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April 25, 2019

What’s Your Non-Fiction Voice?

Close up of a megaphone with text: How Well Do You Know Your Voice?

Even if we usually write fiction, many (if not most) of us will also need to write non-fiction occasionally. Fiction authors often use non-fiction messaging such as a blog, author bio, social media posts, interviews, author acknowledgements, guest posts, etc. For each of those, our fiction style of writing might not work or be appropriate, so we could need a different style.

A few days ago, reader and frequent commenter Sieran Lane asked me how I approach my blog’s writing style. His question prompted me to dig deeper into the choices I’ve made, which led to insights into fiction vs. non-fiction writing.

Just as we have to develop our fiction voice, non-fiction requires us to decide on a style as well. Let’s take a look at what we mean by a non-fiction voice

Do We Need a Voice for Non-Fiction?

As I’ve said about our fiction voice: Voice is intimacy. In fiction writing, we’re inviting readers to join the characters in their journey. In non-fiction writing, voice is what invites readers to listen to us.

Do fiction writers need to think about their non-fiction voice? Click To TweetHave you heard advice about being authentic or “real” in social media interactions? Authenticity requires a sense of the person behind the words, rather than just a generic non-fiction entry in Wikipedia or wherever. In other words, to be genuine online, we have to develop a non-fiction voice.

As fiction writers, we’re almost always going to want to give readers some sense of us behind our words. Unless we’re writing non-fiction articles that aren’t connected to our fiction work at all (such as ghostwriting a how-to article), we’d usually want to use our non-fiction writing to enhance the impression readers have of us as fiction authors.

Non-Fiction Rewind: Remember Essay Writing?

We probably all encountered non-fiction writing in school, with essays and research reports and the like. One of the lessons I remember from those years is that when it comes to non-fiction writing, we should keep our audience in mind.

Some essay topics and most research papers required a formal writing style because we needed to sound like an authority. Other topics could work with a less formal style, maybe because we were trying to use emotion in a persuasive argument or add dashes of humor to a descriptive essay.

Many of those lessons about essay writing from school can help us with our choices now, such as:

  • If we’re writing an Author’s Note explaining our extensive research, we’d likely want readers to consider us an authority on some level. (At least enough of an authority to avoid most inaccurate claims of “you got it wrong” from readers. *grin*) So we might default to a slightly formal style to create that “authority” impression.
  • On the other hand, if we’re writing a fun interview for a book review blog, we’ll likely want to use a less formal style. In that case, we want readers to come away with the impression that we’re interesting enough to be able to tell a story.

What Goes into a Non-Fiction Voice?

In fiction writing, our voice grows out of many aspects:

  • descriptions (style, length, senses, etc.)
  • types of characters (and their voices)
  • types of plots (action, twists, subplots, antagonists, etc.)
  • types of premise and themes
  • showing vs. telling and depth of point of view
  • word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph breaks
  • grammar usage (or rule breaking)
  • use of rhythm, humor, subtext, cliffhangers, etc.
  • use of imagery, allusions, similes, metaphors, etc.
  • use of rhetorical devices

For our non-fiction voice, we’re going to take the last few of those same bullet points and add a few more elements:

  • formality of word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure (interjections, exclamation points, etc.)
  • depth of sharing personal information (family, relationships, struggles, understanding of ourselves, etc.)
  • topics addressed beyond book-related messages (pop culture, pets, religion, politics, social issues, etc.)
  • opinions, insights, and thoughts with what we share (What interests or excites us? What sets us off?)
  • overall style (chatty, friendly, humorous, humble, strident, etc.)
  • how we express ourselves as a brand (sales-y or not, etc.)
  • use of attention-grabbing formatting (headings, subheadings, bold, italics, etc.)
  • use of em-dashes, parentheses, asides, crossed-out words, etc.
  • use of emojis or other emotion cues (like *smile*, gifs, etc.)

In general, our non-fiction writing should sound like us. Our personality should come through on the page—at least a bit—to give that sense of an authentic person behind the words.

How Do We Discover and Develop Our Non-Fiction Voice?

The first step in discovering and developing our non-fiction voice is to pay attention to how we talk. If we’re writing similarly to how we talk, chances are that our personality is coming through with our words.

What's our non-fiction voice and how can we develop it? Click To TweetHowever, different levels of formality might fit best with different situations. Our voice on social media in regards to a non-book-related topic isn’t necessarily going to be the same as our voice for a book-related interview.

In other words, just as in fiction writing, we can play with the depth of point of view. In our stories, we choose how closely we move the “camera” to inside our character’s head. For non-fiction writing, we choose how much of our personality will shine through whatever level of formality we use.

We choose if we’re writing from a mostly impersonal perspective or if we’re exposing our raw emotions. Or if we’re focusing just on the facts or also including our feelings, personal observations, etc.

Our Voice Isn’t Set in Stone

When Sieran asked his question, he originally wanted to know how much a person could change their writing style on their blog. For example, if we usually write in a semi-formal style to come across as more of an authority on our blog, does that mean we can’t ever be informal?

I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, but I think the tip to pay attention to how we talk still applies. For serious topics here at my blog, I might write in a slightly more serious or formal style. For other topics or on social media, I let more of my voice and personality through, with things like “Squee!” and emojis.

We don’t ever want to use a voice that feels disconnected or over-the-top compared to how we are in real life because we’re likely to sound like we’re trying too hard. But we can certainly experiment with letting more or less of our personality through our words.

We’ll gradually find a balance we’re comfortable with, where we’re not trying to sound more…whatever (educated, funnier, pushier, knowledgeable, etc.). And we’ll accept that there’s no right or wrong answer as long as we’re just being ourselves and not self-critiquing our voice to death.

I’ve purchased fiction books from my guest posters here when I love their non-fiction voice, and I’ve seen blogs with 4000-word ultra-chatty posts still seem authoritative. There’s no “one right way” to be real. *smile*

Know Thyself and Find Confidence

That said, it’s always possible that some won’t like our choices. And for some reason, readers of our non-fiction work might feel justified to weigh in on our choices—even though they’d never do the same with our fiction voice.

I’ve had a shocking number of people email me, message me, or comment here to tell me:

  • I should be more formal so they can use my blog as a reference in a research report.
  • They don’t like how I use bold or italics.
  • That I *smile* too much.

All those comments are about *gasp* me showing my personality here on my blog. Maybe they have a mental block on accepting advice from anything other than a bland textbook, but I don’t know why so many expect their opinion about my personality would matter to me.

How can we gain more confidence in our non-fiction voice? Click To TweetAnyone who’s met me in person knows that I smile and emote and talk with my hands and make faces and express myself strongly. I’m not going to stifle myself any more than I already do because that wouldn’t be true to who I am. *grin*

And that’s my point. Because I am consciously aware of my speaking voice and how I can reflect it online, it’s easier to feel more confident in my choices.

Most of us don’t think about our non-fiction voice, but any exercise that gets us to consciously pay attention to our speaking voice can help us develop as needed. As with most aspects of writing, growing and developing our voice isn’t just about learning certain skills, but also about being purposeful with our choices. *smile*

Have you written non-fiction work before? Have you ever thought about your non-fiction voice? Have you struggled with your choices of how formal or informal to be? Can you think of other elements that go into a non-fiction voice? Do you have any other tips or insights into how to develop a non-fiction voice?

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Jay Hicks

Hey Jami. Interesting post. I am the jokiest outgoing introvert you’d hope to meet. My SM comments fairly burst with banter. I look back at stuff and ask ‘did I say that?’ (And sometimes think how slick, or cool, or just plain LOL I made it.) This alternative person flows. I don’t have to try hard, or think much. Quite opposite to my fiction where I dwell in broody, atmospheric stories with a message. I want to reveal the dark side of people’s lives, the hidden things, then give them a reason to change or overcome. Yes, there are small humour hits and quirky bits that give relief, but nothing like the other joking commentator on the sidelines in me who would probably excel in tragic comic Shopaholic Bridgets (while still poking around in those pesky hidden corners of people’s lives. Fun!) It’s an idea I would seriously entertain if I had another life or two. Because I coulda/woulda/shoulda do travel writing as well. This could align with an other secret habit which could be utilised globally – correcting botched grammar on chalkboard signage, because (passive?) killing of apostrophes only takes one swipe. But wait – my town business centre has tagged themselves as Local Heroe’s. (sic – the perfect appendage here). I do wish they’d written that on a chalkboard. Some signwriter and a genius PR muggin must have spent many well-paid hours constructing this sh(w)itty and embarrassing defacement of public property. I enjoyed your post. Thank you. I…  — Read More »

Sieran Lane

Jami, I love this post and thank you for answering my question in such detail! Nonfiction also includes the clinical notes we take in therapy with clients. When I see a client who had a previous therapist, I sometimes get the permission to read their notes. For example, I could clearly see that Clara’s notes (these are all pseudonyms) for her client, sound kind of cold and formal, in my opinion. She seems focused and organized, but very clinical and business-like. On the other hand, when I read Ty’s notes for his client, they sound warmer and more sympathetic. Yes, it is possible even in something as formal as a therapy note, to convey different nonfiction voices and personalities! I can see my own therapy note writing styles oscillate between warmer and cooler tones of voice as well. Even in research articles, I can clearly see different nonfiction voices, some of which appeal to me more than others. As for my blog posts, they sound similar to my book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. They are semi-formal, which may mean that I haven’t totally detached myself from academic-style writing, lol. In my everyday speech, I am a little less slangy than most of my peers, though when I chat with friends (both online and offline), I’m always more informal than I am in my blog posts and book reviews, which I believe would be expected, since I do want readers to take me a bit more seriously, though not too…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Good thoughts for us all.
Reading good, unbiased journalism would be very helpful.
I suggest starting small with daily issues if folks have not done much non-fic writing. For example, recently in college a younger, fellow student asked me to check an e-mail he was sending to the college admin about an issue. Mostly it was fine, but I recommended he take out one line – “That’s opinion. Stick to the facts.” The admin staff don’t need to know whether a student is happy or unhappy, they just need to know what issue to resolve.

Elizabeth Randolph

This was an interesting topic. I have read that one should write author bios that are extensions of the story and not particularly informative about the author. I never know what to say when I write a bio. For my children’s book, I said I live in the mountains and watch for purple dragons. My most recent bio on Amazon for my sci-fi is stream of consciousness.

When I read, I usually don’t care that much about reading anything about the author. Actually, authors put so much of their deepest selves in their stories, I feel I know them from their stories and I don’t need a bio. But, so many articles online say readers want to know about their authors. We should put up photos of our pets. Talk about our hobbies.

Uh, yuck!

Any advice?

I do like writing about the books I read. I appreciate authors letting me into their world of imagination. All kinds of author info tacked onto the back of the story to me is a jolt of reality. Oh, this isn’t real? Someone made it up? Too bad.

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[…] talk a lot about fiction on this blog, but what about non-fiction? Jami Gold helps us find our non-fiction voice, and once we’ve found it Janet Reid discusses querying for […]

Steve Boseley

Really great post. I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to a few longer blog posts I’ve written about Instagram marketing and creating an email list. I want to sound like I am serious about this, but when I have tried that, it doesn’t feel right. I tend to write more conversationally which feels more natural, even on non-fiction pieces like these.

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