Non-fiction vs. Fiction: Lucy Balch’s perspective

I’ve written several articles for local magazines here in Richmond and I’ve discovered that writing non-fiction uses an entirely different set of brain cells.

First of all, it’s much more social and requires me to be a reporter, call people I’ve never talked to before and get to know their products or services well enough to write about them.  Since I’m a bit of an introvert it pulls me out of my comfort zone.

Also, the research is squarely on the shoulders of the people being interviewed.  I have to do my part by asking the right questions, but they ultimately must provide me with enough eye-catching detail to draw people in.  I can make an article interesting only with good facts and details that come from outside myself, not from any wellspring within.  And creativity is not welcomed; facts must be correct, not embellished.

By the way, I’ve learned many things I otherwise might not have known in the process of writing these non-fiction articles. Did you know that kitchen cabinets are designed on computers these days? Not just the initial concept; the wood is actually cut with the click of an “enter” button—to the nearest one-hundreth of an inch.

Did you know that certain baby stroller stores have a multi-dimensional track, on which a mommy-to-be can test drive her future designer stroller?  And there’s even a dummy baby to make the weight realistic.

Did you know that Pitocin-induced births create a higher risk for emergency caesarean section?  Or that Virginia has a midwife-assisted birthrate of 4% while New Mexico (the highest in the country) has a midwife-assisted birthrate of 25%? It’s all really interesting stuff—and it’s much more “here and now” than the research I do for my regency romances.  With those, I’m looking into things like obsolete jails (gaols) and Sir Walter Scott’s publish dates (not very current stuff, but critical for the believability of my stories).

But getting back to the differences: writing a non-fiction article is all about organization. It takes a little creativity to come up with a nice lead-in hook, sure, but it’s mostly about piecing together the various bits and pieces of information you’ve written down while in reporter mode, so that they form a cohesive and easy-to-read article for anyone who happens to be interested in the topic. Writing skill comes into play, but it’s the type that is straight out of my old high school grammar textbook.

The biggest difference, to me, is that when I’m typing out stuff that’s strictly from my imagination I tend to lose time. When my husband took our kids camping to give me a writer’s weekend, I never dreamed that time could move so quickly. That never happens when I’m writing a non-fiction article.

One other thought: the first few articles I wrote were torture, because I quickly realized how differently I was using my brain to write them, and it felt as if I was writing essays for high school teachers again.  But I continued to write them so that this sentence on my query letters—”I’m also a freelance writer for a conglomerate of local magazines, writing on everything from yoga to boating”—could be kept in good conscience.

Over time, they quit being torture.  I guess that part of my brain stopped being rusty, and the success I had with them muted the bad memories of teacher critiques.  I’ll never like them as much as creative writing, because they don’t give me that time-stealing “high,” but they certainly aren’t torture anymore.

Has anyone had a different experience with writing non-fiction?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lucy Balch
Author of Love Trumps Logic, a regency romance coming soon from Second Wind Publishing.


Filed under writing

11 responses to “Non-fiction vs. Fiction: Lucy Balch’s perspective

  1. dellanioakes

    Lucy, having done newspaper work, I understand what you’re saying! You have to click into that different mind set before you begin an article. There is very little room for being creative in journalism. However, it’s still fun to find the right words & turn of phrase to make it sound good. It’s kind of like writing a recommendation for a student that drives you crazy in the classroom. “Talks non-stop” becomes, “Loves to participate in class.” (Can you tell I wrote a few of those??)

    Good article!

    • lucybalch

      Thanks, Dellani! So true about the turn of phrase. If someone knows how to do it right, the mundane can be transformed.

  2. I guess the nearest I’ve got to non-fiction articles is trying to write a blog, but I like your suggestion that it uses different brain-cells. Makes a lot of sense.

    Now if I could just figure out how to follow your lead in training those brain-cells and finding someone to write for…

    • lucybalch

      Local magazines are a great place to start. They pay very little, which makes me think there might be a big turnover and therefore an easy “in.” Once in, you have published writing samples to take elsewhere…to a well-paying magazine, perhaps?

  3. I’ve produced quite a bit of web content and contributed somewhat regularly for a Southern magazine at one time. I remember the experience to be very time consuming. The research alone can be mind-numbing and rarely worth the rate paid per word–but a great experience. Especially performing interviews.

    • lucybalch

      I like the interviews too. For the cabinet article I toured the factory and saw the whole process. It’s fun to see how other people spend their time and energy.

  4. Hiram Davis

    But — have you ever interviewed someone who does yoga on a boat?

    I enjoyed the entry. Keep up the good work.

    • lucybalch

      thanks, Hiram. No yoga on a boat, but once I did a bizarre piece on something called reverse trendelenburg. Ever heard of it??

  5. Lucy,

    If you really want to kill your creative gray matter, try going to law school! I started my third novel in 2001 and have been trying to re-activate the muse every since. Not to mention how many sentences I had to delete when I took the bar exam (missed passing by 200 points!)

    I had a huge argument with a friend of mine who is a movie reviewer while I was the assistant editor of a health magazine. Told him that non-fiction was a lot easier to write since you didn’t need much imagination. Did THAT ever piss him off, but having recently edited my first novel for a new publisher, I can honestly say if I had the choice, I’d give up eating and sleeping if I could do nothing else than write fiction.

    But I get paid on the e-zine sites for my political commentary, which isn’t fiction, although at times I wish it were!

    Either way, one falls into the “black hole of time” no matter what you write!

    • lucybalch

      Ouch, so sorry to hear about the near miss on the bar exam!

      I’ve discovered that I have to maintain a delicate balance between what I do to pay the bills (speech therapy) and writing. If speech starts to take too much of my time, inspiration for writing starts to fall off quickly.

      Thanks for sharing, Raven!

  6. christinehusom

    I can really see your point. Having served in positions where most things are very black and white–corrections, law enforcement–it tends to block the creatice juices. Thanks for the wonderful article!

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