Seven Guidelines for Writing Worthy Works of Non-Fiction
I try to write the kind of books I’d like to read, and I try to read the kind of books I’d like to write. This isn’t as narcissistic as it sounds. I’d like to write like Tolstoy or Alan Moore or Steve Landsburg, but I have to settle for being me.
As far as fiction goes, I don’t have enough experience to pontificate. But I propose the following guidelines for writing worthy works of non-fiction:
1. Pick an important topic. If someone asks you, “What are the five most important areas to think about?,” and you’re writing about something that isn’t on your own list, you should be disturbed. How do you know if a topic is important? My test: If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place? (Note: That’s a test of importance, not truth!)
2. Learn a lot about your topic. Start with standard academic literatures, but don’t stop there. Cast a wider net. See if other disciplines study your topic under a different label. See what smart people throughout history thought about your topic. See what non-academics think too, even if they seem like idiots.
3. Keep telling yourself: “Once I perfect the organization of my book, it will practically write itself.” If you’re deviating from your own plan, either stop or change your plan. Related hypothesis: The main cause of non-fiction writer’s block is lack of a clear chapter structure.
4. Never preach to the choir. It’s impossible to be convincing to everyone. But if you haven’t made a persuasive case to the reader who doesn’t initially agree with you, start over. Remember: You’re writing a book, not a diary.
5. When in doubt, write like Hemingway. If you can delete a word without changing the meaning of a sentence, do so.
6. Treat specific intellectual opponents with respect, in print and otherwise, even if they don’t reciprocate. But feel free to ridicule ridiculous ideas.
7. Don’t keep your cards close to your chest. Share your sincere probabilities with your readers. Don’t just tell them what you can “prove.” Tell them anything interesting that you’re willing to bet on – and at what odds.