As a childfree choice expert, a couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal asked if I would respond to a piece by Bryan Caplan related to his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. We had our different points of view to be sure, but the other day I ran across another short piece by him on writing worthy nonfiction. Here we agree on some key ideas and tips:
Caplan lays out 7 guidelines. Here they are – with my take thrown in.
1. Pick an important topic.
What makes it important? Caplan says ask yourself, “If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place?” You want that answer to be yes. My biggest yes to date is my latest book, The Baby Matrix.
Now, along with important, you really need to be interested in the topic. You and the topic are going to spend a lot of time together, during the writing, editing and marketing of the book, so you better have passion for it!
2. Learn a lot about your topic.
Operative words here – A Lot. Caplan advises starting with academic literature, but don’t stop there – “cast a wider net.” Explore different disciplines to see if your topic has been studied. Go back in history- who in history has written on your topic and topics related to it? See what non-academics think. Thanks to Google, exploring a wider net has never been easier.
3. Organization, organization, organization.
Decide and create the book’s structure before embarking on the writing. Caplan has the hypothesis that the “main cause of non-fiction writer’s block is lack of a clear chapter structure.” He has a good point. Strong chapter organization definitely creates a smoother research and writing process.
4. It has to be persuasive.
Caplan puts it more like this: “Never preach to the choir. It’s impossible to be convincing to everyone. But if you haven’t made a persuasive case to the reader who doesn’t initially agree with you, start over. ”
I would not go that far. I would say never say never to preaching to the choir. Many great nonfiction books do just that and move the topic forward. However, it also needs to be persuasive to those who are not the topic’s “choir.” It certainly may not mean starting over, but this is definitely part of the book’s developmental process.
5. Shoot to write like Hemingway - the master of saying so much with so few words.
Streamline, streamline and streamline again. I like to keep the scene from the movie, The River Runs Through It, when the father keeps giving his son the essay back saying, “Cut it in half.” Do this with yourself, not just once but a lot.
6. Treat your opponents with respect.
What goes around comes around. Stimulate and have productive debate.
7. Share sincere probabilities with your readers.
Caplan puts it: “Don’t just tell them what you can ‘prove.’ Tell them anything interesting that you’re willing to bet on – and at what odds.”
Being willing to do this reflects your wisdom on your topic, and can push the topic’s thinking forward. It means getting and staying engaged with your topic, and its end game of making the world a better place.
Thanks Bryan, for the worthy tips on worthy nonfiction. We may disagree on some things but have a meeting of the minds here!
Aspiring, authored nonfiction writers and readers out there, what would you add?