Saturday, July 29, 2017

Those Pesky $25 Words

Inflation has a way of affecting everything eventually. Prices have gone up on many things you buy today. The same can be said for those writers who continue to challenge their readers by using words their readers don’t know instead of simple, everyday words to express themselves.

As little as 10 years ago, those big words were only worth $20, but the price has gone up. With the the advent of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, more and more people are turning to plainer words to express themselves. Part of this is the use of their thumbs to peck out the words of their posts on their smartphones.

It doesn’t matter how extensive a vocabulary you have. What matters is that you clearly express what you’re trying to say to your readers. Unfortunately, that’s what wasn’t encouraged in school, and especially not in college. Academics pride themselves in sounding learned. But to be a good writer, it’s not necessary to show readers how intelligent or learned you are. It’s more important to take complex concepts and write about them clearly so all your readers will understand.

By using complex words, readers miss the nuances and only get a basic understanding of the subject matter.

A good example is a travel book entitled Mirrors of the Unseen by Jason Elliot that tells about his journeys through Iran. The majority of readers haven’t been to Iran, so they probably only know about it through the T.V. news. He writes beautifully about the culture, with its mosques and bazaars. Unfortunately, all this beauty comes at a price. It seems Elliot, like so many writers, assumes all readers have his extensive vocabulary.

In contrast is a book entitled Antarctica by Gabrielle Walker that’s filled with descriptions of complicated scientific experiments and research written against the background of the stark beauty of the world’s southernmost frozen continent. This writer, on the other hand, uses plain language and makes it seem as if her readers were traveling around with her. She presents an in-depth view of Antarctica that draws her readers in and keeps them turning the pages.

Go back and look at books you’ve read. You’ll notice that the ones you enjoyed the most probably had the most conversational language. Re-read portions of the books you liked the most and see if you can discover the essence of the author’s writing style.

Back in the early days of personal computers, there was a simple software program called PC Style. This little program would analyze a piece of writing for its use of personal pronouns, word length, dynamic verbs, concrete nouns, sentence length, etc. By running several paragraphs of a book through it, you could immediately analyze the writing style. Then by doing the same to a piece of your own writing, you could immediately see where it was lacking.  Unfortunately, that program hasn’t been available for a long time. And while some of today’s word processing programs try to do the same, they just don’t compare to it.

You can use the Find and Replace feature in your word processing program to search for personal pronouns—I, you, we, they, he, and she—for example. These are the words that make writing conversational. These are the words that make readers feel as if they’re part of the story.

You can also do a manual search for complex words—but don’t do this immediately after finishing a piece. Wait a day or two so your writing will appear fresh to your mind. When you find words that you are either long or complex, put them in bold type so you can easily find them and then use the thesaurus in your word processing program to find plainer words that mean the same thing. Do the same for long sentences. Try to keep your sentences shorter and avoid using semi-colons which tend to string them out.

Once you see the difference all this makes to your writing, you’ll never want to go back to using those pesky $25 words.  Instead, you’ll get used to using $1, $5, and $10 words to enlighten your readers about your subject. This blog is a good example.

To read more of my articles and book excerpts, please visit my Web site. And to read more articles on freelance writing, grammar, and marketing, go to Writer's Corner.



Monday, July 17, 2017

What Makes a Great Nonfiction Book?

You’ve been writing articles for a while and would like to step up to writing a nonfiction book. While there’s a lot of information out there about writing novels, there isn’t as much about writing good nonfiction books.

Remember the Bob Newhardt Show on which the main character, a writer of nonfiction how-to books,  ran a bed and breakfast in Vermont with his wife.  The subjects of his books would have been great for insomniacs, but not all nonfiction books make readers yawn.

Today, nonfiction books have a lot of competition from the Internet. Readers can find all sorts of information online, so why would they want to purchase a book—even an inexpensive ebook—when they can search for what they need. The truth is that most people don’t really know how to search the Web, so they still need nonfiction books to give them information in an orderly manner.

It’s how a writer assembles the facts in a book that makes all the difference. The key to nonfiction book success is information synthesis. To make sure a nonfiction book is worth paying for, you need to bring your own fresh a perspective to the subject matter—a perspective that readers can’t find online. What’s more important today is your ability to synthesize the facts and give them context and perspective.

First and foremost, make sure your nonfiction book has a strong focus. It’s better to limit the focus than ramble all over the place. To do this, you’ll need to think out your book before doing research. You’ll most likely find a mess of facts on your subject. How you make sense of those facts is the key.

To make sense of all the information you collect, you need to give meaning to it. And that requires a point of view. What are your feelings about your subject? Who will be telling your story? Except for memoirs, most nonfiction books are told from another person’s perspective.

Offer insight by weaving current events and trends into the context of your book, even if it’s historical in nature.

Present the bigger picture about your subject so that readers will be able to make more global sense of it.  And if your subject is more complicated, simplify it for the average reader. Don’t talk down to your readers to prove how smart you are. Instead, write in plain language and explain difficult words or phrases.

A nonfiction book goes deeper than an article or blog on a subject. While the shortness of both only gives the reader the basics, a book can delve deeper into a subject. Take a common theme or one that has been written about heavily in the past and give it a fresh approach.

Above all, make sure your nonfiction book gives readers information in a way they won’t find it anywhere else, in a way only you can deliver it.