How Nonfiction Can Help Improve Fiction Writing

Writer statue BudapestBecause I am a voracious nonfiction reader, and I happen to write quite a bit of nonfiction, I learned a couple of tips that can be used to improve fiction writing.

Let me tell you this: if you read only novels, you have no idea what you’re missing.

There is something useful to learn everywhere and besides, you never know where inspiration might kick in. The more you open yourself to areas outside of your usual playground, the more you will expand your knowledge and hone your skills.

In this article I gathered five tips for effective writing. This is not about crafting the most beautiful and lyrical prose; this is about writing a piece that can be easily understood and enjoyed. Those tips are not exclusive to nonfiction and you can hear about them in the fiction scene. But I feel they are more prevalent and impactful while reading and writing nonfiction.

1. Create a clear outline of your work

Open the nearest nonfiction book around and you will most likely find a table of contents. Before becoming a table, it probably was an outline the author used to keep a cohesive overview of the numerous topics and details at hand.

Many writers keep writing freely until the story gets very expansive and they lose track of where the many plot points are supposed to begin and end. Some of them might even be forgotten and left unresolved! The more complex a story is, the harder it becomes to keep track of everything from memory alone. A clear outline ensures that nothing will get entangled or be forgotten.

There is no universal formula for outlining; you just have to go with what works for you. You could divide your story into a succession of key events or follow the Three-Act Structure. Find what suits you. Here’s a quick example:

  • Chapters 13-17: Mike is tortured and later breaks out of the hideout while Tom and Laura search for him. They arrive in time to rescue Mike before he’s caught again.
  • Chapters 18-21: The trio makes use of the information gathered by Mike and concludes their investigation. They unravel the inner workings of the organization and pinpoint its next target.
  • Chapters 22-24: Final act begins. The trio prepares for the final confrontation. It’s the calm before the storm; they have various interactions that reassure their motivations and emphasize how much their relationships with each other have evolved.

Outlining provides many advantages, and the ones I benefited the most from are:

  • Preserve all the little story beats I came up with intuitively, and organize them chronologically.
  • Reverse-engineer the plot points that build up to the big developments. It becomes easier to know where to start a subplot or place foreshadowing.
  • Identify the remaining blanks, see what scenes come before and after, and fill said blanks accordingly. It’s like a puzzle that you solve piece by piece.

Having a clear framework at your disposal will greatly help you keep track of the many elements in your story and arrange them in the most seamless way.

2. Clean up your prose until it becomes crystal-clear

I am often amazed by how nonfiction writers can take complex subjects and break them down into easy-to-digest bites. Even a topic which seems intimidating at first becomes engaging thanks to the writer’s ability to paint a clear picture of it.

Regardless of what you write, accuracy of thought is mandatory.

If readers feel confused and unconvinced by a vague prose, they will drop the book and that means the author hasn’t done his work properly.

Likewise, when the prose is needlessly intricate, the same problem happens: boredom strikes. Imagine a narrator describing in detail the objects in the background when they have no connection to the story and don’t even contribute to the overall atmosphere or tone.

When writing you need to identify what is relevant and what is trivial. Focusing on pointless details is a common pitfall you need to stay away from.

On another note, a story is a complex tissue of interwoven elements: a multitude of characters, events, subtext, setting, arcs, subplots etc. This ensemble must be presented in an easy-to-assimilate manner. If the prose is convoluted on top of the story being complex, then reading your novel will become a stressful chore instead of an enjoyable voyage. The richness of your story must be approachable.

Good writing

In many nonfiction books, there isn’t one paragraph that I would rule out. Every single sentence packs value. You can feel how carefully the author has selected each word to get the main point across. Do the same with your story.

It’s funny how reading nonfiction is almost always effortless – therefore enjoyable, while some of the fiction I come across becomes a challenge of concentration and comprehension. You want readers to reach the last page? Make reading easy!

Whenever reading requires a serious effort, attention wanes and interest diminishes. Maintain your reader’s comfort with a clean prose that evokes vivid and accurate images of relevant things.

Do that and readers will keep flipping page after page.

3. Maintain an organized flow of ideas

A book (or a script) is a collection of organized ideas. Every page contains a logical stream that builds up and evolves with each sentence.

Sometimes you will find a sentence that interrupts the flow of thoughts. In that case, you should either move that sentence to another place where it fits, or remove it entirely. Don’t compromise the rhythm you’ve been building up just to keep a phrase or paragraph you like. Exercise ruthless focus in your editing. Personally I have a “scrapped sentences” file where unlucky content lies in wait of an eventual reuse. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more.

It’s also easy for writers to stretch sentences to overwhelming lengths, especially when it comes to descriptions and moments of introspection. Read your writing aloud and spot the sentences when you get tired and short of breath; those are the parts that need editing.

Always ask yourself: how is a sentence related to the one before it and the one that comes after?

4. Have a full understanding of the subject matter

Writing nonfiction tests your mastery of the subject matter. At times you will find yourself not understanding the topic enough to explain it.

The same applies in fiction. Not explaining why or how something happens is a surefire way to suspend the disbelief of readers. When you haven’t planned your plot thoroughly, coincidences happen, questions remain unanswered and convenient solutions appear at the last minute.

Of course, I’m not saying you should indulge in hand-holding and excessive info dump. You should trust your reader and have a little subtlety here and there. But show, or at least hint to how everything makes sense. What motivates this character to make that choice? Why would he take that risk, or why would he be present at that specific place and time? How exactly does that prisoner escape from jail? If I want to write about a lawyer doing his job, then how exactly do legal procedures unfold? How and how much does he charge? How does he research and gather evidence?

Writing forces you to reflect on the ideas you want to present and reach to their core. And nonfiction taught me to examine a given topic from all angles, and explore its full implications. Doing the same with fiction allows you spot inconsistencies and draw out the full potential of ideas.

5. Separate writing and editing

When you feel a surge of creativity taking hold of you, don’t worry about perfection of prose and let the ideas flow.

I used to combine writing and editing. I was overwhelmed by a multitude of tasks: polish descriptions, track down redundant or useless words, formulate a smooth transition to the next scene… the ensuing headache pushed me to give up and postpone the writing session to the next day. And the same thing happened, again and again. As a result, it would take me an entire month to progress by a mere thousand words.

The urge to edit was hindering my creative flow and affecting my overall productivity. Performing two different tasks simultaneously is difficult and confusing.

It’s only after starting writing a bit of nonfiction that I allowed myself to get the ideas out, no matter how rough or random they are, and leave polishing for later. Focus on one task at a time and execute it properly.

It’s much better to finish a first draft in two months, even it’s awfully written, than to spend one year struggling to find the perfect words on the first try. You can always edit the draft later and fix the writing weaknesses. The more time it takes you to advance, the more your motivation will be tested.

First drafts are often an unsightly mess, but you don’t have to show them to anyone!

Closing thoughts

Read anything you get your hands on. Biographies, business books, how-to books, essays etc. Study all kinds of writing and see what you can implement. Observe nonfiction writing and understand how it can be both entertaining and educating. Reading and writing nonfiction will help you improve your ability to convey ideas in the most accurate, cohesive manner. And aren’t stories ideas to begin with?

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