You might think you’re writing non-fiction because you have something important to convey, but the deeper reason you are writing non-fiction is because you want to engage and connect with others in a conversation bigger than yourself.
This is why hearing internet crickets days after publishing an article you thought would engage your readers hurts so deeply.
It’s enough to make you wonder if you actually have something meaningful to say or if this is the best way to spend your time. You do and it is, but like all creatives, the time has come to hone your craft.
There are two main reasons non-fiction articles flop:
A weak argument
An unclear argument
The argument is the message you’re trying to convey. It’s what you’re hoping the reader will do at the end of the article. Every engaging piece of writing has a strong and clear argument.
The strength of the argument is built on contrast and the clarity of the argument is built on how clear you yourself are about the bottom-line you want to convey to your readers.
This article goes over how to both strengthen and clarify your message so you can write more engaging non-fiction and feel more connected to the larger conversation you’re longing to engage in.
Contrast is the art of describing the experience of the problem and then comparing it to the experience of the solution.
Let’s do a little exercise.
Think of an article you’ve written that you want to make better.
Pull out a piece of paper or open a word doc and write “Problem” as your heading.
The most straightforward way to create contrast is to think back to your own experience of the problem.
What did it feel like? What sort of thoughts were you thinking? What was it like trying to connect with others when you were so deeply experiencing this problem? Write this down.
Now write “Solution” as your next heading.
Get curious about your experience of the solution. What different emotions do you have when you’re living in the solution? Are you thinking different thoughts and connecting with others differently? Write this down.
Now to tie the two together, write “Climax” and your next heading.
Think back to how you came tounderstand the solution--not just “know about it.” You might have read books that helped you know about the solution, but only when you applied the solution to your life in real time did you come to understand the solution fully.
Humans come to understand only through experience. Bummer for us, we each have our own separate experiences and we can’t just place a finger on someone and translate our experience to them. The closest we can come to sharing our experience with someone else is to tell thestory of our experience.
The story of experiencing the solution for the first time is where your argument is really strengthened because it is the most emotionally-charged moment between what it’s like to experience the problem and what it’s like to then experience the solution.
Write down the moment you came to understand the solution under your “Climax” heading.
Here’s the general structure of your article based on contrast:
Hook your reader through describing what it’s like to experience the problem
Tell the story of when you came to understand the solution
End with a few sentences on what it’s like to experience the solution
That should strengthen your argument immediately, but I have one more tip as you’re stringing your structure together:
"The deeper you describe the experience of the problem, the deeper the reader will experience the power of the solution."
This is because the solution is only impressive when in visceral contrast to what it feels like to experience the problem.
For instance, if the problem is holding your breath, the solution is tobreathe. Breathing, on its own, is relatively unimpressive. But when you’ve been holding your breath for a minute and have intense pressure in your lungs, tunnel vision creeping in, and panicky thoughts, taking your first breath is like, “OH MY GOD YES!”
You want your readers to experience that, “OH MY GOD YES!” moment with you. That is the moment that strengthens your argument because that is the moment that packs the biggest emotional punch—it’s the height of the contrast.
The way to make the most of the, “OH MY GOD YES!” moment is to really get into the sensations, emotions, and feelings of the solution to the problem to elicit a visceral reaction in the reader. Then when you offer the story of the solution, they’ll understand fully what it feels like to finally experience the solution.
Another example is people’s shoes being too tight. The solution to the problem is to take them off. Really describe what it’s like to walk around all day with shoes too tight.
You’ve got blisters. Your toes are screaming. You're literally wincing every time you walk. The pain is haunting you but you’re trying to keep up appearances and it’s so distracting. Your whole body is tense.
Then you reach down and put your finger inside the heel, pull it off your foot, and stretch out your toes for the first time. OH MY GOD YES!
See what I mean? I just described taking off shoes. On its own, it would elicit zero emotional response. But because I described in detail what it feels like to be in the problem, you were right there with me experiencing the relief of that “OH MY GOD YES!” moment.
Strengthening argument through contrast was something I learned from my old writing coach,Bill Kenower. If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of contrast and storytelling in non-fiction writing, I recommend you check him out!
How To Create More Clarity In Your Writing
Clarity is the soul of non-fiction. Without clarity, your message gets lost, the reader gets confused about how reading this article helps them, and they exit. Clarity solves this.
But your article can only be as clear as you are yourself about what message you are trying to convey.
Before you even start writing your article, there are 4 things you need to get clear on.
Who is this for?
What type of person are you writing to? For this article it was, “People who want to write better non-fiction.”
Maybe yours is for people who struggle with holding their breath too long or people who are wearing shoes too tight. People who struggle with depression. People wanting to monetize their writing business. People interested in history but get bored with the way it’s taught.
Get clear about who you are writing this specific article for so you can tailor your message specifically to this audience.
What do they want? ... What do they REALLY want?
The purpose of this question is to get super-duper clear on the inner workings of your reader so you can clarify what it is they actually wantdeep down.
I’ve found the5 Whys problem-solving method to be helpful with this. Start with a surfacy thing you know your reader wants. For instance, in this article it is, “To write better non-fiction articles.”
Then I asked myself,“But why do they want to write better non-fiction articles?” To attract more followers and boost engagement on their writing.
Why? To more easily monetize their business.
Why? It’s a kickass feeling to make a living doing what you love and working for yourself.
Why? Because it makes them feel like they are A) connected to something bigger than them and B) participating in a global conversation that is fulfilling.
I could have kept going, but that seemed deep enough.
Clarify your reader’s deepest reason for reading your article so you can speak directly to their deepest desires.
How or why?
Is the article you’re writing about how to do something or why they should do something?
If you include both the why and how in a single post, it confuses the reader. Don't talk about why to start practicing Buddhismas well as how to start practicing Buddhism, for example. It's too much for the reader to chew. Both can be valuable articles on their own, but tying them together dilutes them both.
This article is abouthow to write compelling non-fiction, not why more people need to be writing non-fiction.
Clarify your argument by choosing eitherhow orwhy for each article and stick with it.
What do I want the reader to do after reading this?
I want you to implement more contrast and clarity in your non-fiction writing so you can engage with your readers more and experience what it’s like to really engage in a conversation bigger than you.
Get clear about what you want your reader to do after reading your article so you can intentionally craft every word to lead up to this call to action when you close. This is the epitome of a clear argument.
Download the Contrast and Clarity Non-Fiction Template
I made a template for myself that I fill out before I write my non-fiction articles. Sure, it takes a little more time upfront, but I find that it saves me time later because I don’t have to edit and restructure nearly as much.
I’m offering this template to you, as well as giving you an example of how I used this template for this very article. You’ll see how I crafted this article from the very beginning and how it morphed into what you just read.