How to Write Technical Nonfiction for a Wide Audience: 5 Tips
Are you a technical expert — a scientist, academic, or technologist — who's itching to write a nonfiction book for the general public? You have a wealth of experience writing for a professional audience. You feel like you have something important to share with a wider readership. But you're not sure how to proceed. In this post, editor Sean Miller reveals his top five tips for reaching a wide audience with your book.
Writing for an audience of non-professionals may feel daunting. It's hard to gauge if your writing is lively enough to appeal to a reader who doesn't breathe your subject matter, as you do.
The bad news is that today, more than ever, readers enjoy a wealth of options. There's intense competition for their attention, and not just from books. There's now an endless stream of web content to read, along with social media feeds, emails, and on-demand video. So it's imperative to distinguish yourself in a crowded marketplace of ideas.
The good news is that most of the reading options mentioned above are, at best, mediocre. We, as readers, are awash in a sea of cliché, gossip, and just plain bullshit.
So how do you stand out from the crowd? How do you write a book that does all of the following: fully expresses your vision; wows an agent, then a publisher; and, ultimately, captivates your reader — so much so that it changes minds and inspires word-of-mouth.
Tip 1: Answer the "who cares?" and "so what?" questions
You may be aiming for as broad an audience as possible. But it's unrealistic to think that your book will appeal to everyone. First and foremost, figure out who your core audience is. What do they read — and why? What category would your book fall under on Amazon? In that category, what other books are in the top 100? How have those authors won over their audiences?
The more you learn about your readers' motivations, the more likely you'll be able to find that magical balance between your own self-expression and serving their interests. Put yourself in your reader's shoes. Ask yourself, why should I care about this book? Why does it matter to the world at large and, more importantly, to me?
Once you know who should care about your book — and the reasons why — you'll be well on your way to writing a book with real impact.
Tip 2: Break the "curse" of knowledge
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath address a problem that all experts face. "Once we know something," they write, "we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it." They call this the "curse" of knowledge.
A CEO evokes "unlocking shareholder value," a particle physicist, "quantum decoherence," or a web developer, "RESTful applications," without batting an eye. Part of it may be impatience. We have a lot to say. Maybe we want to impress our readers with our expertise. Or we just don't realize how off-putting jargon can be to the uninitiated. We're reluctant to dumb down our brilliant ideas. That's insulting to our reader, who we assume is both educated and curious.
But to reach a wider audience, we must simplify without oversimplifying. Don't assume that your insider knowledge is universally understood. Take the time to define key terms concisely in non-technical language. Often, I find the compulsion to fall back on jargon is a sign that an author hasn't thought through their claims to the point where they can state them with confidence. They're hedging. They haven't really taken a stand.
Tip 3: Weave in a story arc
Another symptom of the "curse" of knowledge is the tendency for technical experts to retreat into abstraction. We're more comfortable exploring concepts and their implications than people and their stories. But most readers prefer stories. When they read, they want to be surprised by the unexpected. They want to flirt with personal transformation. They want to feel something. Adding a human context to your arguments will not only ground them in real life, but it’ll also make your claims all the more meaningful.
I love the way business consultant Donald Miller frames copywriting as storytelling. According to Miller, the most successful brands capture their customers' imagination by making them the hero of the brand's story. Every offering — and make no mistake, your book and the claims it champions are an offering in the marketplace of ideas — reads better as a story.
The main character — with whom the reader identifies — has a problem, made tangible in the form of a villain. The hero meets a guide: you, the author. The guide gives the hero a plan to overcome the villain. By following the guide's counsel, the hero's actions end in success. The problem is solved, the villain defeated. By journeying along the plot of your story, the reader is transformed. They become a better-informed, more confident person.
If you approach your writing with your reader positioned as the hero of your tale, you stand a much better chance of not only convincing them of your claims, but also, of moving them emotionally.
One way to think of nonfiction as storytelling is to consider the story genre to which your book belongs. One reason Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick was such a big hit is that he frames his narrative as a detective story. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene could have been a dull exegesis on theoretical physics. Instead, he made it a gripping tale of heroic romance. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is a thriller. The hero of the story has a massive problem: the institution of industrial food production and its accomplice, modern marketing, are trying to kill us. What are we going to do about it?
Tip 4: Make bold claims
This tip jibes with the first. To answer the "so what?" question, you must make bold claims. When writing for a professional audience, we assume our readers are primed to nitpick our every assertion. So our inclination is to qualify, to complicate, in short, to cover our ass.
On the other hand, a general audience already assumes you're an authority on your subject. They're inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. They're also not as up-to-date on the latest developments in your field. So don't be afraid to court controversy. Find the essence of your main claim and state it bluntly.
Of course, just because general readers aren't familiar with the history of your field doesn't mean you should pass off conventional wisdom as your own. They still want to be surprised. You can accomplish this by laying out, without jargon, the established debates of the field as the conventional wisdom. Then, upend that conventional wisdom. If you must, challenge your field's fundamental assumptions. Call out the blind spots of its practitioners. Readers crave originality. Say something new, even if it's shocking.
Consider, as an example, Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel. His main claim still arrests me — that the dominance of Western civilization comes down to a coincidence of geography.
Tip 5: Craft bold sentences
If I were to distill this tip to its essence, I'd say: from each of your sentences, trim the fat. Academics, especially, tend to write with an overly ornate diction. Use active verbs. Avoid lists and pairs. If you employ three adjectives to qualify a noun, pick the most important one and cut the other two. Better yet, avoid the adjectives altogether by choosing a more descriptive noun.
The same goes for adverbs. Use them sparingly. They clog the flow of your prose. Privilege the concrete over the abstract. The concrete is easier to imagine. It sticks in the memory.
Break up compound sentences (independent clauses strung together with conjunctions like and, or, and but) into simple ones. Only use complex sentences (where dependent clauses are tacked onto the main independent clause) to vary rhythm.
When reading a sentence, we tend to remember most the last word. So strive to end each sentence on a high note. That means ending the sentence with the most important word.
Take, for example, this passage from an article that’s broadly about an economist from the turn of the previous century. How can we transform this tangled sentence into several shorter ones with more punch?
Most important, its martial habits and ideals encouraged 'an habitual bellicose frame of mind,' a tendency to judge people, situations and events from the singular standpoint of a deeply felt cultural need to win fights, and especially to affirm the evidence of such victory in conspicuous tokens and icons of successful slaughter.
If you take heed of these five tips, you'll be well on your way to turning your book on science or technology into a bestseller.
Sean Miller is a freelance editor based in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning scholar, he holds a Ph.D. in Science Communication from the University of London. His edited collection, Riffing On Strings, won an Independent Publisher Book Award.