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Writing Tip: Seven Common Weaknesses You Can Fix in Your Non-fiction Writing

I have worked on so many non-fiction books that I sometimes feel like a family doctor who has cared for so many patients he can diagnose a problem almost before it hoists itself up onto his examining table. Here are seven problems that I often encounter as I read manuscripts.

The manuscript is just not good enough.

Okay, so this is a little obvious, but often a manuscript, though it may cover an important topic and do so exhaustively (and not necessarily exhaustingly), is poorly constructed, at both the sentence-by-sentence and structural levels. Sometimes I actually say out loud, in an aggrieved Kramer-like tone, “Why don’t you just tell me what you mean?”

You can “control” for this by showing your work to tough-minded and frank-tongued readers. If they can’t say back to you what you’re writing …

The manuscript lacks a clear beginning, middle, and ending (or, like speeches you have probably suffered through, it has more than one beginning or ending).

Beginnings are particularly tricky. Writers often “start over” several times at the beginning of their manuscript because they feel the need to get a proper run at their subject. Sometimes they are unconsciously searching for a premise on which to base the writing.

You can strengthen your writing on this point by developing an “elevator speech”: an utterance of four or five sentences describing your book. I can imagine, Tony Horwitz, the writer of A Voyage Long and Strange: A Rediscovery of the New World, describing his book to someone this way: “When I was finally able to look at Plymouth Rock, two things struck me. First, that it looked more like a pebble, and second, that we wrong to fixate on the Pilgrim Fathers as being the real discoverers and founders of America. Several nations had boots on the ground and oars in the water across the continent before and during the settlement of the New England colonies. My book looks at the America those explorers knew.”

His book has a strong beginning (it sets the premise and promise, defines its audience, and clearly indicates what’s to follow and the value of it), a strong middle (each chapter deals with a different nation’s discovery), and a conclusion that rounds it all off.

Simple, simple, simple (but not easy).

The manuscript is unclear concerning its audience.

Establishing an audience is another early-in-the-manuscript challenge. Writers not only search for a premise early in their writing, they also search for their readers. A piece of writing should clearly identify a main audience and speak to it at all times.

You may find it helpful to imagine the reader asking, “What’s in it for me?” This will help you establish your premise and promise … and who the “me” is: your audience.

The manuscript is written at the wrong reading level for its audience.

Some manuscripts have a clear audience, but the writing is either too elementary or too complex for that audience. “Know thy audience” is almost important an injunction as “know thyself.”

The manuscript is boring.

Here’s where I make a distinction between the logic of the content and the logic of the reader. Sometimes a writer’s expertise comes across as boring because it fits the logic of the content but not in a way that is logical for readers. For example, a writer exulting in a topic may not have established for the reader why the topic is significant and why it would be well worth the reader’s time to read what she has to say about it.

You may be able to fix this problem by making sure you have erected adequate “signage” for the reader. It’s amazing how much better a trip goes when you have a sense of where you’re going, why you’re going there, and what delights await you once you’ve arrived.

The argument is unclear or lacks concreteness.

The words “for example” are the abracadabra of good writing.

The manuscript is repetitive.

Authorial anxiety can create bloated word counts. My suggestion is that you look at the second time you say something to see if it is better constructed than the first time you say it. Often the second statement is the result of the author’s subconscious realization that something needs to be said more clearly.

A key difference between writing and speeches may be of use here. Speeches need to be somewhat repetitive (though artfully so) because the audience includes people who “get” things at different speeds. In fact speeches make a virtue out of repetition, using such rhetorical flourishes as: “I’m not here to tell you xxxxxxx. And I’m not here to tell you yyyyyyy. I’m here to tell you zzzzzzz.”

Writing shouldn’t be repetitive; slower readers can always go back and read something again. Let them do the repeating for you.

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