Leave the Personal Aside

In nonfiction books, following a narrative template of theory-example is a useful practice. You state your topic idea, such as a type of game that people play in business, and then provide a personal case, such as salesman Horace playing a game of manipulation. That method allows you to keep advancing onto new topics while grounding each point with illustrations the reader can easily grasp.

You have to beware, however, lest you rely too much on personal examples. You first have to consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your book. You are advancing points of an argument. You are saying that the way you advise the reader to think is better than the way they think now. In order to be convincing, you must be an expert. Whether that credential stems from a degree, a profession (such as medical), or long experience, you have to show that you know more about the subject than the reader. Otherwise, why should I believe you?

Here is an additional consideration. In order to gain the full scope of expertise, you want your examples to be wide-ranging. The more variety you introduce, the more your ideas apply across the spectrum. Every time, reader, in every place my ideas work.

Now let’s consider the personal examples. They tend to be local, such as within your family or one specialty within a profession. You are trying to be an expert, but citing examples from your own life can appear to be limited. Okay, the reader thinks, so that works for your family, but how about all the families that are unlike yours? How about all the businesses that are different from yours?

Start by taking yourself out of the proceedings. You need to adopt a neutral voice, like an expert observer. Use first names for the examples, so a reader can readily put herself in the person’s shoes, but merely tell their stories. The narrative distance will add authority to your writing. You might even employ this technique for the personal examples. For instance, does anything change about the point you’re making if your wife happens to be named Mary?

As for variety, consider the basic choices that will include as many readers as possible. Try to jump back and forth between the sexes. If you’re discussing family structure, portray intact families, divorced families, families with partners, etc. If you’re exemplifying business practices, let’s meet executives but also secretaries, salespeople, etc. That way readers will feel that you have gone out and fully explored the world that your book is covering.

Exercise: Try for variety in length of example as well. Think of the people you have known or observed, and write a quarter-page story about them. As you’re writing, you’ll find you need more space for some examples. Write a half-page about them. If you really need the space to explain the circumstances, you may require an entire page. The length alone can make the reader’s experience richer.

“The writer is important only by dint of the territory he colonizes.”
—Van Wyck Brooks

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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