How to choose between different types of writing styles for your nonfiction book.
Before you put pen to paper for your nonfiction book, you need to know the different styles of writing used for nonfiction and pick the style that best suits your project.
When we say “style,” what we really mean is writing voice. How do you “sound” inside the reader’s mind as they read your book?
Nonfiction authors tend to gravitate toward one of four distinct writing styles—but only one is the best fit for most nonfiction projects.
The AUTHORITATIVE Writing Style
What is it? This writing style sets you up as the expert imparting knowledge to your reader. It’s heavily fact-based and may use jargon or other special terms unfamiliar to most readers.
When to use it: Textbooks or peer-reviewed academic journals.
Some writers believe that to establish credibility with readers, they must sound like an expert with lofty language and plenty of facts. They may use multisyllable words in every paragraph and take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to their material.
This works well in textbooks or peer-reviewed journals. However, for other types of nonfiction—books of advice, books on business strategy, memoirs, etc.—the authoritative style falls flat. It hides the author’s personality from the reader, and readers want a connection with their author.
In addition, complicated words and jargon can make readers believe they don’t know enough about your field to be part of your audience. If a reader has to look up the definition of a word, you’ve lost them.
The LYRICAL Writing Style
What is it: The lyrical writing style uses descriptions and flowery language to evoke a beautiful mental picture for the reader. Imagine the imagery-dense poetry you read in high school English.
When to use: Novels and poetry
Authors gravitate towards this style because of the frequent adage “Show, don’t tell.” If you’re supposed to help your reader experience something rather than simply tell them about it, then descriptive language should form the bulk of your writing. Right?
Not so fast. Lyrical writing can slow down your story. Even novels must balance lyrical writing with narration and dialogue or readers get bored.
Nonfiction readers, when faced with a long passage of descriptions, may skip ahead to the next bit of dialogue or the next moment of forward momentum in the story. If they do this too often, they’ll get frustrated and put your book down.
You might choose to use moments of lyrical writing sparingly, particularly in memoirs, which share many traits with novels. Be aware, however, that your overall authorial voice should not be lyrical.
The CONVERSATIONAL Writing Style
What is it: Conversational language means that you write how you talk, including incorrect grammar and inefficient wording.
When to use it: Books written to teens, novels or short stories, poems.
Write how you talk. That sounds like good advice for connecting with readers—but is it really?
The goal of writing is to make the absorption of your ideas as smooth as possible for readers. Our everyday speech, on the other hand, is riddled with incomplete sentences and throwaway words like “just” and “actually” and “like.” As we talk, we don’t always arrange our thoughts in the most logical way. When written verbatim, our daily dialogue doesn’t make for quick, efficient reading.
Which one of these paragraphs is easier to read?
- I actually didn’t have all the ingredients after all, so I just went to the store to just pick them up. It was really busy at the store and I kept thinking I’d be late to the party. Or maybe miss it altogether.
- I didn’t have all the ingredients, so I went to the store. The store was busy and I worried I’d be late to the party or miss it altogether.
In example 2 with throwaway words removed, grammar corrected, and word length shortened, the meaning of the sentence is more clear.
You may use a bit of conversational language in dialogue to make your dialogue sound more realistic. Additionally, you might use conversational language more often if your book is written to teens. Teenagers connect with a casual style that sounds closer to the way people talk. Even in these instances, you don’t want to overuse the conversational style.
As with the lyrical style, conversational language should be used as a seasoning, not a main ingredient, in the recipe of your book.
The ACCESSIBLE Writing Style
What is it: Accessible writing uses everyday language and realistic examples to connect with your reader, and communicates clearly with good grammar and crisp, efficient words.
When to use: Business books, self-help books, memoirs, etc.
For most nonfiction writers, the accessible writing style will best serve your audience. It solves all the problems inherent with the previous three.
The accessible writing style won’t put readers off with unfamiliar five-syllable words on every page.
It moves your story along at a brisk pace and compels your readers to turn pages.
It cuts extraneous language to make every sentence a smooth experience. This helps readers better grasp and digest your ideas.
Remember: the best writing is when the reader doesn’t realize they’re reading. If you’ve done your job, your reader will immerse himself or herself into the story and flow with your ideas.
Your Voice is Unique
Remember, however, that choosing a style does not define your entire authorial voice. When you offer knowledge, advice, help, and hope that readers need, they want to feel connected to you. You can only do that if you allow your writing to sound authentically “you.”
So be unafraid to include your own personal story in your work, if it’s relevant. Allow your sense of humor, your outlook on life, and your sensibilities to enliven the prose. You can write something true to your voice and still make it accessible to readers.
Need help perfecting your writing style?
Here at The Book Professor®, we help authors find their true writing voice every day. We also help authors adhere to an accessible writing style while telling their story.
Our coaching programs grant you access to professional writing coaches and a cohort of other aspiring authors just like you who are perfecting their respective writing voices.
Contact us today to learn more about our coaching program.