Fiction, Voice & Vision Make Great Nonfiction
Voice & Vision, Stephen J. Pyne’s book about writing nonfiction, starts with the question: Why do we write?
Many unpublished writers dream of garnering fame and fortune. Pyne doesn’t think these aims provide a practical impetus for writing. He suggests the real trigger for writing is the desire to connect with readers, by entertaining them, helping them understand a topic, or providing some type of fulfillment.
If you have a great topic, that’s good—but it’s not enough. Many people have an idea that could be developed into a book-length manuscript. But few end up with a finished manuscript. Why?
According to Pyne, some simply don’t have time to write. I’d add that some don’t make the time to write. Others lack the motivation, skills, or knowledge to develop their ideas in terms of creating a major writing project.
Even writers who succeed in finishing a manuscript may hit a brick wall when it comes to publication. One can self-publish. But if the idea is to get an agent or publisher, it’s worth knowing that manuscripts flood in to these gatekeepers, increasing ‘arithmetically’, but they ‘die exponentially’. In other words, only a small percentage of writers get their work turned into a book, by a publishing house.
Putting all that aside, how can nonfiction writers improve their chances by improving their writing?
Draw on fiction elements
Utilising fiction elements when writing nonfiction is increasingly popular. A few years ago, the term creative nonfiction was relatively unknown, but it is now a popular category.
Whatever your topic and take, can you include the following fictional elements in your material?
- A strong plot
- A narrative arc
- Memorable characters
- Vividly described settings and scenes
- Action and narrative
- An effective tone and rhythm
Voice is how an author relates to readers and tries to keep them reading. An author’s voice is made up of three major writing elements.
- Word choice
Formal or informal? What suits your expected readers?
- Sentence and paragraph structure
Are your sentences and paragraphs usually long, or short? Informal, or formal? Simple, or complex? Does this structure suit your readers and your topic?
What is your attitude towards your subject? Towards your expected readers?
When I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I so much enjoyed how he told his tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail that I went on to read his other books. But I tend give up on a nonfiction book if the author writes more than a general reader needs to know, seems egotistical, or goes off on confusing tangents.
Identify your vision
What Pyne calls vision is I call theme. It’s the writer’s big idea, the organising principle that helps writers shape their topic. Once you know your theme, you’ll find it easier to make choices, in terms of material that supports versus material that does not.
Pyne likens vision to a sheepdog that ‘keeps your flock together’ and reminds you ‘where to go next, how long to stay, what to keep, what to discard’.
How do you choose your vision? He suggests focusing on topic and purpose.
Topic: What do you want to do? What is your book going to be about?
If you cannot get a clear sense of your topic and purpose, the what and the why, it may help if you consider where your finished book would be placed.
- Where would readers find your book, in relevant bookshops, libraries, and websites?
- What other books would be on the shelf with your book? How do they differ from your book? How are they similar?
- If someone asks what genre or category your book fits, how would you answer?
Later, when drafting, keep returning to these questions. As you read and research more, you may become more specific in terms of your topic and purpose.
Interestingly, Pyne believes that if writers keep their focus on voice and vision, they won’t suffer the dreaded writer’s block. How good is that!
Pyne, Stephen J. (2009). Voice & Vision: A guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP.