On Writing – Non Fiction

What on earth makes a good non-fiction story?

A dozen theories will come up. Some people love good stylistic prose, others love the hard facts. Singaporeans and people around the world never seem to get sick of scandal, crime and gossip (for newspaper stories). I guess everyone has a certain thing they like about any popular story.

What I do know is “what doesn’t appeal to the ordinary reader” – and unfortunately I get to read plenty of those in my daily life.

    People who write for themselves, using words that belong to a dictionary, not daily lingo. We all know how awful a film review reads when only the author can understand it.

    People who write for a super small audience (the authorities, think tanks or even the specific advertiser) and think that makes them popular. Look, nobody gives a crap about your intellectual pretenses. We had a few journalism lecturers in school who didn’t even have an interest in talking to people, and these are the so-called “academics”.

    People who assume they are an expert on a topic even though they know crap. (I once read a Chinese snob doing an analysis on Malay culture, and giving advice some more!). The list goes on, and I don’t blame kids for not reading anything these days. What’s the point?

But a few years ago, I had a conversation with someone and something struck me. A good non-fiction story does not need any fixed formula (facts, style, presentation etc) to work. What it really needs is to make the reader feel good. The thing about the average Joe is that he knows pretty little apart from his core interests, but who doesn’t want to appear smart and well-read? From young, we’ve been asked to read incessantly because we ought to know more about the world around us. But these days with the flood of crappy blogs and poor writing in general, we know less about a certain topic than we should.

A good story thus, in my current mindset, needs only to make the reader feel smart. Not so much in the way that the Dummies’ Guides do it, but rather it takes either a snobbish stance or humble position, assuming that the reader already knows the topic as well as the author. The reasoning goes as such :

  • I don’t want to feel like I know nothing when I read a newspaper/magazine/online story.
  • But I really don’t, so please litter around a few clues to clue me in.
  • Now that I’ve started reading seriously, speak to me as if I know what’s going on, and I’ll try to figure out the bigger picture before I reach the story’s end.
  • Tell me a few facts I can’t possibly know, and which I can go brag to other people as if I’ve done some serious research in a library.
  • Leave it a little open-ended so I can make up my mind about my stand on this subject.
  • Or even better if the author takes an extreme stand so I can argue against it and feel better about myself.
  • Best if the story encourages me to take a totally opposite stand, so that the next time someone brings up the topic, I’ve already prepared my debate outline.
  • So now I feel smart, and no thanks to anyone.
  • I find that newsmagazines like Time and BusinessWeek excel at this particular method, which probably explains why they’ve managed to remain popular to this day.