Four Ways to Ease the Transition from Writing Fiction to Non-Fiction And Vice Versa

The ideas in your brain could fill an entire library, amirite?

So you’re a writer. You’re creative, right? You’re multitalented, right? You’ve got loads of ideas spinning around that ol’ brain of yours, and you want to bring them all to fruition. Whether as short stories, poems, novels, or creative non-fiction, you’re a writer with a lot to offer, and it’s time to turn all those ideas into cash dolla dolla bills. Right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy. Fiction and non-fiction writing are different enough from each other that they might almost be separate crafts and separate industries. From writing your book to querying agents to getting published to coming up with a marketing plan, the process of publishing a novel is vastly different from the process of publishing a book of non-fiction. For example: it’s true that creative writing often requires research, but unless you’re writing military thrillers or historical fiction, the work is much less exacting than in a work of non-fiction. Rarely does fiction writing demand a high level of expertise – instead, it’s much more important that you be vivid in your descriptions, that you know your characters inside and out, and that you’re able to construct a compelling plot. Non-fiction, by contrast, requires research, exhaustive references, and, depending on the field you’re writing in, a lot of expertise. And while some of the writers who dominate the non-fiction bestsellers lists are also excellent at crafting sentences, great writing isn’t a prerequisite for a great book of non-fiction.

So what happens when you’re a novelist with a brilliant idea for a work of non-fiction – or a non-fiction author who’s ready to make the switch back into creative writing? Here are a few ways to get your head in the game as you prepare to enter your new field.

1. Whether switching to non-fiction or fiction, do your market research.

Before you start diving into your project with wild creative abandon, read some writer’s blogs, study the publisher’s marketplace, and attend a writer’s conference or two to learn a little more about your new field. Are vampire novels on the out and out? If they are, what are you going to do to make sure yours stands out – so you don’t waste a year of your life on a project no one is going to touch? Are self-help books selling particularly well right now? Then write quickly and pitch early and hard, so you don’t miss the trend. Are cookbooks going down in a flaming ball of fire because so many recipes are available online now? Maybe consider starting a blog to build your audience before you compile your neighborhood-famous recipes into a book to pitch it to agents. Doing your market research before diving heart and soul into a project will save you a lot of headache in the long run.

2. Read similar books in your new field.

An extension of the ‘do your market research’ theme, this is a critical stage of mental preparation before you jump feet first into a new project. No matter what happens, once your book is ready for publication, you’re going to need to know about the competition. If you’re pitching a book of non-fiction to agents, your book proposal will include a comprehensive analysis of competing titles in the field. If it’s a novel you’re pitching, you’re going to need to prove that your story has precursors in the field that have sold well, or that yours is a genre-busting tale that will redefine the market in a compelling way. And if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to need to know what to compare your book to. For instance, my dad is self-publishing his book on analyzing numerical models from a layperson’s perspective (called Painting By Numbers) , and he’s selling it as a modern update on the timeless bestseller How To Lie With Statistics. This is a great way to sell his book to professionals and consumers – by using a famous and bestselling book as a straightforward reference point. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you’re going to need to familiarize yourself with your competitors in your new field.

3. Practice your new craft.

Writing a book on the historical significance of the Bay of Pigs in the Cold War is a totally different beast than writing a military thriller about the agents and government officials involved in the Bay of Pigs. If you’re getting into fiction for the first time since you took that creative writing class in college, start stretching and training your creative writing muscles by writing short stories. And if the last time you did any research was when you last tried to educate your friend-of-the-opposite-political-leanings on Facebook, it’s time to reacquaint yourself with your public library and get familiar with how to cite a reference. Practice by doing background research on your new subject and looking up how to cite each source. Write clever and witty summaries of each book you use in your research to work on your turns of phrase. Writing is writing, but fiction and non-fiction both call for different aspects and different skills.

4. Get familiar with how the process of publication differs from your old genre.

When seeking publication for a novel, you query agents with a letter and sometimes a plot synopsis or the first few chapters of your book, which you are expected to have completed and polished, nearly ready for publication, at the time of querying. With a non-fiction idea, you don’t have to have the whole book written – you just have to have a compelling book proposal, more like a business plan, that outlines the market need for your book and how you plan to sell it. If you’re coming from the non-fiction world, you might be tempted to start querying your new novel before it’s finished; don’t do that! In reverse, you might waste a lot of time writing your whole book, when an agent might look at your book proposal with interest, but only if significant changes are made. And if you’re self-publishing, your marketing plans are going to vary dramatically if you’re promoting a novel versus a book of non-fiction. A business-minded writer will start learning about all these differences before jumping into a new project in a new field.

Although it’s tempting to see fiction and non-fiction writing as more similar than they are different, it’s important to pay attention to the differences both in craft and in business. With a better awareness of how these two aspects of the publishing business differ, you’ll be set up for success when it comes time to dive into your project.