Common Expository Nonfiction Mistakes
Books that prioritize information are beholden to many of the same rules that inform creative writing. In this blog post, we look at the most common pitfalls of writing about real-world events and experiences.
October 5, 2021 · 4 Min Read
Expository nonfiction books prioritize information, but information on its own does not make for an enjoyable read. For knowledge to be impactful, it must be original, well researched, and delivered as succinctly as possible.
The Difference Between Creative and Expository Nonfiction
Before we analyze some of the common pitfalls of expository nonfiction books, let’s take a closer look at its definition. There are more than two types of nonfiction; however, when someone refers to a “nonfiction” book, they usually mean either an expository or creative work. Creative nonfiction, while factually accurate, uses a story structure to convey information. Expository nonfiction just conveys facts. Have a look at the following examples:
Creative nonfiction: A travel writer writing about her train journey through Russia.
Expository nonfiction: A historian recounting the impact of Word War II on the Soviet Union’s agriculture.
Creative nonfiction: A boxer writing an autobiography.
Expository nonfiction: A sociologist writing about the positive impact boxing has on disenfranchised youth.
Expository nonfiction is more methodical in its approach and scientific in its interpretations than creative nonfiction. However, it should not be confused with technical writing (how-to manuals, reports, briefs etc.).
Mistake #1: A Lack of Authority on the Subject Matter
In expository nonfiction writing, the writer must have authority on the subject being written about. Having a passing interest in seashell collecting does not make the writer a pioneer in conchology (the scientific study of seashells). Strong political opinion does not imply an understanding of political theory. Expertise in geology is not the same as expertise in zoology.
When educating the reader, you should have the credentials to back it up. This usually requires a postgraduate degree of some kind; however, tertiary education is not always necessary. Extensive experience can also give the writer authority. However, this experience must be unique and highly relevant. For example, reading newspaper clippings about a foreign conflict is not the same as actually participating in it.
Mistake #2: Unengaging Writing
No matter the type of project, lean and accessible writing should always be a priority. How are you conveying information in your book? Does it contain unnecessary explanations? Are transitions repetitive? Do you use too many adverbs or adjectives? Do you make judicious use of paragraphing? At Manuscript Mentoring, we often edit nonfiction books that have a good premise, but impart information in a verbose manner. Facts have to be accurate, yes, but they should also be written succinctly. Remember, it is easy for readers to research a particular topic if they want to; when they buy a book, they expect a streamlined and enjoyable experience.
Mistake #3: A Lack of Proper Research and Formatting
By its nature, expository nonfiction requires substantial research. No matter your experience or level of education, you will need a thorough understanding of your book’s subject matter. When commenting on poverty, it is not enough to say, “X country is poor,” or “Textiles are important to the village’s women.” You need to be able to elaborate on observations. Why is the country poor? What specific government policy led to the poverty you are describing? Why are textiles important to the women of the village? Is it their only source of income or is there a cultural significance to the profession? By understanding the context of your facts, you will be able to enliven your writing and intrigue the reader.
If your nonfiction book draws on the research of other authors, then you will need to cite them. Just as important is consistent formatting. In fiction, formatting only pertains to margins, indentations, spacing, font etc. However, formatting takes on an added level of complexity when a nonfiction book requires citations. You should identify a citation style early on and stick to it. If you plan to submit your manuscript to literary agents and editors at publishing houses, you should double-check their submission requirements to see if they have specific guidelines regarding sourcing. Usually, the only requirement is that you use the latest edition of a widely accepted citation style. In styles that have both in-text citations and footnote methods of citing, the footnote method is almost always preferred.
Mistake #4: Confusing Expository Nonfiction with Argumentative Nonfiction
Expository nonfiction conveys facts. Argumentative nonfiction conveys facts in an attempt to convince the reader of something. Both are perfectly acceptable, of course; however, the writer should know in which category her book falls into. Often, nonfiction writers lay out a premise at the beginning of a book, only for the premise to disappear along the way. Conversely, books may seem to have a solely expository slant, but then veer into opinion. To be convincing, arguments have to be built. It is not enough for the writer to suddenly draw sweeping conclusions at the end of a book when opinion has not been substantiated throughout the text. Expository and argumentative writing are different forms of nonfiction for a reason; the writer should have a clear plan as to the structure of the work.
Mistake #5: Using an Overly Didactic Tone
This is usually more prevalent in argumentative nonfiction books, but it does also crop up in expository nonfiction. This is when a writer uses a “preachy” tone when trying to educate the reader about something. In expository nonfiction, the reader is rarely looking for a biased opinion (no matter its validity). They essentially want a summary about a place, period, person, or event that they are interested in. It can be grating when the writer buttresses factual information with moral interpretation. Remember, readers are picky: if a book is didactic in tone, then they will quickly move on to the next read.
Manuscript Mentoring’s one-on-one editing helps both fiction and nonfiction writers to organize their ideas and write fantastic stories. Have a look at our Services page if you need help with your nonfiction book!