Nonfiction Techniques For Christian Writers
Nonfiction books and blog posts are the heart of Christian writing. Fiction entertains, but nonfiction informs and inspires.
Christian nonfiction includes a wide range of material, including specific theological topics (doctrine), Bible studies, biography, Christian living, “how-to”, self-help, sermons, essays, journalism, travel writing, art, history, and science, among others.
Nonfiction is factual. Nonfiction writers gather confirmed facts from reputable books, newspapers, journals, interviews, and other research, and then present it to readers in an organized way.
Nonfiction writers focus on the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of a particular topic, person or event.
Christian nonfiction books sell like hotcakes, and blog posts that deal with real-life issues get a large number of visitors. Nonfiction is a fertile field for Christian writers.
Here are five nonfiction tips and tricks you can use to write a Christian nonfiction book or blog post that people will want to read.
Intend to Meet a Need
Your intention in writing a book or blog post is essential. Intend to meet a particular need or solve a problem for your reader. That requires the discipline and focus of a Ninja.
As Christians, we realize that people have a deep yearning they don’t understand. We know it is a yearning to know Christ or to know him better. Nevertheless, there are a lot of intermediate longings along the way. As a Christian writer, you have the capacity to infuse the Christian perspectives and values into all topics.
Potential readers will not pick up your book or read your blog post unless they sense there is something in it for them. You must be able to convey what’s in it for them in your title, introductory content, and the points you make in each chapter or section.
As a Christian nonfiction writer, you must start with a thesis, a point of view. State that thesis at the beginning and then support it with factual data.
For example, you may write a book about living close to the Lord. Your thesis is that it is possible, even in our crazy, carnal, deluded world. You provide practical steps about how to do that with factual information from the Bible, research, and the authentic experiences of historical and contemporary people.
Another example. if you are are a Christian mommy blogger, your thesis may be, “Your Diaper Bag Needs These Six Items.” That meets a need and solves a problem. Where are the Christian values in that? It comes when you share your personal experience with God’s grace as you once used the wipes in the bag in an odd, precarious, or funny situation. All moms have these stories, and they are enjoyable and helpful to readers.
You don’t need to sensationalize titles or content when you are meeting real needs. You don’t need to convince others that your personal bias is correct. An accurate title and salient content will attract readers like a magnet. People are already on the prowl for answers.
Structure Nonfiction Properly
I copy edit many Christian books. One of the most common errors I see is writers you preface their work with scripture verses, usually several full quotes, not just the references.
That insults all readers. The non-Christians won’t get into your content, and Christians don’t like being treated like imbeciles. They have Bibles and don’t need long quotes from you. Get to your point at the start, for heaven’s sake, and proof-text later if you must.
What is the key to good nonfiction writing? It is taking readers from the known to the unknown.
The key to good nonfiction writing is taking readers from the known to the unknown. No, not from what you know, but what they know. And they don’t know much (that’s why your book or post is important to them), so you have to start simple. Take them from basic to higher knowledge in easy steps.
How do you do that? This is the ancient formula:
■ Tell them what you’re going to tell them
■ Tell them
■ Tell them what you told them
This is sound educational theory and serves writers well.
A clear nonfiction structure enables a writer to lead the reader down a clear path, not a tangled trail. The topic doesn’t matter. It can be a theological topic, Bible study, biography, sermon, essay, or whatever. The method is always the same. Take a reader from what they know to what you want them to know.
Don’t Guess Which Road to Travel
The only way you can structure nonfiction to meet this need is to create an outline. When you outline your book or blog post in advance, you can systematically move through your topic, and that serves readers well.
An outline is like a map. You have direction. You can take side-trips if you wish, but with a framework you can always get quickly back on track.
An outline also eliminates so-called writer’s block. I have been writing for three decades, have mentored hundreds of writers, and I think “writer’s block” is a fake malady that some people use for dramatic effect.
If you create a somewhat detailed outline and do research to flesh it out, you’ll never have writer’s block. So-called writer’s block is only evidence that a writer has failed to plan their writing project properly. They are lost without a map.
Make the Trip Interesting
Properly structuring your book or blog posts enables you to be more interesting. When you structure your ideas, you are able to state your thesis at the start, provide an interesting story to cement the idea, then break down your thesis into headings and subheadings, so your thoughts are easy to follow.
The chapter headings (in the case of a book) and headings and subheadings in books and blog posts are like breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. Just make sure there is a tasty morsel under each heading so they keep following the path you have set before them.
Structure your nonfiction writing project for your readers, not your own needs. As you write, you must continuously ask yourself, “How can I make this point more clear and interesting to my reader?”
An outline helps you see holes in your presentation of the content. You can remedy them sooner rather than later.
Nonfiction does not need to read like a dry academic paper. Sadly, many Christian writers think they must be somber and rigid when they share Christian values.
That’s not true. That approach is annoying. Instead, write with vitality. Jesus expressed the most profound theological truths in simple stories, and you can do that too.
Methods You Can Use
How do you humanize facts? Here are some techniques:
■ Start by asking an intriguing question
■ Tell a short personal or historical story
■ Share an astounding fact
■ Begin with an odd or funny thought
What is the mistake that most Christian writers make? They start with an assertion. “Sinners are going to burn in hell forever.” This assertion is true, but the point is that a stark declaration like that repels readers. Our goal as Christian writers is to draw people into a new Christ-centered life that starts now and is everlasting. Honey, not vinegar.
What strategy grabs people and keeps them reading? Start with a hook like this: “I don’t believe I will see my mom in heaven” (if your mother was an unbeliever). You can then proceed with the same line of thinking as the “burn” assertion but to greater effect.
This non-directive approach works with all assertions that Christian writers tend to make.
Master the Segue
You can write almost any kind of grabber for a chapter introduction, blog post, or for headers or sub-headers if you master “the segue.”
Merriam-Webster defines segue this way: “to make a transition without interruption from one activity, topic, scene, or part to another.”
A segue is a transitional sentence, a word bridge, that smoothly and cleverly links the grabber to what you intended to say, even though it may be on a different topic.
Use almost any short grabber, then dovetail into your main point by using one of these words: “but, however, in spite of, nevertheless, in contrast, on the contrary, still, yet.” It works like this:
Nuclear energy is the most potent physical power on earth. A nuclear physicist understands how to turn vibrating atoms into the electricity that converts your bread into toast. The job description of a nuclear physicist includes an excellent understanding of mathematics, computer software skills, and the ability to manage people and projects.
These skills are clear.
However, writing skills seem far less clear to most new writers.
See the jump from nuclear physics to writing? That’s a huge jump, right? But that’s how you take control of reader attention. That is the power of the segue.
What is the gold standard when it comes to transitions? It is, “for example.” That is the most potent nonfiction writing phrase of all.
Put Your Personality into Your Nonfiction
When it comes to humanizing nonfiction, you do it best when you put your personality into your writing.
There may be 10,000 books and 100,000 blog posts on a mundane topic like “How to build a patio deck.” The element that makes your book or blog post different, and more interesting, is your personality. Your personality quirks, along with your unique experiences, are what make your writing exceptional.
I’m not talking about inserting your opinions into your nonfiction writing. They count for almost nothing. Distinguish between facts and opinions and be very clear about each.
Sadly, may Christians tend to fabricate or manipulate alleged facts to support their preexisting bias, and that is always wrong. We get enough of that from mass media outlets, and Christian writers need to be above that.
However, putting your positive personality into your nonfiction writing makes your writing unique. Your insight and humor have value.
Say No to Jargon
Christian nonfiction is filled with jargon.
Much of it comes with our love/hate relationship with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. We love the beautiful Shakespeare-like flow in some places, but we hate its archaic words and twisted syntax.
Preachers waste time and the attention of their congregation unraveling KJV words rather than the spiritual principle at hand. They even go into the Greek to explain KJV terminology. That problem does not exist in translations that use words people already understand.
The KJV and myriad catechisms, creeds, and councils have exacerbated the problem, each spawning their own freshly minted terms. Christians love their jargon, but readers hate it.
I learned this lesson best when I traveled in Siberia with Russian evangelists. I described the result of conversion as being “saved.” That is American Christian jargon. But saved from what and for what? Most people don’t understand.
My Russian brothers used a different term to describe the same spiritual event. They said Christ “rescued” people. Everyone immediately understands what it means to be in peril and to be rescued. A simple shift like this makes a massive difference in reader comprehension.
Most Christian writers are so used to using theological jargon that they don’t recognize it. But it is crucial to do a thorough housecleaning. Toss out all jargon.
Use Cinematic Techniques
We usually associate fictional stories with movies. Novels are commonly made into films and original screenplays are based on imagination.
Yet, many movies are based on true stories. And all documentaries are nonfiction films.
Thus, nonfiction writers can and should use cinematic techniques to write nonfiction books and blog posts.
As you approach your book or blog post, think of it as a movie. Break each part into scenes. Imagine that your readers are viewers. What are you showing them? Do they understand what they see?
Give your readers a “wide shot” to get the big picture. Then zoom in on details. Pan to show the surroundings so they see the context. Use words to make a picture rather than just explain things, as is so prevalent in nonfiction.
Think about Point-of-View (POV). Think about scene, setting, characters, dialog, and any comedy or drama you may be able to inject into your writing.
This is an exciting way to think about writing a nonfiction book or blog post. Imagine it as a movie and let the scenes unfold. No, you are not writing a script; you are writing prose, but visualizing it in your mind in a cinematic way.
Readers are captivated by this style of writing.
Write Powerful Nonfiction
Nonfiction does not need to read like an academic paper. Sadly, most of it does. That’s why Christian nonfiction writers want to examine how they write and break bad habits.
Nonfiction has the power to educate and inspire others about a wide range of topics. It has the potential to help people to live better lives today and to influence their eternal destiny.
To be effective, nonfiction Christian writers must:
■ Be motivated to meet a genuine need in the lives of others. Write with intentionality.
■ Structure your writing to enhance clarity.
■ Strike a balance between spirituality, humanity, and your subject matter to help people effectively.
■ Eliminate Christian jargon from all your writing, including those on theological topics.
■ Don’t be afraid to use different techniques to hold reader interest. That includes things like letting your personality shine through or using cinematic techniques.
Understand boundaries. Do not blur nonfiction and fiction. Christian nonfiction writers have an obligation to be factual. That means there should be no opinion stated as fact, and no facts used that has not been confirmed using multiple reliable sources.
It is both an honor and a responsibility to write Christian nonfiction. It enables us to teach and help others, and the income from nonfiction, which supports our writing ministry, can be far greater than fiction.