a story every Friday. My friends used to moan and groan. What could they possibly write about?

When I became a teacher and handed out my own writing assignments, the chief complaint I heard was, “I don’t know what to write about.”

Honestly, all this subject-matter angst has mystified me. In my own writing I’ve had questions about selecting subject matter for a non-fiction piece, but generally the issue is a non-issue for me when it comes to fiction. Finally I realized, perhaps I needed to tell other writers why.

As I see it, stories ideas come from everywhere. From an author’s dreams, his home environment, his work environment, from his childhood memories, from what he reads in the newspaper, from what happens in the grocery story or bank or gas station or library or church, from special days and from regular ones, from the hair dresser or from the dentist, from the generous friend or from the demanding neighbor, from his child’s teacher, from the Little League coach or the hot dog vendor or the ticket taker. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 😀 Ideas are everywhere.

The key is in recognizing them when we see them. One way to recognize a story idea is by asking probing questions — things like, I wonder why she decided to finish college in a small school instead of the state university where she started? From there a writer can begin a list of “maybe” answers. Maybe she followed a guy she met. Maybe she got involved in a cult. Maybe she was following in the footsteps of her older sister. Maybe she was running away from her family. Maybe she wanted a simpler lifestyle. And on and on until the list begins to include the bizarre and improbable. The more outlandish, the more a writer is stretching her imagination.

Of course, each of these “maybe answers” comes with a “why.” It is in answering this that a writer begins to get a glimpse at which of these stories might be interesting to write.

So the real answer to the question, Where did you get your ideas, lies in observation and curiosity — and the great news is, with practice every author can cultivate and increase both.

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Filed under Concept And Development