What writing style should you use for your nonfiction book?
All of them.
In this post, I’ll explain:
- the difference between voice and writing style
- what the 4 common types of writing styles are
- what each one is for
- how to choose a primary style for your book
- when and how to use them in your writing process
Most importantly, I’ll show you how to use each style to hold your readers’ attention and get your audience talking about your book.
The difference between voice and writing style
Authors connect to their readers through a combination of voice and writing style.
Your voice is about how you speak and think. It’s about the words you use and the patterns in your writing.
Your voice is unique to you.
Your writing style is about how you’re approaching the reader at any given moment:
- persuasive writing persuades the reader
- expository writing explains things to the reader
- narrative writing tells the reader a story
- descriptive writing describes things to the reader
But that isn’t the whole picture.
Sometimes the best way to explain something is to tell a story that illustrates your point.
And sometimes the best way to persuade your readers is to explain the facts.
That’s why nonfiction books often use all 4 writing styles together.
As you read through each of the 4 different writing styles below, remember that the point isn’t to pick just one.
It’s to understand when and how to use each of them to give your readers the most value and make your book the best it can be.
The 4 Main Types of Writing Styles
1. Persuasive writing style
Let’s say I wanted to write a book about the value of letting employees bring their dogs to work.
One way to convince business leaders to adopt this idea is to use a persuasive writing style.
Here’s an example:
You’d never believe how much having a few dogs around the office can transform an entire organization. Not until you’ve seen it happen. Sure, sick days drop dramatically. And, yes, turnover plummets to almost nil. But the true benefits of a canine-friendly company are much harder to measure, and much more profound.
Like most examples of persuasive writing, this passage makes a direct appeal to the reader.
It mentions a few benefits but doesn’t offer any hard facts. There are no numbers or percentages. In fact, it suggests that the best benefits are hard to measure.
This style of writing works well for appealing to the reader on an emotional level, especially when you’re writing about intangibles.
It also works well for short segments of introductory writing that are followed up by hard facts.
2. Narrative writing style
People love stories. In fact, we’re hard-wired to pay attention to them.
That’s why they work so well as hooks, even in nonfiction.
Especially in nonfiction.
It’s all too easy to bore a reader with:
- lists of disconnected facts
- more explanation than they need
- examples they can’t relate to
Stories bridge those gaps. They can:
- connect facts
- teach without explaining
- help readers see themselves in your book
The narrative writing style is great for grabbing a reader’s attention:
In 2007, I met the dog that would save my life.
Even if your book isn’t filled with examples of narrative writing from cover to cover, including a few stories will go a long way toward keeping your readers interested.
3. Descriptive writing style
A descriptive writing style takes narrative writing a step further.
People often associate descriptive writing with flowery, poetic phrases, but strong descriptive writing is just the opposite.
In 2007, I met the dog that would save my life, but you would never have guessed that from looking at it. It was the ugliest dog I had ever seen. Imagine sculpting a small, hairless gargoyle; popping its eyes halfway out of its head; and then smashing its face in. Whatever that looks like in your head, imagine it about 6 times uglier, and you’ll be pretty close. But for every ounce of cute that dog was missing, it had a whole ton of heart.
Descriptive writing is a lot like salt. A little bit goes a long way.
Use descriptive writing to set the scene and add some flavor to your writing, but be careful not to overuse it.
It’s especially good for adding humor or making certain examples stick in readers’ minds.
4. Expository writing style
Compared to the other styles of writing, you might expect expository writing to be limited to scientific journals and instruction manuals—but that’s not true at all.
Expository writing follows up persuasive and narrative writing with hard facts, adding logical power to your stories and examples.
You might hook your reader with a story and then provide a bullet-point list of the key things you learned from that experience.
Or you might start a chapter with an emotional appeal and follow that up with 7 measurable statistics that support your point of view.
Here’s an example of expository writing:
When you’re ready to draft your dog-friendly policy, start by canvassing your employees. Make sure no one has any canine allergies or phobias. If you discover that someone on your staff is dog-averse, see if you can address the issue by separating dog-friendly sections of your workplace from other dog-free zones.
The expository style is a direct, effective way to give your reader important information or instructions.
It doesn’t usually make the best hook, but there are exceptions to every rule.
A shocking statistic, for example, can grab a reader’s attention just as well as any story.
Which primary writing style is best for you and your book?
Most nonfiction books use all of these styles in combination.
For example, in a single chapter, you might:
- hook your reader with a story (narrative)
- add sensory details to make the story memorable (descriptive)
- follow up with an emotional appeal (persuasive)
- list 4 bullet-point statistics that support your argument (expository)
- humanize those statistics with another story (narrative)
- end the chapter with steps readers can take (expository)
That’s why it’s important to be familiar with all 4 writing styles.
But how much you use each method will depend on a combination of 2 things:
- what you’re most comfortable with
- what your book needs to be effective in solving your reader’s problem
Start with the one that’s easiest for you to write
It’s extremely unlikely for a new Author to start out equally comfortable with all 4 different types of writing styles.
If you’ve read a lot of academic writing or technical writing, you’re probably most comfortable with an expository style. That’s the one that will feel most familiar.
If you’ve read a lot of creative writing, then you might be more comfortable working with a narrative style.
When you’re writing your first draft, the most important thing you can do is just get it all down.
Your primary, go-to style should be the one that’s most comfortable for you.
Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the details of style choice. Just write your first draft in any way that helps you get all your ideas onto the page.
Then edit to make your writing clear and compelling
Every chapter should start with a hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
This can be a compelling story or a surprising fact or statistic. It can be an unexpected idea that makes the reader want to know more.
There are NO rules about which writing style is the best way to do this.
The same book could easily use all 4 styles as hooks in 4 consecutive chapters. Or it might use the same style every time.
Open Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run to just about any page, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a story.
It might be a story about what he was investigating, or it might be a story about the investigation itself. Either way, he uses the narrative style almost exclusively.
This is fairly common with investigative reporters and books based on investigative reporting.
A how-to book, on the other hand, will depend heavily on expository writing to provide step-by-step instructions.
If your book really breaks the mold of traditional thinking, you might need a combination of narrative, persuasive, and expository writing to convince readers that their old way of thinking is wrong.
- Narrative writing provides concrete examples of your ideas in action
- Persuasive writing asks provocative questions that lead your readers down a new path
- Expository writing follows up with facts, statistics, and instructions to implement your ground-breaking solutions
Once you have all your ideas down in a complete draft, you can start to edit your own work and decide what’s working and what isn’t.
You might add a short story to illustrate a point. Or you might decide a chapter needs more explanation to help readers adapt a solution to their own situation.
Consider each of the 4 styles and decide what each section needs to best serve the reader and hold their interest.
A note on memoirs
Memoirs will naturally gravitate toward narrative and descriptive styles, but that doesn’t mean those are the only styles they’ll need.
Even in the middle of a story, you might want to persuade your readers of certain key truths. Or you might need to explain how something works so they can understand what your team was up against in making a critical decision.
There isn’t always a sharp line between these categories, and there are no hard and fast rules about how and when to use them.
In fact, here’s the only rule when it comes to writing styles:
You should never feel boxed in by writing styles, and they should never limit you or your book.
The ONLY point of these different styles of writing is to help you think more deeply about how to communicate with your readers to solve their problem.