hands with bar graphs

Non-fiction writers, especially if they’re beginning writers, can make a critical mistake about what writing non-fiction demands.

They may think, “This is going to be easier than writing fiction. I don’t have to worry about characters, plot development, description, and all the other things that make writing fiction so difficult.”

They’re wrong, and that error can doom their books to failure.

Fictional Techniques Enliven Non-Fiction Writing

As an example, you want to write about nursing homes, perhaps an overview of contemporary practices in nursing homes, federal regulations, and violations, with the additional element of specific cases.

This subject has the potential to be either compelling or deadening.

Don’t make it deadening by

  • Having tons of footnoted items.
  • Presenting the information in the most dry, factual manner possible. “Eight out of ten nursing homes . . .” “Average age of patients . . .” “General assessment of risk factors for pressure injury.”
  • Making it very impersonal.

Don’t misunderstand me. Facts give your work credibility. Statistics and details help to advance your premise and can strengthen the recommendations you may want to make.

However, if you people to read your book, surround these facts with a lot of human interest. You may remember the jingle, “A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

Find the Sugar

Include the human factor. For the nursing home book, you can interview people who work in nursing homes: doctors, nurses, administrators. Also seek out people whose lives are affected by nursing homes: patients and their relatives.

As you develop your research, you’ll find more kinds of people you want to interview.

An important point: If you are writing about scandals in particular nursing homes, that scenario will usually require the names of quoted individuals to provide credibility.

The subject matter I’ve described has a more general flavor. Although it’s non-fiction, you can change names to protect those who will only speak candidly if you protect their privacy.

You Can Also Create Fictional Characters. For example, you might want to follow the lives and medical histories of two patients, one in a high-quality nursing home, the other in a low-quality one. You can use actual patients (and their families) if you have legal, signed permission to do so.

If not, you can do what many non-fiction writers do by creating create composite characters as a fictional technique. You will carefully disguise identifying aspects of their situations and personalities.

Basically, in this aspect of your writing, you will think and write the way a fiction writer does—but think like a good one.

A method of fiction writing called roman à clef produces fictionalized accounts of real life with thinly disguised real people as characters. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann is one of the best-known examples.

Don’t do this. Make sure your characters are not recognizable. Also make them interesting and sympathetic. As a child, Sylvia Bern survived Nazi concentration camps, only to find herself wasting away and neglected in a substandard nursing home. As your reader follows the story of her mistreatment, they should care. They should be outraged. If your book, article, or blog involves a call to action, they should see it.

Don’t worry that Sylvia doesn’t exist. In figurative terms, she does. As a composite, her experiences embody the maltreatment nursing home patients experience.

Your creation of characters performs another important function that non-fiction writers can steal from fiction writers. That is:

Show, Don’t Tell

Sylvia moaned. She clenched her teeth while the nurse cleaned her bedsore. “Oh, stop!” she screamed. “I can’t take it!”

You want the reader to understand that pressure injuries are painful. Does this brief description have more impact than statistics on painful pressure injuries? You could provide a statistic for the incidence of pressure injuries in nursing homes and perhaps place this statistic in the context of overall standards. That’s telling, and you need some, but you need more.

You also want to demonstrate the real human suffering caused by negligence. That’s showing, and that’s why you have Sylvia and the other characters who bring your story to life. When you demonstrate the various ways they suffer from poor nursing home care, you add strength and emotional appeal to your writing. Fictional techniques carry people Into the scene and keep them engaged.

And your readers will keep turning the pages.

Pat Iyer loves fiction. She does not write it, but slips those techniques into her nonfiction books.