Folksy in Nonfiction

Credibility is a byword when writing a factual book. You need to prove that your opinions deserve more attention than others’. You can gain that exalted position by your long years of expertise, your position at the cutting edge of research, and so on. Beyond that storehouse of facts, though, any narrative work is also shaped by the style of relating them. Leaving aside such fields as memoir, in which the author’s voice should dominate the reader's attention, how far should you stray into a personal approach?

The staunch grammar teacher of old had a cardinal rule: never use the word I in exposition. The reasoning behind that is solid. Personal opinions are not as persuasive as cold, hard facts (even if these comprise experts’ opinions). A personal story can be charming, but it also introduces a looseness in the argument. The reader may smile at the descriptive touches—oh, coin collecting was so fun—but simultaneously regard the detour as less convincing.

How is a balance struck, between warmth and authority? The best two guidelines are: relevance and frequency. If you use, for instance, a childhood example of coin collecting to lead into a discussion of money supply in the U.S. economy, the personal example serves as a way to ease the reader into a complex topic. Returning to the coin example at intervals serves to calm readers’ fears that they are too stupid to follow the analysis.

If that approach is used too frequently, however, you run the risk of trivializing a subject and/or offending the reader by assuming he’s a dolt. A big offender is this regard is the use of the word we. It can refer to experts in the field, the general population, or the author and reader. Talk about looseness. While it is friendly, it also undercuts the facts being presented. I just edited a manuscript written in this style, and by taking out 98 percent of the we’s, the text shaped up into a persuasive argument that will have policy makers talking.

I understand why authors rebel against writing stiff, dry prose. They get enough of that stuff in their academic or business lives. In the attempt to be inclusive, however, you need to pick your spots. What type of material really is difficult to understand? That’s when putting a blade of grass in your mouth will help. But don’t throw your arm around the reader’s shoulders. By and large, they are wondering: why am I bothering to read you?

Exercise: Comb through the manuscript for familiarity in the prose. You’re looking for balance. If you are factual 95 percent of the time, that’s roughly the right proportion. The reader is not a two-year-old. Most newspapers write at the sixth-grade reading level. That’s as low as you need to go, too.

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”    
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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