Grounding the Theory Bird

Many nonfiction authors have a wealth of experience and wish to share their hard-won wisdom, on subjects such as health or business. These books can be filled with extraordinary ideas and insights—and yet they seem so theoretical. It’s as though the author were stationed on a helicopter and shouting to the masses below as he whizzes by.

The problem with ideas, as stirring as they are, is that they can come to feel like abstract principles the writer is spouting off, expecting us to believe everything she says. Ideas need to be grounded. The best way to do that is to provide real-life examples of the principles. For instance, an author may tell me how easy it is to switch away from eating wheat—go gluten-free!—but I’m still daunted by the prospect. Really, no wheat? Yet if she then features a story about Ken from Fresno, who bought a loaf of quinoa and flax bread and found it just as filling, my thinking starts to shift. I could be like Ken, I guess, the next time I go to Trader Joe's. All the author’s high-flown arguments about what our Paleolithic ancestors ate is interesting, but I wasn’t going to budge until I met Ken.

That’s why most news articles start with a solitary person. As readers, we can identify with one victim of a hurricane. If the article then goes on to tell us that 39 died and 200 were left homeless, we are still thinking about that one person. One tragedy multiplied by 39, actually by 239. A good nonfiction book uses the same technique. Globalization is just a phrase until Thomas Friedman tells us about one IT entrepreneur in Bangalore. A reader can put herself in the shoes of one person—oh, so that’s how the offshoring of IT works.

I instruct most nonfiction authors to follow a simple principle: theory, example. Set up the overarching principle, then provide a human being who exemplifies the principle. The best part is, examples are easy to write. Most authors can think of dozens of examples. If you critically examine a nonfiction book, you will see how often this happens. We fly high and then we are grounded. That keeps the prose real. We are all lowly creatures of the earth, after all, so don’t let your intellect exceed our grasp.

Exercise:  Pick out a chapter from your unfinished manuscript. Start reading it merely for the principles you are setting forth. Watch particularly for two principles stated back to back. Admit it, are your eyes starting to glaze over, because you’re drifting away from the text? You need an anchor. Think of an example, one paragraph long, and drop it in. When you read it back over, do you feel the new connection with the prose?

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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