Jim Ottaviani on Writing Non-fiction

Jim OttavianiWhen you’re writing non-fiction, what’s the most important thing? Should you stuff your story with facts or focus on crafting an amazing piece of literature that will speak to your audience? Jim Ottaviani, author of Feynman and the newly released Primates, knows a little about this subject. He’s been writing non-fiction, science-oriented comics since 1997. So what’s his advice for nonfiction writers? He’s stopped by Figment to share his expertise!

Everyone who’s ever taken a standardized test is familiar with questions that go like this: “Fiction is to lies as non-fiction is to _______.” So, how did you answer that one?

I can guess, but since I get to write more than a single word here, my answer is longer, and wouldn’t get me any closer to college admission:

Jim Ottaviani“That question isn’t very good.” That’s because fiction that’s worth your time *never* lies to you. A good story, one you’ll remember as well as that really good one you told your friend the other day about that thing that actually happened to you, has elements of both truth and fiction. After all, when you told your true story you didn’t tell the whole truth, right? You left stuff out, especially if you texted it, or Tweeted it, or whatever you cool kids do these days with your fancy iDroid 7Gs or whatever.

(Just kidding…I’m actually writing this on an iPad 4 with a Retina display while in one of 246 seats of a Boeing 767-400ER traveling at 503 MPH while 34,006 ft. over the Atlantic and backlit by light emitting diodes while everyone else sleeps. So, you know, I’m down with technology and stuff.)

Anyway, unlike what I just did, when you told your story you skipped lots of the irrelevant details like whether you were full (or hungry) because you had a good (or lousy) breakfast. Of if it was about breakfast, you skipped the boring part about getting up too early (or too late) or how hot (or cold) the water was in the shower, or what you dreamed the night before. And seriously, here’s a pro tip: As a general rule you should skip the dream thing, always, because nobody wants to hear about dreams even if they smile and nod and pretend they do.

Primates by Jim OttavianiThat’s because unlike most dreams, a good story has logic and structure to go along with the truths and fictions, and that logic and structure are what make the parts that resonate with readers stand out. Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, resonance is what you’re after.

There are two kinds, and you want both. The first is the kind you’ll evoke with facts. Getting the facts right, at the appropriate level of detail, will do good things for your story. Your readers will see what you want them to see, and if they don’t know much about the subject they will — if you choose your facts well — get interested in what you show them. And if they already know a little bit about what you’re showing them, those details will prove you’re a trustworthy tour guide, capable of taking them to an interesting place. Factual truth creates a real place that looks and sounds and smells and maybe even tastes right.

The second kind of resonance you’re aiming for is emotional. This is what makes the story feel right — not in a literal sense, the sense you experience via your fingertips — but in the hearts and minds of your readers. I think achieving this kind of resonance is harder, but it’s worth the effort. If you can make your readers feel something, they’ll remember your story better, including the facts you wanted them to walk away with.

Primates by Jim OttavianiSo what happens when factual truth and emotional resonance come into conflict? (They will. There’s never enough room for everything. In fact, when writing non-fiction, the only way you’ll know you did enough research and fact gathering is if, when you’ve finished writing your story, you find you had to throw out a significant percentage of what you learned . . . including some of the really great stuff that you were *sure* would make it into the final draft.)

My answer is to give the edge to the emotional truths. Favor story over fact. The facts are not so hard to discover; for most people libraries aren’t far away, and Wikipedia is even closer.

But good stories? You know how rare they are. Give your readers a good story with their non-fiction and you’ll take them to places even you never imagined.

2 thoughts on “Jim Ottaviani on Writing Non-fiction

  1. Story telling in non-fictional writing ties the facts and creates a balance of conceptualizing the logic captured through reading in a logical continuity. – a well-written piece on non-fictional writing.

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