how to write popular nonfiction

Are you an academic interested in writing a popular book for a general audience?

Here’s what you have to know: just because you’ve published academic papers or books doesn’t mean you will find it easy to write a popular book.

Indeed, the opposite is true: you will have to acclimate to an entirely different world.

What Does Academic Writing Involve?

The path to success in academia is direct: write focused academic articles on narrow and often highly technical topics; structure them carefully, as required by targeted academic journals; and be objective, dispassionate, and scientific. Success means getting the article through the peer review process, generating citations in other academic papers, and, hopefully, contributing to knowledge in a meaningful way.

All of the above is necessary to survive in the “publish or perish” academic world. However, it doesn’t do a particularly good job in training academics as popular writers. Sadly, few people read the typical academic article. That’s because they’re frequently dense, full of jargon, and aimed at a specialist audience. Even academics rarely have time to read many of the papers published in their own area of study—there’s just too much work being produced to keep up.

how to target a nonfiction book audience

Popular Writing on an Expert Topic

This is where popular books come in; they make complicated topics more accessible and entertaining, encouraging people to read rather than skim and opening up a whole new world of learning to many more people than an academic article would.

As an avid reader of popular books on scholarly topics, I’m probably in your target audience. So let me share my thoughts on what you can do to allow me to relish reading your book someday.

1. Provide a Foundation

As you plan to write, keep in mind that many of your readers won’t know the first thing about your field of study. The reason they have picked up your book is because they are curious about your topic, but that curiosity will quickly dissipate if they don’t understand what you are talking about.

To you, the foundations of your field may be boringly obvious, but many of your readers will find them bewildering. A popular book is not a textbook, which students study and sweat over until they’ve figured it out. Your readers are reading your book for enjoyment, so make it an enjoyable read!

2. Base Your Argument on Evidence, Not Authority

Your academic achievements are deserving of respect and will be an important reason why your book attracts readers—you’re an expert, and they want to learn from the best.

However, don’t expect to convince anyone through appeal to authority. From the ideological underpinnings of your field of study to any evidence you cite, you will have to make your case to readers who may not know much about your field.

Make sure to have an open mind and explore alternative views. Be reasonable in your treatment of these views, even if you ultimately reject them. We all have bias blind spots, and while we have difficulty recognizing them in ourselves, others will recognize them quickly. Indeed, an interesting academic paper provides evidence that those with higher cognitive ability have larger bias blind spots. Be self-aware!

3. Let Your Personality Show

Don’t hesitate to reveal your true personality in ways you wouldn’t imagine doing in an academic setting. Personal history, opinion, and emotion allow the reader to know who you really are.

Some authors express anger, humor, cynicism, and passion. Others write journalistically. Let your writing capture your true voice authentically.

Try to avoid writing that is too meticulous. Evidence shows that people prefer robots that are programmed to make mistakes and show human-like emotions. Make sure to avoid sounding like a robot, and entertain the reader!

4. Be Accessible

As you write, imagine your reader is one of your students and not an academic colleague. Spend time making sure your language is understandable, and avoid “ten-dollar words” if at all possible (e.g., hermeneutics, dialectic, plutocratic, decontextualize, benighted, etc.…).

Be careful how you structure your sentences, too. Shorter is better than longer. Focus on readability rather than grammatical perfection.

Keep your paragraphs on the shorter side, as well. Long, complicated paragraphs can encourage your reader to tune out; keep things snappy and they’ll be more engaged…and will be more likely to understand and remember your arguments, too.

5. Learn, Practice, and Grow

Finally, keep in mind that while you know more than most about academic writing, you are new to the world of popular writing—study its techniques, learn about success stories, and investigate what works and what doesn’t.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’s recent article provides a number of useful tips. While he directs his comments to aspiring op-ed writers, Stephens’s article is useful reading for academics interested in writing to a broad audience.

Writing a popular book can be an exhilarating adventure for those accustomed to academic writing. I hope the above provides some food for thought—and I look forward to reading your book someday!

Learn more about writing great nonfiction: