Why fiction writing advice is worthless to nonfiction writers

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There are a million suckers hoping to publish their fictional stories. As a result, there’s lots of advice from people hoping to help — or prey on — these suckers. If you write nonfiction, this sort of advice is just noise.

Why you should ignore advice for “writers”

If you tell someone you are a writer, they will likely assume that you write fiction. There’s a reason for this: the world is filled with people who imagine that they will publish novels. After all, they read lots of novels, how hard could it be to write one?

Because there are so many aspiring fiction writers, there’s lots of advice for them. Search “writing advice” and you’ll see sites with advice from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Ray Bradbury. This information is a distraction for nonfiction and business writers. Here’s why:

  • You’re already a nonfiction writer. If you’ve written instructions on anything — or emails to your colleagues — you’re a nonfiction writer. You’re already primed to do what most nonfiction writers do: provide information and then advice so people can get things done. There’s lots of tips on how to do this well — I wrote a book about it — but because such writing is utilitarian, it’s doesn’t benefit from fiction writing advice.
  • Nonfiction writers don’t typically write to entertain. The objective of a fiction writer is to entertain the reader. The objection of a nonfiction writer is to create knowledge and then action. While there are some nonfiction writers who hope to just tell a story, most of the factual writing in the world is attempting to do a job: inform people and help them get something done. Entertaining such readers is beside the point.
  • Nonfiction writers can much more easily get paid for publishing. If you write fiction and want to get paid for it, you could attempt to get a publishing contract, for which the chances are vanishingly small, or try to make yourself a success as a self-published sensation, which is also an extreme long shot. Nonfiction writers, on the other hand, have many outlets: internal and external newsletters, advertising copy, content marketing, journalistic sites, and non-fiction books, for example. Nonfiction writing is a career. Fiction writing is, for almost everybody who does it, just a hobby.
  • Fiction writers are liars. Fiction writers can just make things up, it’s the nature of the work. Nonfiction writers need to pay closer attention to facts and sources. It’s a completely different approach.
  • What matters in fiction isn’t central to nonfiction. Fiction writers need to worry about characters, plot, pacing, and dialogue. Nonfiction writers need to address these elements as well, when they tell stories, but their main concerns are ideas, structure, and clarity — a wholly different set of challenges.
  • Nonfiction authors face a completely different publishing landscape. If you want to publish a nonfiction book, you’ll need to convince a publisher that you have the expertise, the ability to write, and most importantly, the ability to reach a market eager for your information. That’s a problem of logic, not lyricism. Make the case that your target market will pay — and you know how to reach them — and you won’t need to worry about the seductiveness of your prose or the complexity of your characters.

Writing vs. getting things done

Fiction writing is more about the writing. Nonfiction writing is more about how well it accomplishes a task.

That’s why following the writing advice for fiction writers will mess you up. Worry less about prose styling and more about effectiveness, and you’ll be much better off.

4 responses to “Why fiction writing advice is worthless to nonfiction writers

  1. Your essay is accurate, Josh, though the converse statement is not. In other words, non-fiction writing advice is often valuable to fiction writers. You and I are living proof.

    I’ve written and self-published a successful novel (5,000+ units within the historic fiction genre). It reads much better because of my best effort adherence to WOBS. Thank you.

  2. Says Josh: “Nonfiction writers don’t typically write to entertain. The objective of a fiction writer is to entertain the reader. The objective of a nonfiction writer is to create knowledge and then action. While there are some nonfiction writers who hope to just tell a story, most of the factual writing in the world is attempting to do a job: inform people and help them get something done. Entertaining such readers is beside the point.”

    Says Me: So I’m that oddball non-fiction writer who writes to entertain. But I’m on solid ground here if you accept the authority of no less than E. B. White who writes about his favorite magazine: “The prime purpose of a daily [newspaper] story is to acquaint you with the facts, whereas the prime purpose of a New Yorker story is to entertain you with the facts.” To what does he refer? Talk of the Town, of course, or Annals of Medicine, Annals of Crime or other types of non-fiction essays. Here, White is giving us the secret of how The New Yorker has been the source of America’s best non-fiction writing for close to a century now. Yes, The New Yorker. Nothing else comes close.

    As a non-fiction writer, myself, if I’m not entertaining, I’m failing. The title of the book I’m finishing up now is called, “If You Leave New York, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” — a line taken from a Ray Charles song and which may seem like it has nothing to do with my topic. But it draws you in to a 60,000 word refutation that with its facts and figures, stories, illustrations and call-outs will help the reader compete in the job market.

    So I’m with Gypsy Rose Lee: “Let Me Entertain You! Let Me Make You Smile!”

    On with the show! Huzzah!

    1. I salute you, Schlomo. Entertaining nonfiction is a wonderful thing. If you can tell a true story in a diverting way, you’ll sell a lot.

      It’s just that there are way more opportunities for useful writing than entertaining writing. And it’s far easier to fail at entertaining than at being useful. That’s why my advice is geared the way it is.

  3. Thanks for the kudos, Josh, but why are ‘useful’ and ‘entertaining’ mutually exclusive? Think of a good teacher. Have you explored in your blog what makes for a terrific teacher and who among those you’ve learned from over the years were the most inspiring or influential in your life? Why can’t a non-fiction book that imparts wisdom be a performance, of sorts?

    I grew up on a TV show called, Watch Mr. Wizard. Today, information plus entertainment makes for a successful YouTube. Why exclude books from the mix? Can’t you, Josh, make a useful book entertaining? Of course you can. I bought your ‘…Bullshit.’ So I know! Huzzah!

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