Saturday, July 10, 2010

Non-fiction writers should read fiction, and vice versa

Not all writing is created equal. Some writers are good. Some are not. What makes a good writer, and good writing, is somewhat debatable, but most of us have our opinions on it. Especially if you happen to be a writer.

Too often, however, writers and even readers do ourselves a disservice by being snobbish about what we read. Some of us only read romance novels, or fantasy fiction or newspapers. Some of us stick to literary magazines or military publications or housekeeping books. While there's nothing wrong with having a favorite type of literature, we miss out on a lot when we don't allow ourselves to branch out and step outside our safety net.

Believe it or not there is good writing out there, even enjoyable and entertaining writing, beyond the scope of what most of us stick with.

As a personal example, one of the best non-fiction books I've read is "Education of a Wandering Man" by Louis L'Amour. L'Amour is generally known for his fictional Western novels, a genre I rarely read. If I had not taken a chance on his non-fiction writing, even though I'm not the biggest fan of Western novels, I would not have discovered the delights of "Education of a Wandering Man," basically the tale of L'Amour young days before he became a writer. In the book he writes about various misadventures, including walking out of Death Valley on foot.

Stretching, and sometimes even tearing down or jumping over, our boundaries is even more important for writers than for readers. Readers generally read to educate themselves or for entertainment purposes, while writers read not only for those reasons but also to study writing. To study writing properly, to learn new ways of using language for writing, we as writers should be as well read as feasibly possible. Reading widely will actually improve our writing.

Another example is "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote. "In Cold Blood" is a non-fiction true crime book about the murder of a Kansas family back in the 1950s and the trial and executions of the family's killers. While unnerving, these actual events sound fairly tame to many of the true crime book published today, most of which involve serial killers and all kids of downright freaky and awful murderers. Still, by far, "In Cold Blood" is the best of the many true crime books I've ever read. Capote doesn't present the story in the typical, news-like narrative form common to many true crime books, but he uses a narrative that reads like the best of fiction writing. "In Cold Blood" is written so well it can tear your emotions apart, on one page having you appalled at the murders while on another page having you feel sorry for the actual murderers. Fiction writers need to read this book to witness a story told at its finest.

Also, for fiction writers, reading non-fiction can give one all kinds of story ideas. Today's science magazines can offer information that's far beyond anything science fiction novelists could have dreamed up even a couple of decades ago.

For non-fiction writers, study the art of fiction can help to improve one's craft. Fiction writers tend to use stronger verbs and adjectives than their non-fiction counterparts, thus non-fiction writers can learn a thing or two here, as well as possibly picking up some plotting ideas. Because believe it or not, even non-fiction can be plotted out, and well.

So spread your writing and reading wings and try something new. Not only could you possibly pick up some hints and tips for your craft, but you might even enjoy reading something different. And discovering something new is always one of the finest moments of being a reader or writer.

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