The week of non-fiction

This week has been a little different as I am exclusively working on 3 articles. After a slow writing summer and still trying to get rid of a two week flu bug, and never yet having tackled more than one article at a time, I was a little worried. Yet, after completing a few interviews I was once again reminded of how similar writing fiction and non-fiction.

Both tell stories. An opening hook is crucial. The cadence has to be just so. The vocabulary has to be proper. And, almost most important the information has to be given inΒ  a proper balance. Enough to keep the reader informed, while not too much to push a reader away. Dialogue has to be inserted at the proper time and must be used to convey pertinent information in a non-obtrusive way. And of course, voice.

Are there differences between the two forms of writing? Well for me the most apparent difference is conveying a message that I did not create. Of course, not all non-fiction is the same. The magazine I am writing is for families and demands a casual voice. I am enjoying it tremendously! More than I ever imagined I would before beginning to write articles a few months back.

In my fiction writing, I am once again at a stage where research has halted my words for accuracies sake. I am (again) looking up historical facts at onset of World War 1, as well the Suffrage Movement. My stack of books is huge, and whenever I have the opportunity I am reading. I also have a book of letters written during the time. I am seeing there is really not all that much difference between my two types of writings at the moment, yet I feel my non-fiction has the advantage: I am interviewing live people. What I would give to speak to someone who lived through WW1.

Do you ever inter-mingle the two forms of writing, and do you find it challenging?

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30 thoughts on “The week of non-fiction

  1. Good insights about the similarities. When I wrote for a local paper I did interviews/feature stories and the most mingling I saw was in trying to capture individuals as unique “characters”.

  2. I think any good story reads like fiction. I read a journalism piece the other day about a church shooter. He wrote it like it was a novel, complete with a beginning, middle and end. I was hooked.

  3. I’ve written a few non-fiction articles but for many years I didn’t even attempt it. It seemed too challenging I suppose. I really admire writers who can shift back and forth from fiction to non-fiction.

  4. Hi Jennifer
    This is the one valuable thing I learned at Uni – how to use fiction techniques in nonfiction. By applying those same techniques I was able to complete several narratives that even I was proud of.
    I don’t see fiction as simply made up stories and nonfiction as factual. Both contain truths about humanity and life. What differs is the delivery, but most importantly the readership. That is what I focus on when composing fiction or nonfiction.

    • Hi Sharon! You were studying science were you not? You were writing fiction at the same time? That must have been a challenge! Or perhaps, balancing. Good point about readership. I was forced to take my audience into consideration when writing non-fiction. Prior, I never thought of it much.

  5. Dear Jennifer,

    When I teach, I strive to show kids (and parents!) that there’s a huge crossover in skills–and often non-fiction becomes fun for kids who’ve previously struggled with it, because suddenly there’s a lot more freedom. Oh, I could use a short snippet of narrative as my intro! Oh, I could describe the war scene from the p.o.v. of someone who’s been there . . .

    For myself, I am also tandem writing fiction and non. I don’t find one impedes the other at all. If anything, the more words NF I write, the more fictional words I have to write. This doesn’t hold true when multiple fiction projects are involved, however. Even if I can be working on two at the same time, eventually one world completely obliterates my interest/ability to see the other and I have to finish the “louder” one.

    Hmmmm . . . just realized all my non-fiction is short, and I _can_ write the occasional short story when I’m working on a novel. Maybe the NF/Fiction thing is irrelevant to my process. Maybe it’s that my brain can muster focus for short sidetracks from its primary obsession without splintering apart, it just can’t be equally immersed in two deep, long works.

    • What an answer, Ev! It must be so amazing to see how the kids respond!!

      I also cannot focus on more than one novel and a short at a time. Even though I aim to edit one novel and finish writing another in the weeks to come. I hope it will work because I will be using the opposite spectrum of the brain. I’ll find out…

  6. Hi Jennifer

    I think the writing structure is the same in all writing….even in writing a letter or an email. One needs a beginning, a development and a conclusion. What’s more, the whole things needs logic and purpose. Fiction simply has certain techniques to drive it along.

    I used to write non-fiction (stuff on music theory and religion. ) I’ve also written a substantial part of an autubiography using many techniques used in novel writing, so that the story, whilst true, literally reads like a novel.

    Hope you get better from the flu. I have some really awful cold at the moment.

    • Thank you, Lawrence. It took 3 weeks, and I am still stuffy, but better. Too bad another can of worms has presented itself to me. Obstacles! grrr.

      I hope you get better quickly – it is the season 😦

      autobiography?? how interesting.

  7. It’s great that you’re writing non-fiction! You make some insightful points about how writing is writing, no matter what form it takes.

    That being said, when I was in grad school, I actually found it very difficult to switch between fiction and my dissertation … but that might have been because I really didn’t want to write the dissertation! ;-D Seriously, though, while I was able to use some narrative techniques in my non-fiction, I felt as if academic writing had such a different goal from my stories. Even though I was writing about history, which seems like the discipline most open to story-telling, the goal of my non-fiction work seemed to be about proving a point. And while a good story may very well make a point, it does so in a much subtler way.

    That’s why I love fiction (and narrative non-fiction ) so much more than academic non-fiction … not just because the former is more “fun” but because it’s less about the author (“Look at me while I make this brilliant point about the subtext of the blah blah blah”) and more about the story. When the reader can internalize the story and come to her own conclusions about some bigger idea, that’s so much more powerful.

    Not sure that made any sense, which goes to show you why, after I crawled to the finish line of grad school, I got out of academia as fast as I could! ;-D

    • You made perfect sense, Christina!

      I was thinking about the times I wrote my thesis (undergrad and grad) when I wrote this post, yet that seemed a category all together on it’s own. Research papers as well. I suppose it depends on the thesis as well. I wasn’t writing fiction when I was studying, but I was told my undergrad committee that it was the best written thesis they had ever read πŸ™‚ (of course they didn’t say best researched)

  8. Steven Harris says:

    I often let creativity flow when writing university assignments and when working on my doctorate. However, editing is vitally important for it is the stage when I remove anything that is simply being creative for the sake of it. A phrase an old professor once used was ‘kill your darlings’ meaning purge your work of all those snazzy little phrases you feel most proud of. But academic work without a creative input is so tediously dull so one or two of the darlings were granted a stay of execution here and there.

    • Hi Steven, and welcome! Thanks for the comment!

      I am familiar with the phrase about killing your darlings – I actually just came across it recently! And, it is so true, yet so hard! It kills me sometimes to cut lines or scenes that I just love.
      It is not often I have read any academic works that were not “tediously dull”! I would like to know what it is you are studying??

  9. Steven Harris says:

    Hi again. I studied English Literature to doctoral level, although ill health meant I have not completed the PhD and am not sure I’ll be able to return even though the health is a little improved. Am writing fiction again now and enjoying it anyway so hopefully am putting to use some of the things I’ve learnt.
    I do indeed have a blog and it can be found at
    http://doctorbeatnik.wordpress.com/

    • Hi, Steven! I studied Biochemistry. Not related to literature in the least to literature. I only made it as far as a MSc before realizing it just wasn’t for me. We each have our path.

      Thanks for the link to your blog.

      • Steven Harris says:

        Biochemistry is still a collection of ‘stories’ in a sense. Everything we tell ourselves about how the world works, on a physical and a metaphysical level, are stories in this sense. I am, of course, playing with words, but that’s why I went for Literature in the first place. πŸ˜€

  10. I think you hit some good points about writing non-fiction and fiction, Jennifer. I write book reviews, and I want those reviews to be as well written as possible. So I have to apply a great number of creative writing techniques to my non-fiction writing (the hook, etc.) all points that you covered very nicely.

    I like being creative in my book reviews and try to match the cadence of the review with the novel I’ve read. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not, but it’s an interesting to try.

    Great topic, Jennifer.

    • Thanks, Teresa! What you are saying reminds me of writing a query!

      One of the biggest critiques I had from two separate people who read one of my early drafts was that it was too business letterish. They both said I undersold myself. I still find it a real challenge when writing the query. As you mention, catching the rhythm and tone and voice. Difficult!

  11. Hi Jennifer, I also owe you an apology for not stopping by in so long! I actually read this post last week but didn’t stay around long enough to comment – I was so inspired by you doing your article writing that I got straight onto doing some research for my own articles instead. There were a few ideas that had been floating round my head for a while but I hadn’t done anything about them. Thanks for motivating me to follow them up!

  12. Good points in your post, Jennifer. I just wrote an article for a journal and I wrote it in exactly the same way I write fiction. The creative process was the same–only nothing was made up. I do think at times the fiction/nonfiction label is irrelevant. Is it a story or an essay or memoir? What difference does it make? Only in the degree to which the writer can stray from the truth.

    However, in other cases, for example traditional book reviews, my process is more intellectual and completely different from fiction.

    Interesting topic!

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