Phil Simon


Four of the Biggest Mistakes That Non-Fiction Writers Make

There's no shortage of laziness out there.
Aug | 17 | 2015

Aug | 17 | 2015

Long before I could call myself a professional writer, I read quite a bit.

Many times, I had no choice over what I was supposed to read. This included hundreds of texts in high school, college, and grad school. In my consulting days, required reading included:

  • Confusing corporate policies
  • Long requirements documents
  • How-to books on software programs I needed to learn
  • Manuals on courses that I ultimately taught

Long story short: If I encountered bad writing, there wasn’t much that I could really do about it. I had to slog through.

That’s no longer the case.

These days, other than some legal forms, speaking contracts, and official corporate correspondence, very little of my reading today qualifies as mandatory. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that anyone assigned me anything. I’d bet that you’re in the same boat.

Merely shouting down all naysayers is both puerile and ultimately futile.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t receive plenty of unsolicited reading recommendations. I get tons of those. For whatever reason, most of my “leisure” reading over the past decade has tended to fall into the non-fiction bucket, and I like to think that I know a thing or six about effective communication and, in particular, non-fiction writing.

Against this backdrop, here are four of my biggest pet peeves from non-fiction authors:

  • Failing to properly cite their sources. This one is maddening. How hard is it to search the Web for a proper statistic, study, authority, or article supporting your claim? Is it really too much to include a simple footnote or hyperlink? The days of microfiche and card catalogs are long gone. Writers who make broad claims without a scintilla of proof are just lazy and irresponsible.
  • Substituting interview transcription with proper writing. I know several authors who erroneously believe that most writing consists of transcribing others’ words. Hogwash. If you’re asking people to buy one of your books and take the time to read it, you owe those people more than that. Analyze. Synthesize. Offer an original thought or thirty. Don’t just copy and paste entire interviews and pass it off as proper writing.
  • Omitting appropriate disclaimers. If you’ve done work with a company, then say so, dammit. Ditto for sponsorships or other sweetheart arrangements. Company X makes the best wares? That might be the case, but is its marketing department paying you to write as much? Not disclosing important relationships is unethical. Period.
  • Immediately becoming defensive when reading honest criticism of their work. One-star Amazon reviews can sting, and rare is the author of a popular or best-selling book who hasn’t received one. Some critical reviews come from trolls, but others are very insightful and accurate. Yet, many times I’ll see a one-star review and the first comment is from the author defending him/herself. For two reasons, I’m not a fan of responding to these reviews. Don’t feed the Troll, as they say. Second, in many instances, a slew of negative reviews might actually help you improve your writing skills. Merely shouting down all naysayers (irrespective of merit) is both puerile and ultimately futile.


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