If you’ve looked at any resources about how to write compelling content, you’ve probably come across the phrase “show, don’t tell.” This is usually a tip for fiction writers to make their stories more engaging. Here’s an example. Instead of saying “Sam was scared” a fiction writer should instead describe the scene so readers can tell Sam is scared without the author telling them. Something like:
“As Sam walked through the dark kitchen, he felt a prickling on the back of his neck, his senses telling him something was very wrong. His heart started pounding in his chest, a continual thumping that made him want to hide. He sensed movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a shadowy figure in the corner. Sam screamed as he ran from the room.”
I’m not a fiction writer, but hopefully you get the idea. Describing what a character is feeling and doing is much more effective than a writer just telling us information. This technique is also important in nonfiction. How? Let’s discuss a couple of examples.
So, everyone who’s read my bio knows I love history. I remember when I was a little kid, I loved pouring through my school history books, fascinated by descriptions of the past. My best friend growing up absolutely hated history. She loved math, which I hated, but I remember asking her once why she didn’t like history. To me, it was an endless adventure story of people discovering new things, doing things that ended up going badly wrong, and just stories of regular people. But to her, it was different. She said she didn’t like reading our school history books because to her, they were endless descriptions of things that happened, along with the dates that she had to memorize. That’s fair. I guess because I like history so much, I was able to fill in some of the stories between facts and dates. But readers shouldn’t have to do that.
So for narrative nonfiction books that tell a story about some event, it’s important to show, not tell. Instead of your school history books that just say “In 1972, Jim Bob did this. And then the next year, he did this” instead, tell a story. Who are the people you’re writing about? What motivated them? What inspired them? What were some of the obstacles they overcame during the course of your narrative? I guarantee you there are all kinds of fascinating stories to explore, no matter what the subject of your book might be.
The same principle also applies to nonfiction books like business books, self help, and even books about technology. If you just list facts and figures, it’s going to bore your readers. You need to figure out some narratives to include in your book. So for a business book, include stories from your own career that pertain to your book topic. If you’re writing about how to learn how to code, include a story of how you got interested in coding, what problems you had learning about the topics you’re writing about, and include snippets of your journey throughout the book. You can also include stories from colleagues or people you find online about how different sections in your book are important to them, improved their careers or lives in some way, how they learned the concepts you’re writing about without formal instruction, or whatever.
For self help books, of course you can’t just write about “do this, and your life will be better.” Not only would that be a boring book, it wouldn’t be compelling at all. You definitely need to tell stories about how whatever you’re sharing with your readers made your life better and the lives of others better. So let’s say you want to write about how to use meditation to improve concentration and reduce anxiety. Start out with your own story. If you just write about how great meditation is (telling your readers), it won’t be nearly as compelling as showing them how meditation helped your personally. What was your situation that led you to look into meditation? How was your relationship with friends and family, and what was going on with your career? Why did you decide to pursue meditation? Perhaps your doctor wanted to prescribe drugs, but you wanted to try meditation first. Throughout your book, include parts of your own journey to help illustrate how your techniques worked for you, and to highlight why the topic you’re writing about may work for others too. If you can include stories from other people too, your book will be even more compelling.