[Podcast] Author Kristin Keffeler on Writing a Nonfiction Book that Connects with Your Ideal Audience

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Sep 18, 2023
writing a nonfiction book that connects with your ideal audience

“You can’t republish your Master’s thesis.”

It’s one piece of advice Kristin Keffeler, author of The Myth of the Silver Spoon, received from an editor. It’s also the piece of advice that made her rewrite her manuscript.

Like Kristin, lots of nonfiction writers want to turn their research into a book. And like Kristin, many nonfiction writers face the problem of “republishing” their research. Otherwise known as, writing an indigestible book.

Remember those books you read in graduate school? Those books that made you want to peel your eyes out because they were so boring? That’s one type of book you get when you republish your research.   

To write a nonfiction book that connects with your ideal audience, you need to master two things. First, you have to be able to tell stories. And to tell a good, engaging story, you need to know how to weave your research into your story.  

Second, you need to properly structure your book, which pulls your reader through from beginning to end.

Academic Writing Does Not Translate to a Readable Book

If you’ve only written for profs in grad school or academic journals, you’ll likely struggle to write a popular nonfiction book. That’s because your academic voice won’t connect with a popular audience.

Nonfiction writers, especially those with an academic background, struggle to overcome an academic writing style, which tends to be formal, overwrought with complex sentences, and packed with obscure words. 

Obviously, if you’re an academic writing for an academic audience, write academically. (You always should be writing for your ideal audience.) Academic writing has its place. (Mostly in a scholarly context.)

But a commercially viable book—one that sells hundreds of copies—must be readable for a more popular audience. An overuse of jargon, intricate methodologies, and exhaustive citations will bore your reader.

Readable nonfiction books require engagement, clarity, and fluidity. As an author, you must package an idea through compelling stories while delivering information in an easily digestible way.

To write a compelling story requires a storytelling voice.

A storytelling voice engages readers through storytelling elements. There are four elements key to a good story: action, characters, dialogue, and setting.

As Kristin learned, you can rely on your research for the ideas to fuel your book. But to write a compelling book? You must weave your research into stories.

To help her improve her storytelling skills, Kristin returned to her interviews.

  • For dialogue, she took direct quotes from the interviews and included them in her scenes.
  • For character development, she explored the emotions her clients presented during an interview, and made sure those emotions were reflected in each story.
  • And for setting, she considered the most important details from each interview that stuck out to her. In one interview, she sat in a client’s office whose desk drawers were overflowed with papers. She noted, “the drawers are clogged with trust estate plans, just as the client was dealing with emotional clogging.”

Think about your manuscript. Do you rely on your research rather than stories? Does your research bog down your writing and make it harder to read?

A final tip: Kristin recommends you use your expert voice to anchor your research. And once you’ve presented your research, switch to a story. This will help your book avoid academic heaviness.

Make Your Book Readable by Focusing on Structure

A book’s structure serves as a framework that 1) shapes the content and 2) guides the reader through the narrative. A well-organized structure creates a more cohesive argument, and keeps the reader engaged from the first page to the last. 

Most nonfiction writers structure their book with a point-by-point structure. Meaning, each chapter serves as a point, without thinking about how each chapter builds on the previous chapter and acts as a bridge to future chapters.

Each chapter should pull the reader to the next, much like a good novel.

This is why it’s helpful to think of nonfiction structure as containing a narrative arc. Your job as an author is to take the reader on a journey. You introduce them to a belief about an idea (or theme), and end with a nuanced, picked-apart idea (or theme). The chapters between the beginning raise tension about the idea by up-ending assumptions and presenting new approaches to apply or prove the idea. 

The best nonfiction books grab the reader’s attention and then take the reader on a journey, so they too are transformed in their thinking.

Storytelling is one way to maintain pacing within your narrative arc, and keep the reader invested. Stories help humanize abstract principles as well as draw the reader in through identification with characters in the story. They also provide relief from the “explaining “or “pontificating” that nonfiction writers are prone to.

When writing her first manuscript, Kristin structured her book point-by-point. She realized the structure proved ineffective. Her hook was too soft of an invitation. Each point she argued was research-laden and too heavy to digest. The story lacked a driving narrative readers would enjoy.

To restructure her book, Kristin broke her manuscript into four parts. She invited the reader into her narrative with a compelling hook, she identified key issues related to her thesis, she highlighted and discussed the science behind her thesis, and then she invited the reader to take action. Each part of her book relied on relatable stories the audience could connect with. 

Revisit your manuscript and consider your book’s structure. What narrative journey are you taking your readers on? Does your book have a strong, captivating hook? Is your book well-paced to keep your reader’s attention?

When writing a nonfiction book that connects with your audience, you need to tell a good story. And the best nonfiction books have a narrative arc audiences can relate to. 



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