Bryan Caplan  

Seven Guidelines for Writing Worthy Works of Non-Fiction

The M Word... Where the Pigovians Are...
I try to write the kind of books I'd like to read, and I try to read the kind of books I'd like to write. This isn't as narcissistic as it sounds.  I'd like to write like Tolstoy or Alan Moore or Steve Landsburg, but I have to settle for being me. 

As far as fiction goes, I don't have enough experience to pontificate.  But I propose the following guidelines for writing worthy works of non-fiction:

1. Pick an important topic.  If someone asks you, "What are the five most important areas to think about?," and you're writing about something that isn't on your own list, you should be disturbed.  How do you know if a topic is important?  My test: If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place?  (Note: That's a test of importance, not truth!)

2. Learn a lot about your topic.  Start with standard academic literatures, but don't stop there.  Cast a wider net.  See if other disciplines study your topic under a different label.  See what smart people throughout history thought about your topic.  See what non-academics think too, even if they seem like idiots.

3. Keep telling yourself: "Once I perfect the organization of my book, it will practically write itself."  If you're deviating from your own plan, either stop or change your plan.  Related hypothesis: The main cause of non-fiction writer's block is lack of a clear chapter structure.

4. Never preach to the choir.  It's impossible to be convincing to everyone.  But if you haven't made a persuasive case to the reader who doesn't initially agree with you, start over.  Remember: You're writing a book, not a diary.

5. When in doubt, write like Hemingway.  If you can delete a word without changing the meaning of a sentence, do so.

6. Treat specific intellectual opponents with respect, in print and otherwise, even if they don't reciprocate.  But feel free to ridicule ridiculous ideas.

7. Don't keep your cards close to your chest.  Share your sincere probabilities with your readers.  Don't just tell them what you can "prove."  Tell them anything interesting that you're willing to bet on - and at what odds.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
RL writes:


Excellent writing recommendations.

I am confused by "My test: If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place? (Note: That's a test of importance, not truth!)"

If it's a test of importance, not truth, shouldn't it make the world, not necessarily a better place, but a significantly better or worse place?

ajb writes:

It's interesting how inconsistent Bryan's advice is with the economic way of thinking. Surely it matters how likely it is that your book will change people's minds?

If you write on a big topic that has a very low chance of changing most people's beliefs, you might be better off writing a book on a narrow topic that might have a strong chance of influencing 1000 people. Especially if the thousand people have disproportionate influence in industry or academia.

dullgeek writes:

Having never written a book, I have no leg to stand on to critique any of the recommendations.

But at a meta level, I think it's odd that an economist has tips for writing a non-fiction book. Economics as a subject, doesn't strike me has having produced a particularly large list of best sellers.

These tips strike me as correct. But how well will they work in producing market success?

Stuart Buck writes:

Another suggestion, and one that I try to follow in my own writing: Be upfront with the reader about your assumptions, about the limitations of your evidence, about the potential counterarguments, etc. Many or most authors seem to do the opposite: deliver their argument as if it (and its supporting evidence) were received directly from God, and treat all counterarguments perfunctorily with a "to be sure" sentence.

rpl writes:
How do you know if a topic is important? My test: If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place?
Better by what standard? If everyone read your book and found it tremendously edifying, albeit of limited practical use, would that make the world "a better place"?

Or to put it another way, was Stephen Hawking wasting his time writing about black holes and such? Unless you allow the edification criterion, it's hard to argue that they made the world a better place.

liberty writes:

I was a little scared to read the post, since I am closing in on finishing my first non-fiction book (I have a publisher, my deadline is end-November), but I am relieved to say that I am in agreement with the points.

My 2c

1. Pick an important topic: of course! For me, I would not have been able to do the work or write something I am proud of unless it fit this criteria--why write if its not THE important area that you can help contribute to? Don't write a book to look cool (it will suck!), write it because there is a major gap in a critical area you care A LOT about.

2. Learn a lot about your topic: yes! It should consume you; you should know a ridiculous amount. You should be able to win arguments by citing original sources off the cuff, even when talking to other experts. Don't write a book unless you are not just prepared for this, but salivating (because of #1)

3. Keep telling yourself: "Once I perfect the organization of my book, it will practically write itself." : YES! Because it does! I was frustrated and kept starting over until a structure offered itself to me, and since then its been smooth sailing! Its amazing but true!

4. Never preach to the choir: so true! Why bother writing another cheer-leading we-love-Hayek or we-love-Galbraith or whatever, when you can actually try to clear a pathway in people's thinking, maybe really make some kind of difference, or contribution?

5. When in doubt, write like Hemingway: good editing is tough, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Also, have LOTS of people read your chapters, for content, clarity, edits, ideas, etc etc -- don't be afraid to share!!

6. Treat specific intellectual opponents with respect: absolutely! And I would say, per #4, you are better off not ridiculing ideas either--you might just alienate someone that otherwise may have been brought to your side!

7. Don't keep your cards close to your chest: Sure--I don't know, I agree that its fair and even a good idea to share things that you can't prove, but be sure to make it clear what is well-supported and what are ideas and musings. But, yeah, also generally BREAK THE MOLD where it will offer something. Its OK to share musings, its also OK to share a poem or cartoon or anecdote, even if its a bit off topic. Don't do all that as filler when you have nothing to say or as a trick to make it marketable, do it when it calls to you - but don't be afraid to do it now again. Again, have people read it! They will tell you if its stupid. The worst thing is when someone writes a whole book and posts it online and nobody read any of it beforehand, and then the author wonders why it isn't publishable...

Just my 2c and please don't think that I am under the impression that my book is brilliant and going to be a bestseller or anything.

Dr. T writes:

"If everyone on earth read your book and believed it, would it make the world a better place?"

Not every non-fiction book should be geared for everyone on earth. For example, if I write a book about common laboratory tests and what they mean, it could be useful to educated people in first world nations. It would have no utility to people who don't have access to "common" lab tests or to people who don't know enough human biology to put the information in context. So, should I not write the book because it isn't universal enough?

Bill Conerly writes:

I wasted mega-hours writing without a plan. Then I bought a book about writing a non-fiction proposal. Writing the proposal led me to have a plan that actually related to my market. Once I had sold the book, I had to get around to writing it. (I only had two sample chapters when my agent started pitching it to publishers.) Having sold the publisher a particular outline, I felt I needed to follow it--and the book benefited greatly from that plan.

The proposal book I used is Elizabeth Lyon's Non-Fiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, and I recommend it highly.

Philo writes:

The first requirement, that the topic be one of the most important with which an author might deal, is too restrictive. There are advantages to specialization, in which many authors are writing on narrow topics.

phineas writes:

In writing non-fiction, the supreme rule is to have something to say. When you've got something to say, the way you say it is mere implementation details. If your implementation lacks writerly polish, it essentially does not matter.

Most of what gets written isn't worth saying because it's too "me-too", as the saying goes. You're liable to be too "me-too" yourself if you go along with Bryan's emphasis on "topic importance", because inevitably most of the content of "important" topics is well-trodden territory. When you have something to say, it does not matter whether the topic is broad or narrow. If everyone on earth read a book I'd like to write, 99% of the readers would've wasted their time on technicalities that are useless to them.

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