Skip to main content

25 Tips To Make You a Better Nonfiction Writer

Want to become a better nonfiction writer? Award-winning journalist Mike Sager has you covered. Try these 25 tips out for size and your nonfiction writing will improve almost immediately.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

We writers share one thing in common: We exist for the moment a reader gently sets eyes to our first word, our first sentence. From that instant forward, our fate is in our own hands. Either they keep going or they cast us aside.

For me, modest success has been built though a careful approach to craft. Arguably, with all the other wild cards that go into being a writer, it’s the only aspect of my career over which I feel I have total control. Words on the screen. They’re all mine!

(15 Things a Writer Should Never Do.)

For nearly four decades, though vigilant practice, I’ve sought evermore to become the most vivid and commanding writer possible. Being read is a privilege. There’s so much out there to choose to explore. When a reader picks me, I feel thankful. And I feel responsible. In this way writing, to me, is a call to arms. Publication should be a promise to a reader that his or her time (and money) will be well spent. You can’t please everyone, but you can damn sure try.

And if a reader likes you once . . . they might want to check you out again. And so forth.

25 Tips to Make You a Better Nonfiction Writer

Success is all about the quality of the service you provide. The rainbow of little thumbs up everyone is so focused upon generating via social media? Well, first and foremost, there needs to be a pot of golden content. Isn’t that what generates the rainbow?

(Learn the 8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal)

From my first word to my last, I work hard to service and reward my readers. I want to reel them in and take them on a journey. I want to play with their heads a little. I want to dazzle them a little. There’s got to be surprises along the way. And there needs to be a good ending.

After the perspiration and gum shoe work of the reporting and research process, it is time to bring your craft and your magic. No matter if you’re writing a blog post, a newspaper feature, a big-time magazine piece, or a 150,000 word book, originality is the key. The writer’s byline. Isn’t that our brand? You need to make yours stand out.

Over two decades of teaching writing at journalism schools and professional seminars around the country and overseas, I found that certain tidbits of advice I’d written on manuscripts (both electronically and on paper), resurfaced time and again. After a while, I started keeping a list.

25 Tips to Make You a Better Nonfiction Writer

Try these 25 tips out for size and your writing will improve almost immediately.

  1. Get an imagination. If it’s been done before, find a different way to do it. If it’s been said before, find a different way to say it.
  2. Do not start stories with the time, season, or weather conditions.
  3. Do not start with “It was” or “It’s” or “When.”
  4. Do not ever use time stamp sub heads (ie: 12:15 p.m.) to break up a feature story. Write in scenes.
  5. If you can’t find the killer declarative sentence to lede with, use an evocative scene-setting description.
  6. See like a movie camera—make your writing cinematic. Zoom in. Pan the surroundings. Use your words to make pictures.
  7. Build your images in linear fashion. Employ digression to explain.
  8. Use all five senses—writing is the only medium that is able.
  9. Go through your copy and eliminate as many recurrences of “that” you can find.
  10. Employ the elements of the novel: scene, setting, characters, dialogue, drama. (And point of view only where appropriate.)
  11. Don’t be so fast to write in first person. Isn’t it enough that somebody’s reading you?
  12. Don’t begin your narrative stories with the climax. Begin a couple scenes before the climax, then backtrack, then move forward. Give the reader a reason to keep reading until the end.
  13. What you don’t describe is just as important as what you do describe–omission invites the reader to fill in some of the details themselves. In reality, reading was the first interactive game. Take note: Your reader is making their own pictures from your words. And take advantage of that! It gives the reader an unconscious stake.
  14. Ask yourself: Why am I using this detail?
  15. When in doubt, cut it out.
  16. If someone reads this twenty years from now, will they understand the reference?
  17. Don’t work so hard with every sentence. Think of the meaning of “diamond in the rough.”
  18. Let your choice of details work subtly to invoke the attitude you wish to convey. (Instead of slamming the reader over the head with it.)
  19. When using dialog, stick with using “said” or “says.” Avoid fancy attributions—recalls, retorts, replies, unless it is done sparingly for effect.
  20. Be careful of too much effect. It becomes affect.
  21. Rely on nouns and verbs more than adjectives and adverbs.
  22. Show, don’t tell.
  23. Pick out a good voice and read out loud to yourself as you write. And also as you edit. Hear the rhythm of the syllables, the words. Good prose is like a song.
  24. Read writing by great writers. You can start with Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, which I edited with Walt Harrington, the awarding winning author, former Washington Post staffer, and professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. For more info, please see www.TheSagerGroup.Net.
  25. To read dozens more tips on reporting and writing, please see www.MikeSager.com.

*****

Pitch an Article

This intensive two-week course will teach you how to craft a good pitch letter and do it well. Be ready to mine your life for ideas. Start thinking about a great spin on a topic or an unusual personal experience that you'd like to write about in class.

Click to continue.

A Conversation With Baron R. Birtcher On Social Media

A Conversation With Baron R. Birtcher on Social Media: Bestseller. No Website. No Me. (Killer Writers)

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford continues his series of interviews with mystery, thriller, and suspense authors. Here he has a conversation with bestselling novelist Baron R. Birtcher about author websites and social media.

How a Book Distributor Ended Up Selling Her Own Book

How a Book Distributor Ended Up Selling Her Own Book

Davida G. Breier’s publishing story is certainly one for the books. Here she discusses how, as a books distributor, she ended up selling her debut novel.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not submitting your work.

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Author Janet Key shares the feeling of not wanting to revisit the world she was creating and the tools she used to help make her fiction a place she wanted to be.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character's backstory change.

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

The editors of Writer’s Digest are proud to bring you the first book club pick, Portrait of a Thief, to read along with us.

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

For many writers, self-critique gets in the way of making much progress. Here, author Julia Crouch shares 6 ways to fight your inner critics.

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Where realistic fiction felt both too restrictive and too revealing for author Susan Speranza’s transition from poetry to fiction, she turned to allegory. Here, she shares examples of famous allegories throughout history and how allegorical writing helped shape her novel, Ice Out.

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

In this post, author C. Hope Clark shares tips on how freelance writers can use Instagram as a tool to find more freelance writing connections, assignments, and overall success.