Writing Non-Fiction vs Writing Fiction

I am currently in the process of editing two of my books: a novel (working title “Blurred Faces”, though, honestly, no other one is coming to mind) and the guide for managers of remote teams “Online Meetings that Matter”. Both pieces live in the same space on my computer, in Scrivener, and maybe that’s what contributed to the fact that I thought editing them would require a similar set of skills. I was so wrong.

Where I’m At

Before I share why each manuscript needs a different approach, let me tell you at which stage each book is at.

“Online Meetings that Matter” is… well, those of you who know me will have heard about this book for the last two years. It’s gone through all kinds of drafts, all kinds of readers and feedback (thank you!), a change in title and a couple of structure changes. But that’s it, I’m done with reworking the thing. After two years of working on it (“Oh, let me write a small book about meetings…”), I’ve chopped out lots of materials and (I think) have finished fixing the text I already have. However, I now need to go back and give it another read, and spot all the obvious stuff I’ve missed – oh, the curse of knowledge…
(For more on the curse of knowledge, read Anne Janzer’s excellent book on writing non-fiction, Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why)

“Blurred Faces” on the other hand is in a much earlier stage, although the **** thing has been around for over five years now… After “vomiting” two first drafts onto the page during two separate (and not consecutive) NaNoWriMos , I looked for a development editor to help me transform it into something that others could enjoy. (As a matter of fact, I wasn’t looking for someone to help me with that particular piece, but with another one that got stuck in the middle and couldn’t move forward… I’m still stuck on that story, and it was the editor-coach who suggested that we worked on something that already had a first draft.)

I’m now waddling through the coach’s feedback and struggling, really struggling (I haven’t struggled over something creative for a long while) to edit the text and shape a story in a way that will make the piece decent.

The Differences

After setting long chunks of time to work on one of the two books and not using the time productively, I’ve decided to work for half an hour on each book every day, when I can. So probably, about four times a week. This means that I am working on both pieces in parallel. And the difference between both approaches has finally struck me, at a stylistic level.

As I edit the non-fiction text, I’m looking to tighten up the writing. Discard any words that don’t add anything, change “you might want to do x” to “do x” – and I’m using “consider” a lot too, when I want the reader to think a little bit more through what I’m proposing.

I’m trying to find the most lyrical way of explaining to the reader what I mean.

When writing fiction, however, it’s not as much about making the prose pretty (you’d think it would be the opposite, wouldn’t you?), but of guiding the reader so that they work out what it is I want to tell them. They work out the story as they go along, I guide them. I drop some pebbles in front of them, they follow them, and on the way, they start to realise where I’m leading them to.

Whereas in the non-fiction piece, I hold them by the hand. I point at the different trees, the different plants, tell them about them and answer their questions and reflect their doubts. Of course there are also stories, and I do try to drop some hints of what’s to come later to keep them a little bit in suspense, but essentially, I tell them what I want to tell them. When writing the novel, they have to work that out themselves.

So, there you have it.

I thought working on a draft of a non-fiction book would be similar to working on a fiction manuscript.

I thought that the main difference between writing in each genre was that, when writing a novel, the first draft can be all made up, whereas in non-fiction it needs structure, and some kind of research to support your ideas.

I thought that my “shitty first draft” would require some tightening, some new scenes and that would be it.

But it’s almost like learning to write in a new language – both have different rules and require different mindsets. But what they all have in common is the reader’s journey. Non-fiction books also have a reader’s journey – at least the ones I want to write.

Check out episode 33 of Word Maze as I build on the above.
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