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