[Tipster] Lessons about Nonfiction Writing from Martin Luther King Jr.Jan 18, 2024
By: Allison Parks
“What does Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?”
I was in seventh grade when my English teacher asked us to respond to the prompt above.
Obviously, I knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was. (Who didn’t?) He was a staple historical figure in all my history classes dating back to third grade. But what did Martin Luther King Jr. mean to me, a seventh-grader living in Colorado?
I wrote that essay more than a decade ago, and I don’t remember my response. However, as people around the country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day this last Monday, I revisited the question.
Rather than considering the national—and global—impact King had, I considered his impact on a smaller level. His impact on writing.
Be Clear. Keep It Simple.
Nonfiction writers fall into a common trap: their writing is too complex.
They over-rely on complex jargon, dense paragraphs, and dry data. Their writing can become convoluted. Add all that together, and it becomes inaccessible to a broader audience.
One lesson we can learn from King is to keep our writing clear and simple. Clear and simple writing 1) effectively communicates your points, and 2) keeps your readers engaged.
Consider King’s most famous speech “I Have a Dream.”
Throughout this speech, King relies on repetitive phrases: “we refuse to believe,” “now is the time,” “we cannot be satisfied,” “let freedom ring,” and, of course, “I have a dream.”
Repetition may seem juvenile, but its simplicity allows the speaker/writer to make their point clear.
The repetitive phrases in “I Have a Dream” emphasize King’s main message: that racial equality has yet to be achieved. These phrases echo in the listener’s head. So much so that we recognize them 61 years later.
Clarity Allows You to Connect with a Broader Audience
Let’s consider another one of King’s writings, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
This letter was a response from King to clergymen who questioned the tactics of civil rights demonstrations. Since he was writing to clergymen, King could have articulated his thoughts through dense, insider verbiage.
Instead, King tackled these concepts with a clarity and simplicity that kept his letter accessible to general populations.
Let’s take a closer look:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In this paragraph, King uses straightforward language to make his point; and while the third sentence is convoluted, the simpler sentences preceding and succeeding it succinctly and clearly convey King’s argument.
By foregoing academic or clergy-specific language, King made his messages inclusive and relatable to people from various backgrounds and educational levels. This allowed him to connect with a broader audience.
All Nonfiction Writing Needs Stories
A final lesson about nonfiction writing from Martin Luther King Jr.: your nonfiction writing must include stories.
Stories—personal anecdotes, fictionalized examples, real-life case studies—make research-heavy books pop. They add energy. And they make your writing more digestible and relatable.
In many of his speeches, King relied on storytelling to grab—and hold—his audience’s attention.
In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King begins his speech with a hypothetical, pondering which time eras he would visit if given the chance. He takes the listener on a journey. And he concludes by declaring he would visit his current era—1960s America.
Even though the story is fictional (time travel doesn’t exist), it draws the listener in. We can envision the ancient empires King is describing, but we’re surprised when he mentions 1960s America. We want to know why he would consider visiting this era, out of any other.
Similarly, in “The Birth of a New Nation,” King relies on stories (historical and anecdotal) to grab his listener’s attention.
King begins his speech by retelling the mass exodus of Jews from Egypt—a story with religious and historical significance. “It is the first story of man’s explicit quest for freedom,” King says.
He then compares this story to Ghana’s fight for independence. And he relies on a personal anecdote—his travel to West Africa to attend Ghana’s independence ceremony—to further the point of his speech. That Ghana’s resistance to European colonialism paralleled the struggle against racism in the US.
By relying on both a religious story and a personal anecdote, King plays on his listeners’ emotions, keeping them invested in his message.
What Does Martin Luther King Jr. Mean to You?
King’s impact on civil rights activism shaped the course of history.
But his impact can also be seen on a micro-level.
When writing nonfiction, consider King’s writing techniques.
- Do you get your message across in a simple, clear, and digestible way?
- Do you rely on stories to support your message?