Are Fiction and Nonfiction Writing Interchangeable Skills?

Return to Kindergarten?

Be A Novelist

Be A Novelist

Throughout my writing career I’ve met writers who have long made their living in the area of nonfiction. Oftentimes they reveal to me their longing to switch over to fiction, but at the same time, they admit fearing that they would have to go all the way back to square one and repeat the learning process. Return to writer-kindergarten, so to speak.

It’s true that early on in a writer’s career, there may be a nervous little voice deep inside whispering things like:

Be careful! The choices you make today could affect you for the rest of your life. The type of writing you master at the outset will be what you’re chained to for the rest of your career.

If that’s you – if these thoughts have been (even perhaps subconsciously) nagging at you – let’s put that myth to rest right now!

The Real Truth

Here’s the real truth!

When you train yourself to do one kind of writing well, you automatically give yourself a solid basis of skills for all the others.

In the earliest days of my career, I cut my eyeteeth (metaphorically speaking) on magazine writing. I wrote personal experience articles, human interest articles, personality interview articles, how-to articles, travels articles… you name it, I wrote it. While I was in the throes of learning the ins and outs of the Be A Novelist magazine circuit, I continually dreamed of writing and publishing my first novel. It never occurred to me that just because I was writing nonfiction at the time, that that in any way hampered my fiction writing abilities.

(Also during my magazine writing days, I did sell a few short stories, so it’s not as if I was completely removed from fiction.)

These days while not as many magazine writing opportunities exist, nonfiction writing is trending more toward online blogs, articles, reports, white papers, and nonfiction books. Freelancers have a multitude of opportunities via the Internet. So while the venue has change somewhat, the basic premise is still the same.

As I look at the big picture of the two mediums, fiction and nonfiction, here are the similarities that I see.

Language Facility

We start out with a biggie. So big in fact, it’s often overlooked in any discussion about this transfer of writing skills. Being at home with the written language, and being able to use it with grace and ease, is absolutely the toughest assignment in any writer’s apprenticeship.

No matter what field of writing is pursued, this is the basic foundation. And the good news is, you never have to learn it twice.

Observation and Description

Writing for magazine articles – and today writing blogs and online articles – gives great practice for word-count limits. One must learn to say a great deal in a few words. This is why I trained myself to observe closely and, when interviewing, to listen closely.

Training in sharp observation and brief description becomes invaluable when penning a novel. The result is a positive effect of keeping the pace of action in a story clicking right along.

Character Development

Much of nonfiction has to do with people and personalities. As a ghostwriter, I often must bring the personality of my client into the work. The more you work with people, or interview people, or write about people, your judgment of people is bound to grow truer and keener. I knew early on that the clearer I envisioned and understood the person about whom I was writing, the more powerful the magazine article would be.

This ability easily transfers over into a work of fiction. Here too, I must clearly see and know my characters. If a character seems shadowy – fuzzy at the edges – any attempt to write about that character is time wasted.

ResearchBe A Novelist

For Chelsea House Publishing I wrote a whole slew of historical biographies ranging from Harriet Tubman, to Frederick Douglass, to Cotton Mather, to William Penn. These works demanded intense research.

When it came time to switch over to plotting novels, research had become almost second nature to me. Years before Google became a household name, the Central Library in downtown Tulsa served as a sort of second home to me.

Additionally, because of my experience in magazine writing, I knew how to seek out experts in a given field whom I could interview to get firsthand knowledge. Such inside information can add layers of realism to a novel.

Dialogue

Conducting many interviews for articles taught me how to hear – really hear – how people speak. As we write, the biggest challenge is to make spoken language sound true without reproducing all the mumbles. Any beginning writer has to grow through this learning process. (It can take years.)

If and when this skill is learned in nonfiction writing, it will shine through when writing a novel. Well-written dialogue is crucial in making characters spring to life on the page.

Organization

This skill of organization, I must say, ranks up there with the first one listed – Language Facility. All good writing must have some kind of underlying structure or framework. Without such framework, the writing is as useless as muscle mass with no skeletal structure.

Once I began novel writing, I discovered to my delight that my organizational skills in writing were already well established. I then had little or no problem in outlining and developing well-put-together plots.

Be A NovelistSumming Up

So there you have it! If you’re one who has been considering the leap from freelancing to becoming a novelist, I hope this puts you more at ease.

And by the way, I still work heavily as a freelance writer producing nonfiction work almost on a daily basis. It never harms my novel writing abilities one tiny whit.

 

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