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On Starting Out Writing Nonfiction
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1997 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
I started out as a nonfiction writer, and a lot of people have
asked me if that was a good way to prepare for a career in
writing fiction. The answer is yes, it was great for me but
that had a lot to do with the particular kind of nonfiction work
I was doing.
I've had a lot of discussions with a fellow writer who,
like me, started out writing nonfiction. The difference: I
started out writing nonfiction for magazines; she started out
reporting for newspapers. We both agree that my nonfiction
career better prepared me for fiction writing than hers did. The
- Magazine articles have a traditional "beginning, middle, and
end" structure: the magazine writer has to find both a narrative
hook and a conclusion, whereas the newspaper writer has to adhere
to the standard inverted-pyramid structure, in which the "hook"
is simply a bald statement of the most-important facts, and there
is no conclusion the article is structured so that it can be
chopped off at any paragraph break by the editor, depending on
available room in the newspaper. The upshot: I'm a much better
plotter, and much more innovative in my choice of narrative
forms, than she is.
- Feature magazine articles are written much more slowly. A
reporter might do several stories a day; a magazine writer might
do only a couple of stories a month. The differences are
obvious: the magazine writer learns to spend much more time on
each piece, working with and revising the text. I'm now content
to spend a week or more on a short story, if need be; my
associate has a hard time going back to the same short story on a
- Both feature magazine articles and news stories are often
assigned to a given word length (say, 2,000 words) but the
newspaper writer, who is working much more quickly, will find
2,000 words and stop. I often would have 5,000- or even
10,000-word first drafts of 2,000-word articles: there's a much
greater filtration process, deciding what is really necessary
to the story and what can be dispensed with. The result is that
I write much tighter fiction (more plot events; more ideas per
page) than does my associate.
- Magazine features often consist in whole or in part of
profiles of other people; a magazine writer learns to capture the
voice and personality of distinct individuals on the printed
page, whereas a reporter is usually constrained against doing
that. Magazine writers try to capture who somebody is, reporters
capture just what they said. I ended up learning a lot more
about characterization than my associate did.
- This one is a subtle difference, but it's based on the fact
that although beginning magazine writing and beginning small-town
reporting probably pay about the same (which is next to nothing),
established magazine writers make a hell of a lot more
money than any but a top person at a major big-city daily. I
ended up writing for Canada's top magazines, often making a
dollar a word for my nonfiction articles; because of this, I
tend to shy away from any but the major
short-fiction markets. My associate,
who never made the equivalent of more than a dime a word for her
reporting, still pursues things that I consider non-markets
(payment in copies of the magazine, instead of cash), or
That's all well and good, except that because she'd "sold" dozens
of stories to such markets, she thought she was a much better,
more polished short-story writer than she really was . . . and when
she did go after the major markets (and tried to switch to novel
writing, as well as trying to
acquire an agent), she found her
stories being bounced, often with just form rejections. So,
while a staff reporter doesn't really think too much about
markets, a freelance article-writer does constantly rank
the attractiveness of markets, and perhaps ends up with a better
"reality-check" sense about his or her progress in fiction
- A related point: when someone is paying you a dollar a
word (or even a goodly fraction of that amount), you do
feel you've got to give real value to the editor for that money.
I have never uttered the words "well, it's good enough, I guess"
in relation to a piece of writing; my associate admits that
that's the first sentiment that occurs to her upon completing a
draft of a piece.
If I had to summarize it all with a gross generalization,
the magazine path taught me quality over quantity; the
newspaper path taught her quantity over quality.
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