If you’re writing a how-to or information book, you might not think of your work as “creative writing”. Leave the creativity to the poets, right? You are far too busy with your facts and research to while the day away exploring your artistic side.
On the contrary, it’s essential to always be thinking creatively about your writing. After all, even a serious book should be an entertaining read. Follow these writing prompts designed for non-fiction writers to get your creative juices flowing. Who knows–you might even have a little fun!
The Case Study
Try this if: your writing puts people to sleep
Everyone loves a great story. Just because you’re writing non-fiction doesn’t mean you can’t include your share of tales, true or tall. There’s a reason An Inconvenient Truth resonated with people more deeply than the scientific journals it was based on–people love a story arc, and if you can slip one into your book, your readers will love you.
Case studies and illustrative stories can be anything from a well-known fable to a personal anecdote, and they are great for bringing abstract concepts to life in a memorable way. (This is why so many of the most enduring business books–Who Moved My Cheese, The One-Minute Manager, Raving Fans, Rich Dad Poor Dad–are parables. Our own upcoming release, Pathways to Pregnancy by Mary Wong, shares practical fertility advice through the true personal stories of patients.)
To try this exercise, think back to a time when you applied the advice in your book in a real-life situation–or a time when you didn’t, and got burned because of it. Write it all out as if you’re telling the story to a close friend. Even if you don’t use the anecdote in your book, it’ll help you to slip into a more personal writing style that your readers will appreciate.
Try this if: your writing contains controversial ideas
Sometimes an idea seems so self-evident to us that we take it for granted. However, you will encounter people who not only believe in the exact opposite idea, they think you’re a menace to society for ever disagreeing with them.
As an exercise in handling these critics smoothly in your writing, practice debating your topic. If you’re writing about why Traditional Chinese medicine is as important as Western medicine, find the most venemous vitriol ever written about your topic, perhaps from some curmudgeonly Western doctor. Pretend they’re taking a stab directly at you, and write a rational response to each of their points.
This prompt will lend your writing new perspectives, and as you overcome these objectives, you’ll be able to help readers come to grips with your ideas. You may never change the mind of that doctor, but by understanding where he’s coming from, you can better address the concerns of others.
Try this if: your writing is overly complicated and full of jargon
I get it–you spent 12 years getting your PhD at Stanford, and you were frowned upon any time you used a word with less than five syllables. But unless your reader tribe is made up of scientists or linguists, it’s probably better to keep it simple. If you say potato and I say solanum tuberosum, people are probably going to drop my book like a hot solanum tuberosum and reach for yours.
You’ll need two things for The Explainer: a page of your book that’s particularly perplexing, and a six-year-old. Rewrite the Particularly Perplexing Page (PPP) until you can read it to the six-year-old without them running away.
The Explainer, pt. 2: The Tweet
If you went through The Explainer and weren’t able to simplify your writing enough, you may not have a total understanding of what you’re trying to say. Hone in on your explanation by reducing the PPP to a tweet–you don’t win until Twitter lets you hit send.
For bonus points, see if you can write your thesis using only emojis. For example, 🍴🙏💘–Elizabeth Gilbert, you can use that free of charge!
The Party Trick
Try this if: you’re unsure of your book’s tone
Write a three-page description of your book as a party. Will your book be a candlelit dinner party with your intellectual friends as you debate Schopenhauer? Or will it be a red-dixie-cup lampshade-on-the-lawn summertime smash? You can go as far as to make it a rousing political lecture or a stadium rock concert–this is your book, so you it can be whatever party you want.
The point of this is to set a tone and create an experience for your reader. Anytime you go back to writing, you can re-read the results of this prompt and visualize your book as having that same atmosphere. For a more in-depth look at how this particular prompt can help you, check out Maggie Langrick’s vlog on the Party Trick here.
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