Writing Truth, Writing Lies: 3 Crossover skills between Fiction and Non-Fiction

I write in two areas; truth, and non-fiction.

I joke, of course. But while I’ve been writing fiction in my spare time for almost a decade now, I’ve also write in my day job. I write more policy and project artefacts (with the occasional foray into academia), but nonetheless, I write. Over the last few years, I’ve been genuinely surprised at how much I’ve been able to practice skills I thought specific to fiction. When discussing this though, people often respond with doubt. One relies on absolute fact, while the other has license to make up every detail.

If you want to know my opinion on whether spec-fic is inherently untrue, I discuss it in my first ever blog post, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that I’ve found writing outside of speculative fiction has improved my fiction as well. I’ve been able to practice skillsets critical to fiction, even though I’m writing a very different style. Your experience may be different, and I’d love to hear about it if it is. This, however, is what I have found to work across both areas, and I hope it helps a little for those who write all day, then write entirely differently into the night.

Context!

To give you a broad idea of what I’ve written in the area of non-fiction, it is. . .well, broad. A smattering of subjects, if you will. Ethics, the US Space Force, unrelated project artefacts, and international relations are a few. In fiction, my current WIP is about a Kithra, thief who accidentally kills a god. Other WIPs include Daniel, a space-faring con-artist trying to lie low on a highly religious generation ship, and sci-fi/fantasy cross loosely based on The Day The Earth Stood Still. Not really related topics. Yet writing each one helps writing in each other area with little more than a slight shift in mindset. Hopefully this works for you too.

Crossover Skill 1: An engaging opening with a promise

Image originally from nectafy.com

A common piece of advice in writing fiction is to write an engaging first line. I believe it needs a little more; it needs a promise too. An engaging first line hooks a readers interest, but a promise gives them something to look forward to at the end. My aim is to give readers an experience, and to promise that experience from the beginning. A good opening sets tone, genre expectations, and promises time spent reading this book is time well spent.

Writing an academic piece or project artefact doesn’t have a genre as such, and the tone is far more limited to the confines of ‘professional.’ But the document must still engage the reader. In both academia and project work, readers are generally time poor. If I can’t tell them exactly why this document should be their priority, it will go the bottom of the reading list. The target reader is different, but I still have the obligation – arguably more so – tell the reader why these words are worth their time. I need to tell them what problem they have, and how the document will help them solve it. Or I need to tell them what new knowledge they will gain, and how the paper will inform the reader. By presenting the document as a priority and by promising a benefit, I am practicing the same skill to improve my fiction.

Crossover Skill 2: Maintaining a consistent theme

Me in English at high school – not my strongest subject, but I like to think I’ve learned 😀

I’ve heard this preached in many fields, but rarely practiced outside of fiction. Maybe that’s because of my reading choices rather than a trend. In fiction, a theme sets up much of the rest of the story. It ties together the characters, the plot, and the real-world message. In fact, in my non-fiction, it is referred to as ‘the message’. One boss I had would always ask for the BLUF first – the ‘bottom line up front.’ This ‘bottom line’ is what I interpret as the theme. When writing fiction, I try to interrogate every paragraph for what it contributes to the story, whether in character development, setting, or theme. In non-fiction, I’m a little more brutal.

Every document exists for a reason – for that ‘bottom line’. For me, if a paragraph doesn’t directly contribute to that reason, it’s cut. A superfluous paragraph is essentially an opportunity for a reader to loses interest. I’ve found that those reading for professional reasons are far less forgiving than fiction readers too. They don’t have time to read irrelevant paragraphs. If it doesn’t contribute to solving their problem, then they’ll prioritise other activities. Lose their interest in a paragraph, and I’ve just wasted all the time I put into the rest. Having a consistent theme, reason, or argument is critical to effective writing, whether fiction or otherwise.

Crossover Skill 3: Reading the f%*&ing submission guidelines

Okay. Breath. I have read enough submissions to know that this basic requirement is all too often ignored. When I was reading for Odyssey, I never outright rejected submissions for ignoring the guidelines. BUT it did leave me less favourably inclined towards those submissions.

In non-fiction, I don’t necessarily have submission guidelines. They exist in academic writing, but I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write rather than submitting. So I don’t really have the experience to comment on that, other than saying my editors have been very accommodating.

In technical and business writing, there are 100+ page style guides. They are absolute rulings, except each person interprets them differently. I’m lucky in my current role – I have clear templates – which unfortunately don’t adhere to the style guide. If a template is provided though, it’s there for a reason. That is the format that makes it easy for the target audience to understand. Writing outside of these guides/templates gives the reader an easy reason to send the document back for redrafting, meaning one less thing for them to worry about right now. It also means more work for me.

By viewing the template and style guide as submission guidelines, I’m able to practice getting a document ready in the same way I would a story. Its different, sure. I get to resubmit, for example. But by reading, understanding, and submitting in accordance with the guide/template, I’m giving myself the best chance to get it through first go. If I do that in all my writing, then it becomes part of the process, not an extra for fiction. So, whether non-fiction or fiction, read the submission guidelines!

Less transferable skills

There are less transferable skills. Some of the obvious ones are that in fiction, I get to make up reasons for things that don’t yet fit. In non-fiction, this is somewhat less acceptable. I still need to explain them at some point in fiction, but suspension of disbelief gives much more leeway. Holding back and subtle foreshadowing is much less effective in non-fiction as well. If I want to make a point, I need to make it clear. Clarity is preferred.

In the same vein, subverting expectation is one of my favourite elements of fiction; but in academic, technical, or business writing, it creates ambiguities. This doesn’t discount arguing both sides of a point or discussing the viability of an option after presenting it throughout a document, but the writing should make it clear at the start. I’ve always been taught to communication the results or recommendations first, then argue them. It’s worked well for me so far, but that said I’m sure there are other ways to present information. In the end, that for me is the key difference.

In both fiction and non-fiction I am communicating a point. But they have different aims. In one I am entertaining and the other I am informing. There are crossover skills, but the crossover is not universal. Those authors who claim differences are not entirely wrong. But the more I write in both, the more I find the methods of achieving those aims can be used effectively across the spectrum of writing.

~Nathan

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