Monday, March 10, 2008

Chapman's 5 Cs of Nonfiction Writing

You may know me as a science fiction author (The Mars Imperative, The Tesserene Imperative), but I also write nonfiction. In fact, my "day job" is as a technical writer, and my first two published books (OS/2 Power User's Reference and Exploring IBM Server & Storage Technology, 6th Edition--the latter as a ghost writer) were both nonfiction. In some ways, writing nonfiction is easier than writing fiction. With nonfiction, you don't have to worry about plot, pacing, dialog, and you don't need cliffhangers or a Happily Ever After ending.

But some aspects of nonfiction writing make it more challenging. For one thing, you're dealing with facts, which can be more troublesome than fiction. (No cavalry charging to the rescue.) Your facts must be accurate, complete (no half-truths), and timely.
Here, then, is what I call Chapman's 5 Cs of Nonfiction Writing:

Nonfiction writing must be:

1) Correct -- If your facts are wrong, what's the point of the piece you're writing?

2) Complete
-- If your facts are correct as-is, but you've left out important details, you're not telling the whole story. A half-truth is little better than (and sometimes worse than) a lie. If you've left out necessary facts, your piece isn't wholly correct. (See #1.)

3) Clear
-- If your writing is convoluted enough that the reader can't understand the point you're trying to make, you've failed in your mission of educating (or converting) the reader.

4) Concise
-- If your piece is so long that the reader falls asleep halfway through it, again you've failed. Edit the piece until it is just long enough to convey your message, and no longer. Unlike in fiction, there is no room for fluff in nonfiction. (Many writers would ague that there's no room for fluff in fiction, either. I guess it would depend on your definition of what's un
needed fluff and what's necessary background material or "color.")

5) Current
-- If the facts in your piece are (or at least may be) out of date, they're effectively incorrect. (See #1.) Verify your facts to ensure you're not delivering yesterday's news.

There you have it, Chapman's 5 Cs of Nonfiction Writing. To some extent, these same points apply to fiction writing. Certain genres require scientific or historical accuracy (mystery/detective stories, "hard" science fiction, historical fiction, etc.), but even there, the author is allowed literary license to shape the facts as necessary to fit the plot of the story--warp drives, President Kennedy's personal life, the accuracy of forensic techniques, etc. Unfortunately, nonfiction writers don't get a similar "license to thrill." We're stuck with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Except for those of us in marketing/sales, anyway.... )


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