As a kid, I loved writing fiction—long, rambling, imaginative stories that didn’t have much structure. So when I took freshman comp in college, I got a rude awakening. An essay? With a beginning, middle, and end? Where I had to stick to the facts? I was in over my head.
Although I hated my freshman comp class, in retrospect, I can see how it provided the structure I needed to help my novels succeed. The essays I wrote were like vegetables; I needed them to make my writing healthy before I went back to writing novels (the delicious dessert).
On the flip side, years later I realized how my weekend novel-writing strengthened my nonfiction skills. I was shortlisted for a part-time job with an e-learning company and did some trial work for them. The work involved finding and telling true stories—and a few days after finishing the trial work, I was hired. The company loved the stories I told, even though none of my usual dragons, love triangles, or medieval heroines were in sight.
It looks like fiction writers have a lot to learn from nonfiction writers … and vice versa. As a writer in both genres, I’ve witnessed the parallels firsthand. Here’s how nonfiction can make you a better fiction writer.
Here’s how nonfiction writing can add strength and structure to your fictional stories.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one would do.”
Word counts tend to make me squirm; I have a lot to say, and I don’t always appreciate my clients reining me in.
But as tempting as it might be to include long flowery descriptions in my novel or short story, trimming things down is a better idea.
Think about it: When you’re reading a novel, you’re much more likely to stick with a clean, simply told story than one that includes paragraphs and paragraphs of words that are just there because they can be.
Writing nonfiction teaches you to keep things concise, and that’s important in the fiction world, too.
Nonfiction helps you logically order your thoughts. Identifying the beginning, middle, and end of my nonfiction articles helps me identify those same points in my stories, which gives my novels a stronger structure overall.
I also do an enormous amount of research and fact-checking when I write features. It helps me realize that I need to do the same amount of research when it comes to fiction; fiction needs plausibility. I’ve become more willing to take the time necessary for in-depth research, even for very specific questions such as where Deaf children living in 1946 Georgia would attend school (answer: Georgia State School for the Deaf in Cave Springs).
From writing nonfiction, my research skills were strengthened, and I recognized how important it was to pursue the same relentless fact-checking for my novels.
Freshman comp class was the first place where I received feedback—sometimes brutally honest feedback—on my work.
For nonfiction writers, it’s easy to receive feedback. You might get tips from your fellow bloggers, the editor at the magazine you write for, or your copywriting client. But fiction writers have to actively go looking for feedback … and sometimes, that’s not something we’re willing to do.
Why is feedback from other writers so important? We work so closely and for so long with our stories that it’s easier for someone who has fresh eyes and isn’t emotionally connected to tell us what’s working and what isn’t. A critique partner or beta reader can tell us if anything about our manuscript is confusing, if the characters and plot are strong enough, and give us advice on where to go next.
Receiving feedback is equally important for nonfiction and fiction writers. The feedback I got on my nonfiction pieces motivated me to seek out feedback for my fiction writing, too.
This is a win-win situation: Not only does writing nonfiction make your fiction better, but flexing your fiction muscles can improve your nonfiction in a few big ways.
First, fiction keeps your creativity at the forefront. I find that when I spend my weekends outlining my next novel, I’m fresh and ready to go for my copywriting tasks on Monday morning.
Worldbuilding, coming up with character flaws, and designing elaborate plot twists help you look at your assignments in new ways.
Following a narrative arc is essential in nonfiction. Think about a journalist who’s writing a feature—they’re just as much of a storyteller as a novelist is.
For years, I had conducted in-depth “interviews” with my characters, where I spent time writing about their lives, backstories, and their views on various subjects to help me understand why they acted the way they did.
So when I began writing magazine features, which required interviewing real people, I was ready. I knew the kinds of questions to ask. Post-interview, when I began writing, I could read between the lines and draw conclusions that helped me tell a compelling story.
Writing fiction can help journalists identify stories and describe characters people care about.
Most novelists tend to be good at two important skills: first of all, editing. Many authors spend more time rewriting than they do writing, and while this might not be realistic for a nonfiction writer on deadline, editing is definitely important.
Authors also subscribe to the classic “butt in chair” principle. In the words of Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, “I don’t know if the muse is going to show up on any given day, but by golly, I’m going to be at my desk from 8 to 12 every morning in case she does.”
Fiction writers are great at keeping the words flowing, even if they don’t particularly like what’s coming out. This is important for all writers: It’s easy to get stuck staring at that blinking cursor, but if you keep typing something, the right words will come out eventually.
If you’re trying to become better at fiction, you may want to write some nonfiction. And if you’re slaving away at a nonfiction piece, take a break and write some fiction.
These two separate writing disciplines have a lot in common: creativity, editing, storytelling, and more. Making time for both will only make your writing stronger.
The processes involved in writing fiction and nonfiction aren’t that different … and nonfiction and fiction writers have a lot to learn from each other.
Hailey Hudson is a full-time freelance writer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. When she isn't working, she's coaching fastpitch softball, writing her latest YA novel, or snuggling with her beagle puppy, Sophie. Learn more at Hailey's website or by following her Instagram @haileyh412.