How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 2-7


Foster argues that all forms of communication are governed by a particular grammar, or set of rules and guidelines. In order to be an active reader, a consumer needs to feel empowered due to understanding these rules. By knowing more, readers can have more accurate expectations of the form they are reading. Foster elaborates on this concept by identifying different types of writing that can all be found within newspapers. These include hard news stories (purely factual accounts), features (longer pieces on a wider range of topics), columns, reviews, and advice columns. As Foster points out, different standards and expectations apply to these different types of writing, so it is important to be able to distinguish them from each other. Foster then digresses to advocate for the importance of newspapers and distinguishes the level of accuracy and quality of writing they provide in contrast to other sources such as social media. Foster also points out that magazines can provide important journalism alongside newspapers, although they move at a different pace (since they are likely published weekly or monthly rather than daily).

There are many forms of nonfiction, but almost all of them rely on making some type of argument (with the exception of some types of journalism focused solely on reporting facts). Therefore, Foster takes the time to introduce his readers to the basic foundations of argument, relying on the work of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin. Arguments rely on three basic components: a claim (the key assertion being made), grounds (facts or other data used to support the claim), and warrants (the logical connection made between the claim and the ground to show how the ground actually works to support the claim). Foster notes that arguments can fall apart for a number of reasons: because the claim is not well supported, because the grounds are false (grounds can usually be empirically verified in some way), or because the warrant is illogical or false.

Foster then moves to a discussion of some specific components of nonfiction books. He discusses forewords, prefaces, introductions, and prologues as tools used by nonfiction writers to catch the attention of their readers and give them a taste of what is to come. To illustrate the variety of how they can be used, Foster provides many examples from a range of nonfiction books. Foster also provides briefer overviews of components of a nonfiction book including the title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. After this information, Foster shifts to a discussion of bias, stating that all readers and all writers are ultimately biased in some way. Foster suggests that there a few features that can signal the presence of bias to a reader: disclaimers, quotes, fairness, and "rhetorical tilt." Foster argues that if a writer claims not to be biased against something, a reader should view this claim with suspicion. If a writer is quoting other people in their text, their biases can also be revealed based on how accurately they reproduce those quotations, and how much information they provide about their sources. Fairness refers to a writer providing a balanced portrayal of individuals and allowing sources to correct or retract previous statements. Foster also notes that specific words and phrasing can subtly hint at a writer's biases, but this will also be influenced by the bias of a reader. Most important, Foster cautions that the presence of bias does not mean that we need to discard a source, but that we need to note that bias and take it into account.

In the next chapter, Foster returns to the notion of sources and expertise. In order to support a claim, a writer can refer to their own personal experience (if applicable), their professional expertise, statistics, eyewitness testimony, or expert sources. Especially in the case of the final category, it is important that a reader be able to distinguish the credibility of an expert source. Foster notes that unreliable sources can masquerade as expert sources, while legitimate expert sources may be unfairly questioned (for example, the perspective of a female professor might be unfairly challenged because she is a woman, even though she has a strong claim to expertise). Foster notes that with the rise of the internet, traditional sources of expertise have often been challenged, and challenges to expertise are more likely for someone in a social science or humanistic discipline. Someone who has expertise in one area (for example, a professor of literature) should not be assumed to have expertise in other unrelated areas, and while expertise might be gained through study and education, it can also be acquired through hands-on experience. Foster also points out that for events that have occurred in the past, there are likely no longer individuals with personal experience available, and we are typically dependent on either primary sources (documentation created by someone with personal experience of the event or period, such as letters, diaries, records, etc.) or secondary sources (texts compiled, often by historians, based on primary sources). Most nonfiction works of history or biography can be considered secondary sources.

Many types of nonfiction, such as biography and journalism, rely on the testimony of sources to report on what they saw, heard, or said in a specific context. Some types of nonfiction also rely on the writer directly reporting based on their own observation of events; this is most common for newspaper writing, somewhat less common for magazine writing, and less common still for the writers of books (many of whom synthesize a variety of sources, benefiting from a longer lapse of time since events took place). Data and statistics can also play an important role in supporting arguments in nonfiction works, but readers should be cautious that this type of information can also be manipulated in misleading ways. Foster also grimly notes that due to strong political alliances, individuals may be even more tempted to latch on to "alternative facts" that serve their agenda and may refuse to question these claims even when they are undermined.

Foster then returns to the notion of structure, citing writer John McPhee as a master practitioner of this skill. Foster establishes a distinction between chronology (the sequence of how events occurred) and structure (the sequence of how events are presented in a narrative). For example, in one of McPhee's books which focuses on a 9-day long canoe and kayaking trip, McPhee chooses to open with an incident (an encounter with a grizzly bear) that occurs on Day 5. From this example, Foster extrapolates that many nonfiction works begin not simply at the chronological beginning, but at a deliberately selected moment in order for the writer to give meaning to the text. Foster provides a number of examples of books that create structure by tinkering with chronology. For books such as science writing and self-help, chronology may be less of a feature in structure, but structure will still be deliberately chosen (such as beginning a book with a poignant anecdote, for example).

Foster cites a worrying trend: the shift towards "fake news." According to Foster, in the years immediately prior to the 2016 American election, social media became an increasingly important news source, but also an incredibly unreliable one (including a mixture of erroneous and deliberately misleading information). By 2016-2017, the term "fake news" had developed to refer to news stories written intentionally to deceive readers. In December 2016, Hillary Clinton used the term in a speech, expressing concern over what the proliferation of fake news meant for democracy. Some interpreted this statement as Clinton claiming that fake news had cost her the election victory (although that connection was not explicitly contained in her speech, and she seemed most concerned with other types of consequences). From there, Donald Trump seemed to latch on to the idea that Clinton was labeling news she disliked (as opposed to objectively false news) as false news, and began to dismiss news stories with which he disagreed, or which he resented as "fake news." Foster moves from this specific example to the tension between politicians and journalists, in which politicians have often challenged news reporting. He concedes that there will always be disagreement, but he calls for a return to certain principles of veracity and ethics.


Foster's book is an interesting blend of argument, analysis, and information. Because his book is a work of nonfiction, Foster has the chance to model these strategies while also discussing them. In this section, Foster takes on the role of expert guide and educator when he introduces information and facts to his readers. Explaining the difference between an appendix and an index may seem a bit dry, but this information helps a reader to be knowledgeable and confident when reading different types of sources. With his background as a literary critic, Foster understands that knowing about form (for example, knowing that a sonnet will contain 14 lines) is the first step towards being able to analyze a text. Foster's perspective as a professor is also revealed in this section since he hints that he has been frustrated by students who have not clearly understood some of these features or how to use them.

In addition to the practical, objective identification of different components of a nonfiction source, Foster also begins to unpack more complex considerations around argumentation, evidence, and expertise. While people may hold some beliefs on the basis of their own observation (we can fairly easily discern that rain is wet, for example), "many of our beliefs—perhaps most of them—have a more complex origin: we form them on the basis of what other people tell us. We trust and learn from one another" (O'Connor & Weatherall, pg. 8). Foster has a complex rhetorical role to play in these discussions since, as both the author of the book and in his professional life as a professor and literary critic, he is positioned as an expert. He will clearly have a stake in wanting to assert that people can hold expertise and legitimately be trusted, but he also shows responsibility towards encouraging readers to be skeptical of expertise. Foster's trustworthiness is demonstrated through his insistence on readers thinking for themselves: he does not want readers to simply defer to him, although he does want them to recognize that he is more knowledgeable about some topics than they are. Foster provides an interesting balance of arguing that experts are both essential (otherwise, uninformed opinions would be considered as equally valuable to methodical research studies), and encouraging audiences to be skeptical of anyone positioning themselves as experts.

Foster also takes an interesting stance towards bias, challenging the popular notion that all bias is bad. This belief is dangerous because it encourages readers to seek out sources that seem totally unbiased, and since those sources don't actually exist, readers might be pushed towards less reliable sources. Foster would prefer that readers utilize sources where the bias is clear, transparent, and outright, rather than seemingly unbiased sources where the danger is more insidious because it is covered up. However, throughout his own book, Foster does take steps to present himself as unbiased. He deliberately avoids inserting his own political opinions into the book and does not explicitly condemn political actors. Where Foster has no qualms in showing bias is his outrage against "fake news" and "alternative facts." Foster is open to arguments that he might disagree with, so long as those arguments are presented fairly and reasonably. What he finds worrying is the trend towards individuals flat-out disregarding logical processes of argumentation, or discounting claims simply because those claims are inconvenient.