The Art of Non-Fiction

With the launch of our brand-new non-fiction writing competition ‘Inspire Us’, Literary Agent Anna Hogarty talks about the five elements she’s looking for in a stand-out voice.


1: Teach me something about the world

The best non-fiction enables the reader to see the world in new ways. WILD SWANS opened me up to the entirety of China in the twentieth century – a landscape I knew surprisingly little about. You get to travel the world with non-fiction, see how people live in different cultures and circumstances (something NOTHING TO ENVY does remarkably well), and how they would have lived in the past. As an aspiring author you might have unearthed a forgotten piece of history, or spent time living in a little-known place: if the premise is fascinating the book will be read.


2: Teach me something about myself

Non-fiction can be wonderful for exploring who you are and the life that you lead. It opens up new doorways for living and responding to the inevitable pitfalls and challenges of life. RISING STRONG by Brene Brown, WHEN THINGS FALL APART by Pema Chodron and HAPPINESS by Matthieu Ricard are full of everyday wisdom for living your life. Books in this area can be a great help when going through something difficult; they are also tomes of inspiration and wisdom for enhancing and supporting your lifestyle and starting new hobbies: be they sports-focussed, cookery, gardening and nature or lifestyle and design.


3: Speak from the heart

The stories that stay with me are the ones that needed to be told. Their authors have experienced remarkable events, or have become an expert in their field so that they can speak from a new and authentic place. With non-fiction we see through the eyes of people with mental- and physical-health conditions, those who have overcome great tragedies and/or lived extraordinary lives. The author of INTO THE WILD built a palpable connection with the boy who had died in the Alaskan wilderness by drawing on similarities in his own life story; Cheryl Strayed in WILD speaks with the raw power of the strongest of fictional heroines.


4: Keep it simple

You need a focus with non-fiction. I loved Murakami’s WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING for how simply he structured a fascinating insight into his life as a writer around simple thoughts on his daily runs. Strong messages that the reader can take away can be interspersed with all sorts of observations and learnings, but these books really work when the reader has a tangible insight at the end (THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING-UP: only keep items that inspire you with joy; THE HAPPINESS TRAP: the more you strive for happiness the more you’ll suffer; DARING GREATLY: embrace vulnerability to lead a wholehearted life).


5: Surprise me

Last but not least, non-fiction should never be dry! My favourite books in this area wrap me up in their storytelling just as much as a novel – sometimes more for the fact that they’re true. EAT, PRAY, LOVE took me on a journey around the world; THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY broke my heart. Be creative with your storytelling: you don’t have to answer all the questions you raise, what’s important is the way you explore those questions and make the reader confront them and think.


Think you have one or more of these elements? Enter our competition to win representation, editorial feedback and Waterstones vouchers. Entries close on 30th June.