Tips from a Writing Pro

Should I write fiction or nonfiction?

Jonathan Baldie

Jonathan Baldie

Jan 18, 2020 — 3 mins read
Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@diesektion" target="_blank">Robert Anasch</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com" target="_blank">Unsplash</a>

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

The choice of writing fiction or nonfiction crosses the mind of everyone who picks up a pen. Should we write an enticing tale that pulls the reader onto an exciting journey, or share our greatest lessons in a more literal fashion?

I'll admit that I've only published nonfiction books up to this point, but in 2014 I actually wrote a manuscript for a novel. I hadn't read anything on fiction writing, and never finished the first draft thanks to a plot roadblock I never solved.

Since then, I've found that nonfiction writing actually plays to my strengths a lot better: I love history, I love sharing important lessons, and I love writing stories based on historical events that impart lessons and delight the reader.

My method of writing is heavily adapted from Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and Mastery. He writes historical stories in an engaging way that gets under the reader's skin, and then pulls apart the important lessons.

This style is very different to fiction writing. When writing novels, you have to immerse the reader in a story using indirect methods. You have to show, rather than tell. You can't browbeat the reader with advice like you can in nonfiction.

In fiction, you can also create characters of your exclusive design, and then put them through a series of events that are entirely constructed by you. Writing fiction is like creating a universe where you set all the rules and roll all the dice.

I'm happy to admit that writing fiction is way more challenging than writing nonfiction. With the latter, you have a strict set of rules (follow the truth, present useful advice) which guide you in a very helpful and streamlined way.

With fiction writing, you have infinite possibilities. That sounds great, but in reality it's actually terrifying. There are infinitely many changes to make. Infinitely many ways to improve - and screw up - your novel.

As a published author myself, I've also noticed some important differences in how books are received. Fiction authors are able to make each book a bestseller, whereas nonfiction authors have to change topics or reinvent their work.

This is because each new fictional story offers (in theory) a unique world to explore, with twists and turns unlike the last one. When readers see a new nonfiction book, they think "Ah, I already know what he/she/they thinks."

That's a bit of a generalisation, but at the top end of publishing it's true. It's much easier for novelists to find repeat success than for nonfiction authors. But I personally love writing books in many different topics. It's why I love the job.

At the end of the day, a novel is a very different product to a nonfiction book. The first one provides an exciting story, a form of entertainment. The second provides useful lessons, hopefully (but not necessarily) in an entertaining way.

Whichever of these styles suits you the best should tell you which route to choose. And as I always say to writers: just go ahead and write. Give one a try, and see how it works. That's always going to be better than missing out on important practise.

You should write fiction if: You enjoy getting immersed in stories, having full creative control over characters, the world they occupy, the plot that they experience, and the important changes they undergo as people.

You should write nonfiction if: You enjoy conveying facts and useful lessons for people in a direct, timely manner. You can tell stories, but mainly historical ones with concrete lessons and clear purposes. You prefer a streamlined process.

writing nonfiction fiction
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