A Powerful Insight for Nonfiction Writers That Makes All the Difference

My Most Important Takeaway from Stephen King’s Book *On Writing*

I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and as I come to the end of it one thing stands out to me above the rest. That’s significant because it’s a very good book, and many things stand out to me as helpful and wise. If you haven’t read it, you should. But this one things stands out to me as not just helpful and wise but also really important.

So here it is: Your book is a piece of art.

Courtesy of Unsplash

The Problem with Missing This

I think too often nonfiction writers think of themselves as merely transmitting information or conveying a message or teaching how to do something. The problem with this is that we end up writing stuff nobody reads.

Remember this, nonfiction writer: how you say something is just as important as what you say. You are creating art. You’re crafting an experience for the reader, and you owe it to that reader to make the experience as compelling as possible.

The one exception might be if you really are writing an instruction manual for, say, building a piece of furniture. Then you can be boring just so long as you’re clear.

But my hunch is, if you’re reading this, you’re not writing an instruction manual. That’s the sort of thing companies pay technical writers to do. No, you’re here because you have a story or message to get into the world, and I’m here to tell you: the best way to do that is with artful prose.

What Is Nonfiction Art?

So what is it? What is nonfiction art?

For one thing it’s delightful. Artful nonfiction is a joy to read. You may tell yourself you only have fifteen minutes to read this, but if the author’s done her job you want to keep going. You may end up being late to wherever you’re supposed to be because the book enticed you to stick around.

That’s what a good book will do, fiction or nonfiction.

Artful nonfiction is also authentic. It’s true. You’re not just pulling this stuff out of thin air. You have experience or research to back it up, and you can prove it. Another piece of authenticity is vulnerability. We’ve had enough of experts who know it all. Show some warts, please. Become human so that we can relate to you.

It’s also imaginative. I recently heard political consultant Frank Luntz say “imagine” is the most powerful word in the English language. He may be right. When we imagine something, we are conjuring up a whole other world that is different from where we are right now. That’s what artful nonfiction does too. A good nonfiction book will take you places.

Delightful. Authentic. Imaginative. The more our nonfiction becomes defined by these adjectives, the more artful it will be.

Need some help doing your art? Check out my ebook, Do Your Art: A Manifesto on Rejecting Apathy to Bring Your Best to the World. Creativity expert Todd Henry calls it “a wonderful (and welcome) kick in the pants.” Click here to download your free copy.

Question: What has been most useful to you in this article? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jodie Vee

    Oh this is so good. King’s book is so jammed packed with snacks that I forgot about this one. A tasty little morsel for my memory to munch on, thanks for the reminder Chad!

  • Tracie Heskett

    Just what I need right now in my writing, as I’ve moved from the book proposal (which is waiting hopeful acceptance from a publisher) to actually writing the book. My question and challenge yesterday as I wrote was how can I write this in such a way that people will want to read it? (Have read King’s book but might need to revisit it.) And yes, I’ve read “artful nonfiction” — some of those books rank among my all-time favorites. It’s the prose, you’re absolutely right.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Excellent, Tracie! That’s a terrific question to ask. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Great stuff, Chad. I’m encouraged to rethink about my writing. And I need to finish King’s book – thanks for the reminder!

    • Chad R. Allen

      Most welcome, Scott!

  • Love this: Delightful. Authentic. Imaginative. These words are going up on a wall as a reminder!
    Thanks! 😉

    • Chad R. Allen

      Terrific! Thanks for letting me know, Jessica.