Writing Non-Fiction and Fiction - Some Thoughts

I'm not a professional fiction writer. Let me say that up front.
The non-fiction stuff I can handle -- newspaper articles, encyclopedia entries, whatever -- but plot lines, deep characters and complex dialogue? A totally foreign concept.
Luckily, I think non-fiction writers have it a lot easier than our fiction-writing counterparts. Here's two quick reasons why:

1. Non-fiction writers aren't emotionally invested in their work. It's a lot easier to tell yourself "no one's going to read this" when you're writing up a $50 spot on hospital respirators for a medical newsletter than it is when you're composing a 6,500 word short story on space travel for Asimov's.
Sure, people are going to read both, but the writer's soul isn't really invested in the non-fiction piece. He will (or should) absolutely do his best job to make the hospital respirators the most goddamn interesting thing on the planet, but if the editor wants to make some tweaks, you work with her to fix it. It's no skin off your back. And if the piece is rejected, you move onto another one because ...

2. There's a ton of low-hanging fruit for non-fiction writers. Let's not kid ourselves here. Virtually anyone with a computer and a brain can write a passable piece on hospital respirators and get a quick check for it. The writer is reporting information. And while it's crucial he conducts good interviews, does sound research and presents the material in a compelling way, things like presentation (word choice, flow and readability) often take a back seat to the facts. The target audience is usually pretty specialized (doctors, lawyers, actuaries, etc.) and doesn't care about masterful turns of phrase. They care about information. And virtually anyone can string information together into passable prose if they are relying on sound research.
Not so much for fiction writers.
In fiction it's all about presentation, baby.
The story better be great or odds are it won't be published.
And if there's poor word choice, wooden dialogue and lousy characters, there's no way any editor is going to "work with you" to make the story good. They'll reject it and move on. It's a bloated market with tons of writers. Not many people want to write about hospital respirators, but many want to be the next Arthur C. Clarke.

So what's the point??

Be well-versed in both styles. If you want to write fiction, that's great, but don't make it a singular project. At least not at the start. Take some non-fiction gigs. Get paid. Eat. Grab the low-hanging fruit. Those $50 checks will start to mount up. And don't worry, you're not "selling out." It's called paying the rent. And if you want to make a living as a writer you kinda do have to write after all, right?
As for all you non-fiction writers ... try writing some fiction!
While I'm not a professional fiction writer, I have a lot of fun writing it and it's certainly made my non-fiction prose more compelling. Don't be scared by all the deep characters and intricate plots inhabiting your favorite novels. No one expects you to write like that out of the gate. Just get your feet wet.
It will pay off.


  1. Personally I think someone who can write about anything including hospital respirators is a REAL writer. The article on respirators may not have moved your audience, but it did give important information that was critical in saving a life. (Even if it just said "hey guys, we have repsirators now.")

  2. I agree 100% Jeanette. My whole point is I think people tend to shy away from things like that. They tend to project this "gravistas" on to writing that doesn't need to be there.
    Writing is a job, like anything else, and you want to take jobs that are going to get you paid.
    Now making hospital respirators interesting ... that's the mark of a GOOD writer. I don't really know how one would define a "real" writer. I don't think there's any such thing, honestly.