Thinking About Non-Fiction Writing

thinking-clipart-as5814Most writers – including me – want to write, well.. stories. We live half our lives in an imaginary world, populated by made-up people and places, dreaming of the day when our name’s on the cover of a novel. Right?

But, as I’m always telling my students, you’re much more likely to have non-fiction published, than fiction. You probably already knew that. There’s less competition because there are so many more openings and opportunities, from letters in magazines, to articles in print or on-line, reviews, blogs, travel and opinion pieces, life writing.. and so it goes on.

Just stand in WH Smiths and gaze at all the magazines they stock (and that’s not even all the magazines published in the UK). There are many subscription-only and specialised magazines too. (Check out the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for a comprehensive list) and all of them – and their accompanying websites – need copy and you might be just the person to supply it.

I’ve been thinking about non-fiction recently because I’m finding it more and more difficult to read long fiction (ie: anything longer than a short story!). I put down more books than I finish. The writing has to grab me in the first couple of pages. I have to like – or at least be interested in – the main character and there has to be sufficient tension for me to keep turning the pages, to want to find out what happens next.

And what of the novels I keep giving up on? It’s not, honestly, because I think I can do better. I know how hard it is to write good fiction. But there’s a world of books out there, waiting to be read and I’ve become book-intolerant: life’s too short to read anything that’s not unputdownable.

I’ve just (last night) started reading ‘H is for Hawk‘ by Helen Macdonald, a memoir which won both the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. And, as I’d thought and hoped it would be – it’s excellent. I don’t think I’ll be giving up on this one! (Hurrah!)

So, if, like me, you’re turning your thoughts a little more to ‘non-fiction’ these days, you might be interested in these (free!) travel writing competitions on the Bradt Travel Guides website:

To Oldly Go‘ – over 60 with a tale to tell? There’s a call out for true stories from silver travellers, to go into a new book. c/d 14th June and it’s open to anyone (including those who live outside the UK).

The Bradt Travel Writing competition, in conjunction with the Independent on Sunday has got some wonderful travel-related prizes and there’s even a category for ‘Unpublished Writer’ and ‘Best Young Writer’. You’ve got until 30th June to submit your true travel piece on the theme ‘Serendipity’. This one is only open to UK residents, sorry!

If you live in Dumfries and Galloway, Dorset ; North Devon and Exmoor , Cornwall or Northumberland or you know these areas well, this could be for you. There’s a competition for each area, asking for 500 words describing your ‘Perfect Day In Dorset’.. (or Cornwall or North Devon, etc). There are breaks for two to be won and the closing date for all the competitions is 30th June.

Bear in mind that: “The judge will consider a combination of factors including originality of idea, quality of writing, adherence to theme and creativity.”

Writing fiction is just one side of being a writer and getting published and if you’re interested in opportunities for writing non-fiction, I can do no better than to point you in the direction of Alex Gazzola’s excellent blog ‘Mistakes Writers Make‘ which is positively teeming with tips, advice and markets for non-fiction writers.

And on that subject, I have three articles to write for Writing magazine, so I’d better make a start on one of them …

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15 Responses to Thinking About Non-Fiction Writing

  1. Patsy says:

    I wrote a news piece once. It was published, but I found it so hard sticking to the facts that I’ve not attempted one since.

  2. Wendy Clarke says:

    I find writing non-fiction a really refreshing change from stories so I ring the changes every now and again and write an article instead. Like you, Helen, I have decided that there are too many books out there to waste time on the average ones. I have become much less tolerant and will now give up on a book – whereas in the past, that would have been unthinkable.

    • Wendy, I speak to more and more people now who are saying that about books.. they would always finish one, when they started it but now, ‘life’s too short’! I do still feel slightly guilty (and as though I’ve ‘failed’!) when I give up on a book but my time for reading is limited and I don’t want it to be a chore!

  3. rosgemmell says:

    I’ve always enjoyed writing non-fiction in between the fiction and you’re right, it’s sometimes easier to sell, although I still prefer reading fiction for pleasure. Will check out your links, thanks.

  4. juliathorley says:

    I’ve had more success writing non-fiction articles than short stories. I’ve never tried my hand at full-on news stuff, but I’ve writen quite a few features over the years. My latest success is two (and one pending) in Picture Postcard Monthly. However, I would dispute that it’s easier to sell. There’s just as much competition out there, not least from advertorial that has been rejigged from press releases.

  5. Julia, congratulations on your feature successes. Maybe ‘easier’ is not the right word but there are definitely more markets for non-fiction and therefore more opportunities to sell articles and features as opposed to short stories. Apart from competitions (which are very subjective, highly competitive and usually cost to enter!) the only markets for selling short stories in the UK are now: Woman’s Weekly, Take A Break, The People’s Friend, Yours, The Weekly News and..with conditions, My Weekly/Best. Compare that to the dozens if not hundreds of magazines that will accept freelance articles.. I’m not saying it’s easy but I think, if you work hard, apply yourself and have some good ideas, there are more chances of publication with non-fiction.

  6. Linda says:

    A lot of people – especially non-writers – seem to think writing non-fiction is less creative than fiction but I found the opposite is true. I wrote business articles for a local magazine for a while, and trying to find ‘an interesting, new angle’ (but including all the usual facts and figures), was very hard. Much easier to make something up!
    But I do like the look of those travel comps …

  7. Alex Gazzola says:

    A very belated thank you for the mention, Helen. I have expressed my gratitude by stealing the ‘county’ Bradt competitions you’ve alerted me to and adding them to the upcoming competitions page on my blog ….

    As a tutor and blogger and writer exclusively focusing on non-fiction, I was cheered to read this. I played about with fiction in my early days, but never got anywhere and quickly lost interest when the non-fiction took off, and now I’m always trying to champion non-fiction to students who think it’s “fine – but it’s a novel that I really want to do”. Too often it’s seen as the less creative sibling to fiction, as Linda says, but trying to inject interest and colour into an article – such as a business article that she mentions – that could so easily be stale and pedestrian demands imagination!

    I love reading fiction I should add (so thank you to those who do write it), and, obviously, everyone should write what they like – but I do think it’s a shame when some writers perpetuate the notion that it’s only fiction that really ‘signifies’ in this business. NF rocks too! 🙂

    • juliathorley says:

      I’ve seen a look of disappointment in people’s eyes when in reply to their question ‘What do you write?’ I have said ‘Mostly non-fiction, but…’ I rarely get past the ‘but’.

      • Alex Gazzola says:

        Ha, yes, I can relate to that! I specialise in food intolerances and allergy and the reactions to that vary considerably – sometimes folk are genuinely interested (they pick your brain about their bloating (!), or they ask how you can make a living from such a specialist subject) but others are genuinely disappointed – perhaps because when they learn you’re a writer they’re hoping to share the novel they’ve been secretly working on with you for feedback? I’ve had that once or twice … I’m really not the person to critique fiction!

  8. Hi Alex, thanks for your comment and please, feel free to ‘steal’ any of the competitions that I post! I have come to the conclusion that any kind of writing is hard (and actually those 800 word articles that I occasionally write for Writing magazine take me HOURS. I reckon, as long as I have the idea, I can definitely write a 1 page fictional story in less time!). There’s no easy route or magic formula, is there, whatever you write?!

    • Alex Gazzola says:

      Feel free to do likewise! And yes, it can be, but I’m trying to train myself to be ‘brisker’ with my writing. I do so few blogs because I labour over them but am trying to limit the time I spend on them, and have come to the conclusion that writing quickly is something you have to work on and train yourself to do, at least in non-fiction. I’ll keep working on it!

  9. Alex, ‘labour’ is exactly the right word – I definitely ‘labour’ over my non-fiction articles! Perhaps I just need to write more of them and, as you say, get ‘brisker’!

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