The Non-Fiction Writer’s Voice

A few weeks ago I was talking to a young lady at my church. We got on the topic of dreams and goals, and she started telling me how she never really had any aspirations for herself when she was growing up. She never wanted or expected to BE anything. This, of course, led to a conversation about God-given dreams, and allowing ourselves to expand our dreams until they look like God’s dreams for us. Basically, it was a real-life discussion of one of the major themes in Dream Chasers. So before the conversation was over, I ran to my bookshelf and found a copy to give her.

A few days ago we had a second conversation and she said something that I simply wasn’t expecting. She said, “My favorite thing about reading your book is that I can hear your voice when I read it. It sounds just like you!”

Yup, her favorite thing about the book (so far … I hope) was that the writer’s voice was a familiar one. She could recognize my turn of phrase, my speech patterns, my personal style. And that got me thinking about an author’s voice, and how absolutely vital it is to find and cultivate a voice that stays true to who you are, especially when you write non-fiction.

You see even though we’re writing non-fiction, we still have a responsibility to be compelling. Whether we’re telling a story, making an argument, or explaining a process, we want our readers to remain engaged. Maybe someone will pick up your book because they’re interested in your topic, but if your voice doesn’t capture their imagination, they won’t read on to the end. And they certainly won’t pick up your next book. But if a reader likes the WAY you write, if they like the voice you use, they’ll pick up your next book even if they don’t care about the topic, just because they want to read what you’re writing.

How do I know this? Because I love reading non-fiction! But I don’t love specific categories or topics. I love individual authors. I’ll pick up a book if the title or the topic catches my interest, but I can normally tell within the first chapter whether I’ll be able to read through to the end (because I like the author’s voice) or if I’m going to be putting it down and never picking it up again.

In fact, it just happened to me a few months ago. I was delayed at an airport, browsing through the bookstore, and found a book on an aspect of the Revolutionary War that I thought just HAD to be gripping.  Nope. Not even close. There was nothing wrong with the book, but I was so put off by the writer’s narrative style that I closed the book after 12 pages. It’s on my bookshelf now, but I know I’ll probably never open it again.

On the other hand, there are authors who I enjoy so much that I’ll read anything they write, even when it’s not a topic I care about. Why? Because I’m confident that they can make me care about it. Their writing is so compelling, so entertaining, so engaging that I feel safe in their hands. Regardless of what they’re going to say, I know I’m going to enjoy how they say it.

THAT is the kind of writer we all want to be. But how do we get there. How do we get all our readers thinking (or at least subconsciously recognizing) that you sound like you?

Well, first its important to breathe a little life into your writing from time to time. Remember that nonfiction doesn’t mean dull and lifeless. If you read your work out loud and you sound like a professor reading out of a textbook, something’s wrong. You should sound like the professor that teaches the textbook material in a way that the students understand and enjoy!

Secondly, you should take the time to figure out what makes you unique as a writer. What are your strengths? Are you funny? Are you a good storyteller? Are you sarcastic? Are you persuasive? Can you paint images with your words? Can you present tons of details in a way that illuminates the bigger picture? Whatever those strengths are, embrace them! Use them! They’re what make you sound like YOU, and your readers will come to want and expect those things.

Thirdly, remember to remain consistent. Even if you switch between wildly different topics, structures, or genres, your readers should recognize that you’re the one writing it. Your writing will, of course, change and mature as you go. But if you’re staying true to your voice, it will show.

Forth, own it! Your writing is yours. It might not sound like anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be an imitation of your favorite authors. You want to be your readers’ new favorite author. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the things you like about other people’s writing. But if you try to put on a voice that isn’t your own, it will just end up sounding fake and hollow in the end.

Fifth, let your voice flow over into your marketing. If you have a thriving blog, it’s probably because your readers like reading what you write. And trust me – it’s not because you’re always coming up with unique or fascinating topics. It’s because people enjoy you! The same is true for the books you write. So make sure that when you’re tweeting a fan, composing FB posts, or putting together your website that you are representing yourself the way your readers expect.

Sixth, remember that the more your writing voice actually sounds like you, the more naturally you will be able to transition into other writer-related things (blogging, for instance, giving interviews, or speaking at events). Your fans will be able to connect to you so much easier if the you they meet in person or see on TV (we wish, right?) sounds like the you they’ve come to know and love on paper.

So to recap, find your voice – not someone else’s, but yours – and own it. Let your personality and your tone seep into every writing project you come across. it will help to define your brand and ultimately it will win over your readers!

So what do you guys think? How do you define a writer’s voice? Have you ever tried to define your own? How important do you think your voice is to your writing success? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Christian Message Writing: or Why I’m Uncomfortable With Marketing My Books

If it’s ok with you, I’m going to get a little bit introspective. Today’s post isn’t really a matter of advice or a how-to style explanation. It isn’t a list of 5 (or 7 or 9) steps you can take to do anything. It’s more of a question. How does a Christian nonfiction writer with a “message” book approach the problem of marketing?

Now at first, this seems like a bit of a silly question. I mean, it’s not like we can’t successfully market our books the same way everyone else does. We can go out there and do book promotions, blog tours, book signings, and event tie-ins. We could write press releases and try to get interviewed by local radio and newspaper outlets. But while that might work with a lot of writing (even a lot of Christian writing) it never really felt right when I tried to do any of those things for my own books. For a while I wasn’t really able to put my finger on why. But every time anyone (read: my BFF/SNOO) pushed me to develop a specific and actionable marketing plan, I found myself slamming on the brakes.

So after a year or two of doing virtually NO marketing for ANY of my books, I sat down and asked God what the deal was. Why was I so reluctant to do this? Was it just that I had an aversion to marketing in general? Was it something that I needed to get over?

The more I prayed about this subject, the clearer it became to me. I was avoiding marketing because I was inherently uncomfortable with the idea of “selling” the message of my books. I didn’t write these books because I wanted to become a published author. I mean, let’s be real – I absolutely wanted to become an author. I’ve wanted that since I was 8 or 9  years old. But that want never led me to write a book. And if success as an author was my main goal, I really should have picked a friendlier and more popular genre.

No, I wrote these books because I had a message on my heart for the people of God, and I wanted to share it with them. At the risk of sounding insanely self-important and pretentious, I’ll admit that I really believe the messages in these books are ones that God placed in my heart. I didn’t come up with them on my own. They aren’t my ideas. And because of that these books have become (in my heart, at least) much more a matter of ministry than business. I see them more as God’s work than my own.

No wonder I’ve struggled with the traditional marketing schemes that focus on “selling” the books as a product. They aren’t really my product to sell! In fact, even the idea of letting my friends and acquaintances buy these books from me has always bothered me. I’ve come to realize that while selling books is the easiest and most far-reaching way to spread these messages, it’s never really been about sales for me. It’s always been about getting the word out there to as many people as I can.

Now I know that this may sound a little crazy to most of you. But I have a feeling that for at least a few other Christian authors, this is going to ring true. So the next question that we have to ask ourselves is this: what do we do about it? How to we adapt our approach to marketing in order to adjust for our different perspective. How do we reach a broader audience without focusing on getting people to buy a product?

The answer (for me at any rate) is simple, Biblical, and effective. Start sowing seeds. 

What that means will be different for each of us, and that’s ok. This isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a new way to look at marketing from a Biblical and ministerial perspective. All you have to do is look at your books as seeds that you are planting into people’s lives and ministries. The harvest that you hope to reap is a widespread understanding of the message that God has given you.

In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or whether both alike will be good (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

Start looking for opportunities to sow the seed of your message into people’s lives. Maybe that means giving away free copies of the book to local pastors and ministers who you think may benefit from reading it. Maybe it means taking advantage of Amazon’s KDP Select program so that you can “sell” your ebook for free for several days each quarter. Maybe it means carrying hard copies of your book around with you so that you are ready to give them to people who might benefit from reading them.

What do you guys think? How can you stop selling and start sowing? Leave a comment below 🙂

Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: How do I build it?

Don’t worry. This is not one of those posts where I get all technical and break down rules of paragraph structure and other yawn-inducing tedium. Rather, this post will (I hope) get you thinking in a “structural” way about how to write and organize your book.

In my last post: Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it Important? I talked about how necessary an overt structure is to the non-fiction (specifically non-story-driven) reader. We kept it simple, bringing things back to the basic rules of writing an essay:

1. Tell the reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

But it’s important to realize WHY these rules exist, and what function they serve in the scope of a larger written work. Because if you’re writing 75,000 words on a topic, you’re going to need more than an introduction and a conclusion to tie the whole thing together. But these rules work for the same reason that your book structure is going to work – because the repetition creates a familiarity for the reader that makes their reading experience easier and more enjoyable.

Think of your book as a song that your readers are listening to for the first time. You don’t expect them to know the words. You want them to like the song, to settle into listening to it without having their concentration broken or jarred by something unexpected or unpleasant. By the time they get half way through they should know (more or less) what the chorus sounds like, and should be able to recognize it when it’s played again. It’s the melody (the structure) that creates the repetition and familiarity. The melody is what makes a good song easy to listen to, even if you’ve never heard it before. Yes the lyrics have to be amazing (you have to write well) and you want the message to be something that stirs people (you should be writing about a topic that you’re passionate about). But if the melody isn’t there (if you don’t create a strong structure within your book) nobody’s going to care to listen to it for very long.

Ok, so we know that structure is going to be important. But how do we actually build it into our books? Well there are two different steps that you can take.

First, (and yes, this is the part that you’ve already thought of) you need to organize your topic into a logical and easy-to-follow format. Create an outline for the material you want to cover, but make sure that you’re organizing the data in a way that’s going to make sense to your reader. Keep in mind that there’s normally more than one way to do this. If you’re writing a how-to book (how to build a computer from scratch, how to self-publish your book) you could organize it chronologically (do this than that) or by sub-category (a section on writing, one on editing, etc.). Similarly, if you’re writing a book on the practical application of a theory (building a godly marriage, let’s say, or raising healthy kids), you will have to decide how to balance the theory and the practical advice. Do you explain the theory first and then break down the practical application in a separate section of the book? Or do you try to create subcategories and address theory and application for each category at the same time?

The point is that you have a lot of decisions to make, probably more than you realize, about how to organize your data. But the important thing is to make a decision. Pick a structure and then stick to it. This is also the point in  your structure-building that you’ll have to deal with the outliers – the points or issues that don’t fit nicely into the flow of an outline. Figure out how to handle them now. Find a place to fit them. It will save you headaches down the road.

Second, after you’ve thought about how you want to organize your data, it is time for you to consider how you can build familiarity and patterns into the format of your individual sections or chapters of your book. In other word, what can you do to make one chapter feel and sound and flow like another? How can you tie these thousands of words together so that they function as a cohesive unit rather than a simple stream of thoughts and ideas? This is where you can let yourself get creative and allow your personality to shine through.

Do you want to include an analogy in each chapter? What about an anecdote? If you are writing a how to, are you making reference to the big picture in each section of your book? Are there larger themes running through each chapter? How can you make them stronger without belaboring the point? Are all of your chapters structured in the same way? Do they follow repeating and recognizable patterns?

This was my biggest failing when I first sat down to write my book. My subject matter (it fits best into the theory-into-practice category) was a tricky one. So before I started the book I tackled the fundamentals of the data outline. My material flowed in a “logical” pattern. And each of my individual chapters covered a subject that clearly related back to the main point of the book. But as it turned out, that wasn’t enough to take my discussion of the subject and turn it into a book. No matter how many times I re-wrote, or how strongly I tied each chapter back to the opening section on “theory”, the individual chapters themselves were not cohesive. There was no flow, no built-in anticipation that fed readers from one chapter to the next.

Finding a solution to this problem proved tricky. I ended up having to create what I called a “chapter checklist”, which basically functioned as a very rigid outline that every chapter had to follow. It had to start with a reference to A, continue on with an anecdotal story, move into a reference to B, and then get into practical points 1, 2, and 3, etc. etc. etc. The process of taking my pre-written material and fitting it into a structure after the fact was brutal. It took a lot of time. It also meant that I had to re-write entire chapters, completely remove others, and add a significant amount of material to almost all of them. It was painful and difficult, but it made all the difference in the world. It transformed my book from rambling to readable, all because I gave the readers a recognizable pattern to follow.

So if you get anything out of this post please let it be this – don’t make the same mistakes I did. Don’t create an outline and think you’re done building the structure of your book. If you’re writing non-fiction, especially something that isn’t story driven, you will save yourself a lot of sweat and suffering if you will just take the time to address the issues of structure BEFORE you begin to write.

And for those of you who think that I’m crazy, who are convinced that you can write an amazing book without planning the structure ahead of time … well, maybe you’re right. Maybe my severely logical brain just failed me on this occasion. But remember this: it is entirely possible for you to take your free-flowing poetry and set it to music if you want to. But it will be a lot easier and sound a lot better if you start with the music and write the words to fit into the structure you’ve already created.

Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it important?

This is one of those areas where I consider myself an expert of the “What NOT to Do” variety. I made the mistake of writing the first draft of my non-fiction book before I’d mapped out it’s structure, and the result was a convoluted mess that took me nearly a year (and several re-writes) to fix. So, having been through the ringer and come out the other side, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the importance of building a definable and recognizable structure into a nonfiction book before starting to write it.

I am a firm believer that structure is a necessary component of any well-written book. The analogy that works for me is that if the book is a body, the structural elements are the “bones” upon which everything else hangs. Without those bones, there’s no leverage, no strength, nothing solid. Without structure, you end up with little more than a pile of meat.

This is easy enough to understand in fiction writing (and even story-driven nonfiction such as memoirs or biographies). Good story-telling is always structured around a plot, the chronological progression from one event to the next. Without a solid plot you really don’t have a story at all. No matter how compelling the characters may be or how unique or interesting the world they inhabit, without a plot, there’s nothing solid to anchor them onto. There isn’t any way for readers to engage. In story-driven writing, the plot serves as the structure, the bones around which everything else is built and (forgive the pun) fleshed out.

But what do you do when the book you want to write isn’t a story? What if you’re writing a self-help book, a how-to, or a persuasive argument? What if you can’t rely on chronology or the progression of events to create those bones upon which to hang your book? Is there a way to create a structure within books that don’t tell a story? Does structure really matter then?

Yes there is. And yes it does.

In fact, I would argue that creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing may be the most important factor you can consider before you begin your first draft. A well-structured book will not only engage the reader, but it will also draw them in. It will help them to recognize, follow, and retain your argument. It will make your book infinitely more readable, more persuasive, and more memorable.

Why? Because readers expect to follow where an author leads them, but they don’t like to follow blindly. Readers of non-fiction expect the author to explain beforehand where it is that they are being led. They want and frankly demand that you as an author give them a hint as to where they are going before they will agree to take the journey with you.

Think back to Jr. High English class, and the rules you learned about how to write an essay. For many of us this was probably our first introduction into non-story-driven writing. If your English teacher was half as awesome as mine was (shout out to Mrs. Bresmer!) then you will probably turn 112 long before you forget the three rules of essay writing:

1. Tell your reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

It’s all about building familiarity, trust, and comfort for the reader. A strong non-fiction structure builds anticipation. It creates expectation. And it gives the readers the tools that they need to engage with the material that you present to them in each section of your book as a part of a greater whole.

Just like a plot serves to create and fulfill expectations in a story, a well structured non-fiction book will give the reader an expectation of what they will be reading. It does this by building anticipation, creating questions that need answers, and offering a large-scale overview of the subject matter long before it delves into the details.

From there a well-structured book will begin to fulfill those expectations in a familiar and comfortable way. It will begin to answer the questions, to address the issues, to solve the problems. But it will always do it in a way that feels like a logical progression of the same argument or discussion.

That’s not always easily done, especially without the convenience of chronology to lean on. That is why it is so important to consider your book’s structure BEFORE you being to write.