4 Lessons Nonfiction Writers Can Learn From Matthew McConaughey's Book 'Greenlights'
An experienced writer himself, McConaughey produced a polished manuscript that all nonfiction writers can take a leaf out of to improve their own writing.
I just finished reading Matthew McConaughey's autobiographical book Greenlights, and it has quickly found its way onto my “Best Books Ever Read” shelf.
Here's what all nonfiction writers can take away from his book.
1. Practice your craft
Matthew McConaughey is a long-term, experienced writer (a fact I did not know), and this came out clearly in his prose. Stellar writing is something learned through years of practice.
McConaughey wrote poetry as a boy and then started writing short stories. It was this proclivity for telling tales that led him, ultimately, to a career in Hollywood.
But he was first a writer.
If you want to write a top-quality nonfiction book, gaining writing experience is essential. Start small if you’re new to writing. Write blog posts, contribute to online magazines or just spend 30 minutes writing for your own pleasure before or after work.
2. Know your voice
Anyone who has watched McConaughey’s movies or seen him give a speech knows he has an extremely unique voice. By “voice,” I mean his way of speaking — his slang, colloquialisms, sentence structure and general attitude.
I’ve always loved his style, and I was pleased as punch when it came across so clearly in his book.
Whether you’re working with a ghostwriter or writing your book alone, getting your unique voice to come across in your manuscript is essential to making your book authentic and entertaining.
3. Be creative and have fun. Writing is art.
McConaughey’s book is written in a narrative nonfiction style, each scene building on the previous one with some degree of a story arc in place. There is tension, strong emotion, excellent suspense and mystery, and all the good stuff you subconsciously learn when you’re exposed to a lot of good stories in your life.
But McConaughey added a creative twist, which I thought was genius: Between chapters, he throws in self-created “prescriptions,” “bumper stickers” and “notes to self.” These prescriptions, bumper stickers and notes to self range from the absurd to the hilarious to the deeply philosophical. They are an artistically pleasing literary device that recall an epigraph, but McConaughey gives it a unique twist.
This artistic touch helped keep my interest throughout the story, making me want to keep reading just to get to the next prescription, bumper sticker or note to self!
The lesson here is that writing is an artistic activity. And writers of business books and nonfiction can increase the emotional impact of their books by producing something aesthetically pleasing.
Get creative when writing your nonfiction book. Add elements that are uniquely you and make people sit up, pay attention and keep reading.
4. Tell an incredible story
And then there’s the fact that McConaughey’s life is a wild romp of adventure, filled with more daring feats and tales than most people would experience in several lifetimes. From floating on his back on the Amazon River to fighting (and gaining the respect of) a local African wrestling champion, to slumming it in sundry trailer parks for years to remain real, McConaughey’s life naturally contains all the elements of a thrilling read.
Many of us mere mortals cannot boast such an exciting life, but that doesn’t mean our books have to be boring.
Exciting stories can be written in a boring manner just as “boring” stories can be written thrillingly.
There are multiple ways to make an inherently slow story more exciting. One way is to include anecdotes of others. Another way is to add suspense to the writing by making the outcome uncertain.
Your book’s target market also has something to do with it. What one demographic considers thrilling might not be considered thrilling by another. A CEO might consider the days and weeks before a merger some of the tensest times of his or her life! But an employee lower down on the chain probably wouldn’t be too thrilled to read about this in a book.
By simply writing about what your market considers thrilling, you can create an exciting book for them, and so keep them reading. A book that is never read is as useful as a book that was never written.
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