The Fantastic Four
No, I'm not talking about The Marvel Comics group of super heroes that include a woman no one can see and a man who can turn himself into stone (he's got nothing, by the way, on my high school government teacher). What the title of this essay refers to are the four most critical considerations for non-fiction: Claim, Purpose, Method, and Audience.
Claim. The claim is the main point, thesis, or argument of your piece. The claim consists of two parts: subject and opinion. You must have a subject you are writing about (Hybrid cars, let's say) and an opinion which you are trying to prove (you are in favor of them). The opinion is critical and should be something others might not agree with. In other words, no opinion equals no claim. Therefore, a claim might look something like this: Hybrid cars are more practical and environmentally sound than cars powered entirely by gas. I remembering a writer's not-so-recent claim that Writer's Block doesn't exist: Subject (Writer's Block) and opinion (it doesn't exist).
Purpose. When beginning a piece of non-fiction, ask yourself: Why am I writing this? I tell my students that saying "because you're making me" is a perfectly lovely purpose, but it might also be nice to have something more global in mind. Are you trying to inform? Persuade? Instruct? Amuse? Explore? Having a purpose and a sense of direction will increase your focus while decreasing the chances you'll wander off track or even completely derail your overall point.
Method. After deciding why you're going to write a non-fiction piece, you should ask yourself how you're going to do it. Will it be an essay? A full-length book? A PowerPoint presentation? Are you going to use statistics, personal experience, allusions, expert testimony or some other form of evidence to support your claim? Once you decide why you're writing and how you're writing, you're almost ready to put pen to paper.
Audience. When considering your audience, it's tempting to think, "My piece is for everybody! Everybody will benefit from what I'm writing!" I understand this temptation and give into it myself, but it's wrong. When I ask my students who a certain piece of non-fiction might have been written for and they say "everybody," they're mostly being lazy. They don't want to consider who the language is geared toward or who might benefit most from the piece. But that's where the gold is. That's where clarity and comprehension reside. It was a given, for example, that my audience for this piece was Scribophile members. But I had to dig deeper. I had to know that my audience was creative, well-educated (or at least intelligent enough to value writing and thought), and able to tolerate the occasional reference or joke that pushed the boundaries of good taste. I love you for that, by way.
The fifth most important consideration--let's call it the sidekick of the Fantastic Four--is Tone. Like the ringtone on your cell phone, tone refers to the sound you hear or the feeling you get when you answer the call of any given piece. Just as some ringtones are funny, cute, uplifting, danceable, or sad, the tone of a non-fiction piece can give off those feelings as well. A writer's tone, by the way, is almost entirely a function of word choice. If you want to test that theory, ask yourself what the tone of the piece is and then make a list of individual words that appear in the piece to support that tone. You'll find a ton of them. Guaranteed. If the writer is good, this is no accident.
Determining your own Fantastic Four will not only help you nail the clarity and precision of your message but, in doing so, will also increase your chances of heroic communication.