Today’s readers are much busier and more distractible than ever before. Their time is precious and fragmented, and they’re constantly bombarded with other demands on their attention. To grab nonfiction readers and keep them turning the pages of books you write and/or publish, it’s critical to make sure the writing is clear, concise, and vivid.
Here are some quick tips for you to relay to your authors or use yourself in revising the style and presentation of nonfiction to entice and engage readers. (Similar tips work for fiction, as you may be glad to know.)
Use a clear, chatty, reader-friendly writing style
Use casual language and everyday words for immediate comprehension and inclusion. Don’t be pedantic or preachy, and avoid pretentious, show-offy words and flowery phrases. You’re writing to inform and engage, not to impress. Your goal should be clear communication of your ideas and immediate comprehension of your points. And of course, never talk down to your readers.
An extreme example for your amusement (which I had fun making up):
Pretentious: “The writer believes that to ameliorate the pulchritude and efficacy of your domicile, it is imperative to procure proficient, steadfast counsel and utilize nonpareil constituents.”
Clear, accessible, and inviting: “To improve the beauty and function of your home, be sure to seek out expert, dependable advisors and use high-quality materials.”
Let your authentic voice and personality shine through. Show some warmth; perhaps inject a little subtle humor here and there, or use a few personal anecdotes. Pretend you’re writing to a friend who knows little about the topic and needs the information.
Write lean; don’t waste the readers’ time
Avoid long, wordy sentences with vague terms and convoluted phrasing. Go through your manuscript; cut out all those excess words that are just cluttering up your sentences and paragraphs, and go for a clear, direct style. Concise sentences have much more impact than overly wordy ones, as the extra words just get in the way of the meaning.
Avoid little-word pile-ups that hinder clear communication. For example, instead of “it is often the case that,” just say “often” or “frequently.” Instead of “in spite of the fact that,” just say “even though” or “although.” Instead of “in the direction of,” just say “to” or “toward.” Instead of “be in possession of,” just say “have” or “possess.” Instead of “for the simple reason that,” or “owing to the fact that,” just say “because.” Instead of “take into consideration,” just say “consider.” Instead of “the problem to be solved,” just say “the problem.” And so on.
Cut down on the use of –ly adverbs. Instead of propping up a weak, overused verb with an adverb, use a strong, specific verb. Instead of “walked slowly,” use strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, or meandered. Instead of “ran quickly,” use raced, darted, dashed, hurried, rushed, sprinted, scrambled, scurried, hustled, or tore.
Clear out the deadwood. Here are more examples of words and phrases that are just cluttering up your sentences. The words in brackets should be deleted.
The car was red [in color]. The restaurant was [located] at the corner of Tenth and Vine. The elephant was huge [in size]. [At this point in time,] we’re about halfway through the task. Tennis [is a sport that] improves your coordination and agility.
Avoid repetitions and redundancies. Don’t repeat the same idea or concept over and over again in different ways, and don’t make the same point two or three times—they got it the first time. Also avoid redundancies within sentences. Here are some examples of redundant phrases to avoid: Instead of “extremely unique” or “very unique,” just say “unique.” Instead of “regular routine,” just use “routine.” Instead of “unexpected surprise,” just say “surprise.” Instead of “totally unanimous,” just say “unanimous.” Instead of “advance warning,” just use “warning.” And so on—you get the picture.
Be definite. Take out wishy-washy modifiers like “kind of,” “sort of,” “a bit,” or “somewhat,” which show a lack of confidence and dilute the impact of your message. Also, remove most instances of “very” and “really.”
Don’t confuse, annoy, or bore your readers with unclear or vague writing
Use concrete, specific, evocative words and imagery, rather than general or imprecise terms.
Avoid generic words such as things, objects, stuff, items, persons, places, food, plants, animals, pets, and kids, which don’t give the readers an instant visual. Instead, tell and/or show them what kind of things, food, plants, items, people, animals, etc. Bring the scene to life. “They had lunch in a restaurant” doesn’t evoke a picture for your readers. Be specific and create sensory imagery so readers know the mood of the gathering, visualize the kind of restaurant, and can almost smell the food and hear the sounds.
Avoid vague references and unclear antecedents, which can confuse and annoy readers. You need to be clear about who actually is that “he” or “she.” Suppose you write: “The police officer and the armed robber exchanged gunfire. A bullet hit him in the head and he dropped, a gaping wound in his forehead. He lay still, blood covering his face.” Who was hit? The officer or the criminal?
Avoid awkward phrasing and amateurish gaffes. Watch for misplaced modifiers like this: “Tall and handsome, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.”
As the sentence is now, it’s the teenage girl who’s tall and handsome, not the basketball star.
Also avoid logistical impossibilities like this: “Dashing across the lobby, she jabbed the button for the elevator.” She can’t be jabbing the button while she’s dashing across the lobby.
Avoid passive constructions, which lack power and energy. Rather than “The ball was kicked by the boy” (passive), say “The boy kicked the ball” (active).
Avoid negative constructions, which are often unnecessarily confusing. Rather than “He didn’t misunderstand her,” say “He understood her.”
Avoid faulty parallels in lists. Each element in a list should be in the same form (verb, noun, etc.) and connect to the other elements in a logical way.
Faulty: They like fishing, hiking, and to camp near lakes.
Correct: They like fishing, hiking, and camping near lakes.
Always keep the readers’ needs in mind. Anticipate and answer readers’ questions, and use lots of examples to illustrate and clarify your points.
Devise a highly accessible, reader-friendly Table of Contents, with catchy but clear chapter names.
Use lots of subheadings throughout the text. I recommend bolding them.
Summarize key points in bulleted lists, perhaps at the end of each detailed section on a topic.
Use illustrations, diagrams, tables, graphs, photos, and sidebars to illustrate your points if they are appropriate and affordable.
Create links from each chapter heading in your TOC to the chapter in the text. If it’s appropriate, use subheadings under each chapter title in your TOC too, and link those subheadings to the corresponding text.
Create a link at the end of each chapter leading back to the TOC, and wherever it’s helpful, create links within chapters to relevant material in other chapters.
Provide links to resources outside the book, such as websites, blog posts, and other related reading.
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the author of two craft-of-writing guides: Fire up Your Fiction, which has won two book awards and is a finalist for two more, and Writing a Killer Thriller. Both are available through Amazon, CreateSpace, and elsewhere. Her upcoming books are Captivate Your Readers, Grammar on the Go, and Spelling on the Go. To learn more: www.JodieRenner.com.