I was chatting with my niece this weekend. She is an award-winning backyard pond designer and builder. This time of year is a tour of past accomplishments for her. Many people "improve" or neglect their ponds, and she has to bring them back to life.
She wants to write a book of dos and don'ts for them. The basic maintenance and the big mistakes to avoid. Just 30-40 pages she can put together to leave behind with clients and make available online for others who live outside her region.
Her audience is very clear in her mind -- people with the love of nature that makes them invest in ponds, but limited knowledge of how to keep these pocket ecosystems healthy.
A short book makes sense for her, and, with independent publishing and access to online book markets, creating one has become feasible. But how do you write a book if you haven't written one before? She already has the answer: audience.
She knows what they don't know and want to know. She knows the bad ideas they fall for that ruin their ponds. She hears their questions and comments every day. For a practical book, all she needs is to write down the questions and comments she hears, and then put down her answers and responses. And, since she naturally adds in specific examples of disasters, she can illustrate her information in a way that will make it come alive.
So here's the four-step formula for this kind of nonfiction book:
1 - Think of a specific client.
2 - Write down his or her questions and comments about the subject.
3 - Respond directly to these with helpful answers and suggestions using language they would understand, as if you were speaking face-to-face.
4 - If you haven't already done this, add examples that bring the points home.
That's it. The work, for someone who regularly has conversations with clients, is basically recording memories of past discussions. There's no need for prose pyrotechnics -- in fact, they are likely to get in the way.
Of course, it helps that this is a simple example with straightforward information to convey. The more demanding storytelling process is limited to the examples. But having an audience in mind provides a powerful focus for writing and discourages the kind of self-hypnosis that can bubble up as the music of the words and memories of college literature teachers takes over. You don't bring overwrought prose to people who ask you a question. You keep it simple.
Storytellers can take a lesson here. Write to one person first and keep it simple. It's harder to do this than it seems. Many writers do have an audience--themselves. For some, that's fine, but I've seen too many who forget it's about communication, who turn storytelling into exercises in impressing themselves. That never works.
Or they worry that if they pick out one person to write a story to, especially if it's a long story like a novel, they'll have to do a lot of rewriting and may even find it impossible to bring it out to a larger audience. Essentially, this is an attempt to avoid rewriting entirely. Too many writers think they can dodge all those drafts by getting it right the first time. I suspect there are rare exceptions who can do this (what an artist friend calls "freaks of nature"), but I think these writers already know they have that capability. Trying to write the salable draft in the first composition phase is a false economy.
Finally, there are those who can't find or stick to the audience. I saw this recently in a course where students were supposed to write about the experience of the story from an audience's point of view. It was a real struggle, filled with essays on the writer's intent or the main character's experiences and reactions. And even reworked attempts at doing the lesson fell away from the audience's point of view from time to time.
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is essential to good writing. For some people, it is difficult, but, whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it is a skill worth mastering.