I often celebrate good non-fiction writing but National Non-Fiction November gives me an extra excuse to shout.
I love good writing. I love reading it and I love trying to write it.
So, what do I mean by “good non-fiction” and what do I mean by “good writing”?
I believe that good non-fiction can tell us the freezing temperature of water and make us feel the cold.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction and however you define them, it is all about the writing. A world of difference occurs when you choose the right words and put them in exactly the right order. Only then, fiction or non-fiction, can you draw the reader in smoothly and relentlessly, engage head and heart, mind and emotions, creating real change. That’s what skilful writing is and what good writers aim for all the time.
A problem in non-fiction publishing occurs when flow is sacrificed to gobbetiness, which happens when non-fiction publishers undervalue and exclude narrative structures and seamless prose in favour of whatever will fit the little box provided. Design – which is by no means unimportant – sometimes subsumes content and the style suffers. That is not good writing.
Style is not an empty thing when it comes to writing. Style is meshed with voice, meaning and communication. Without it, the real connection between a writer’s and reader’s mind doesn’t happen.
So, that’s what I mean by good writing and good non-fiction writing.
(NB: I’m ignoring the obvious importance of illustration for many non-fiction books, especially for younger readers. This article is about words.)
You want examples, I’m sure. I cited some in this Guardian article I wrote in 2003, including the paradigmatic THINK OF AN EEL written by Karen Wallace and illustrated by Mike Bostock (Walker Books). More recently, in this piece on non-fiction for Myslexia, I cited three newer gems: WHAT MAKES YOU YOU? By Gill Arbuthnott (Bloomsbury – where’s the illustrator name, Bloomsbury?); ARCHIE’S WAR by Marcia Williams (Walker); and WELCOME TO THE FAMILY by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith (Frances Lincoln).
There is a wide range of different types of non-fiction, including educational, such as text books and curriculum-driven books; home learning, such as the I Can Learn series which I wrote years ago for Egmont and which has sold in huge volumes; narrative non-fiction – sometimes annoyingly referred to as “creative non-fiction”, as if the rest isn’t creative, or “literary non-fiction”, as if non-narrative must be less literary; how-to books; and all manner of ways of conveying “real world” information and ideas. Not all rely as much on flowing prose as others, but even the simplest, shortest text requires some flow and a great deal of skill if it is to have the desired effect: to open the reader’s mind to the meaning behind the words and allow him to process it smoothly and effectively.
There are writers who have honed their skills over huge numbers of books for different audiences, such as Anne Rooney, with everything from titles such as YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS (illustrated by David Antram) to the Story Of series for “non-specialist adult readers”, THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE, MATHEMATICS and MEDICINE. Anne says she loves writing these books and that’s a fairly sure sign that there’s some prose flow going on. And there are writers such as Gill Arbuthnott, novelist and biology teacher who branched into non-fiction writing at my suggestion and does it brilliantly. And Nicola Davies, expert zoologist, constantly inspired by creatures of all sizes and never one to turn down the chance of writing beautifully about any of them.
That prose flow was what I aimed for in both BLAME MY BRAIN and THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO STRESS. As with the writers I mentioned above, my non-fiction career stemmed from fascination in the subjects I write about. I’d been writing novels (though I’d previously written a lot of home learning books, early readers and educational books) when my editor asked if I’d like to write non-fiction. “What about?” I asked. “What are you passionate about?” she replied. And so Blame My Brain was conceived.
Good prose flow is what Steven Pinker identifies and analyses in The Sense of Style. That book is avowedly not a style guide but it shows why style is important and how word order and choice affect and control the pathways into a reader’s brain.
Currently, non-fiction is all of my writing. I’m doing nothing else. And I have more non-fiction ideas than I expect to have time to write.
In National Non-Fiction Month:
To publishers, I say: value and commission good writing, without compromise; don’t let format, curriculum needs or the structure of your list dictate which writers you commission. If you want readers to come back for more, give them books with magic in their words.
To readers, I say: listen for the best writing. Read it aloud and see what it does to you. Every age of reader deserves the enjoyment of reading beautifully written prose. Those are the books we remember. We learn better when we feel and good non-fiction makes us feel.
To writers, I say: don’t compromise in employing all your narrative skills and wordsmithery in non-fiction, too, so that readers don’t only know the freezing temperature of water but also feel the cold. It’s not about how we pigeon-hole and name it: it really is all about the writing.
For National Non-Fiction Month I’m asking you to recommend your favourite non-fiction books, for any age. Just in time for Christmas! Suggestions below.
As an incentive, I’ll put all the answers in a random generator and I’ll commit to buying TWO copies of the winning book and giving it to the Children’s Book Tree in Blackwells later this month, so that two eager young readers will receive it for Christmas.