Voice in Nonfiction

As I was thinking about this post today, I realized I haven’t written that much specifically about nonfiction. Which is odd, since that’s the genre that’s taking up the bulk of my writing hours these days. Maybe I’m buried so deeply in it that I’m not thinking so much about it from the outside.

One thing that’s become extremely apparent to me as I write, though, is that voice is as critical (if not more) in nonfiction as in fiction.  You may not be shooting for the latest in “edginess” or a laugh-out-loud funniness, but you do have to make sure you’re capturing the reader and keeping them hooked.

Think about it this way. A writer of nonfiction, especially of a how-to or self-help book, is setting themselves up as a teacher. Now go back a bit in your memory to your school days–high school, college, grade school.

Think about the teachers with the boring voices. The monotone as they read from a text or recited a lecture from their notes. The voice that said they were up in the front of the room, yes, facing their students, but they could just as happily been talking to rows of empty desks. Got it? Visualizing it?

Okay–where did you want to be?

In a coffeehouse inhaling a big mug of caffeine. At home in bed, sleeping with your teddy bear. In Hawaii. Anywhere but in that classroom.

How much easier was it to stay awake and present for the teachers who were energetic, enthusiastic about their subject, and excited about sharing their take on it with you?

When you’re working on nonfiction, though, how do you achieve this goal? You’re not talking, you’re writing. You don’t have an audience to interact with; they’re all in your imagination. How do you translate your emotions and personality into printed pages?

I think you do it the same way you do it in fiction. Loosen up. Be more free with yourself, with your opinions, your values, and the perspective with which you approach your topic. No, don’t shove your way of doing things down your readers’ throats, as the onlyway, but make sure they know you believe in it. If you’re writing a book about caring for a pet, let your love of animals through. If your focus is accounting, put some energy into “speaking” as a knowledgeable and understanding expert, rather than as a pushy know-it-all.

Be yourself. No, don’t let all the grammar errors which we speak slide through, and don’t let yourself cross the line into gushing or scolding. But relax a bit, remember why you were excited about this project in the first place, and share that feeling with the reader.

They may still take off for Hawaii, but they’re a lot more likely to take the book along!


  1. Andra M. says:

    When writing a nonfiction piece I usually keep a specific person in mind and write to them alone.

    Great post.

    Now where’s my teddy bear?


  2. beckylevine says:

    I think that’s a great idea! 🙂


  3. free2cr8 says:

    When I am writing nonfiction my voice tends to be quite similar to the way I speak when I am in front of crowds.

    1.”Maintain eye contact” to engage the reader by using an active tone

    2. Avoid “waving my hands” by only including pertinent information so the reader doesn’t become distracted by irrelevant fluff

    3. Change the “tone of my voice” by switching up sentence structure so my writing style isn’t the same old thing over and over again

    And hopefully I’ve created a compelling piece of nonfiction that isn’t preachy or boring.


  4. beckylevine says:


    I was hoping you’d stop by! Great stuff. I also think about the workshops I’ve done–and try for more of a real-person voice. But I hadn’t gotten as far as the specific things you listed; they’re wonderful ideas.



  5. Well said, Becky.


  6. beckylevine says:

    Thanks, Kim!


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