Want to avoid the six mistakes nonfiction writers make?
At a recent conference in Boston, award-winning journalist Adam Hochschild—co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and the author of Bury the Chains, The Mirror at Midnight and King Leopold's Ghost—offered the following advice.
Tip one: Always keep the reader in mind. “Too many writers approach a book as a writer and not as a reader,” Hochschild told attendees at the recent Power of Narrative conference. Writers must examine their research, characters, and themes and ask, “What, out of everything I have to say, will most interest people?”
Tip two: Pare down your material. Consider Mark Twain's autobiography. It sprawled across three volumes, yet most people remember his more focused book, Life on the Mississippi, Hochschild said. Find a theme, an angle, a topic—and stick with it. George Orwell did it in Down and Out in Paris and London. Tobias Wolff did it in the opening to his classic memoir, This Boy's Life: “It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.”
“There are too many long-winded books in this world,” Hochschild said. It's understandable, of course. Historical writers spend long hours in musty archives reading old letters, newspapers, books and journals. They mistakenly think they must share everything they've learned with their readers. But if a fact or a quote doesn't move the story forward—drop it, Hochschild said. “All too often we think of cutting as amputating a limb. Think of it instead as trying to lose weight. You're shedding a few pounds here or there.”
Tip three: Don't cram your book with too many characters. Readers can't remember them all, and crowded books “cause a lot of readers to abandon a nonfiction work halfway.” Hochschild's advice? Limit your central cast to no more than eight or ten people. Identify recurring characters with a telling phrase to help readers remember them.
Tip four: Don't jam too much background information into the story. Think about how much information the reader needs—and how much they can remember. “Readers are a distracted bunch.”
Tip five: Look for ways to create suspense. “If you've got a sequence of events where you can pause the action and leave the reader hanging—go off in another direction and then return to the scene.” A good example, said Hochschild, is Dan Barry's 2004 New York Times column, “Miss a Catch? Life Goes On, Ordinarily.” (You can find it online.) In the piece, Barry writes about a woman in a burning house who tosses her three-year-old daughter to a stranger below. He starts by showing the woman throwing the child into the air—and then backtracks to tell the reader about the man below, a former football player. “Every action has to be dissected to see if you can make it more suspenseful,” Hochschild said.
Tip six: Ask a friend or colleague to read your final draft, but only after several rewrites. “Get advice from intelligent readers, not necessarily writers.” Because he often writes about the past, Hochschild asks historians and experts to read his stuff. Over a twenty-five-year span, Hochschild has written about Joseph Stalin, the transatlantic slave trade, and the First World War. His latest, Spain in Our Hearts, focuses on the Spanish Civil War. “I'm not a specialist in anything. I change countries and continents and eras from book to book.”
Marketing is everything, and the conference description of Hochschild's talk promised plenty: Follow this advice and you'll become the next Joan Didion or John McPhee.
Well, maybe not the next Didion or McPhee—or Hochschild. They cast long shadows in the nonfiction world.
But at the very least, you'll write a better book.