From the Editor's Desk

5 Things Non-Fiction Does (And Fiction Doesn’t)

Nonfiction can be both analytical and propositional (as we’ve discussed before). Because fiction is about persuading by experience rather than analysis, and because it’s about values rather than information, it stands to reason that there’s a range of things nonfiction does, and fiction doesn’t.

Make sure you understand the differences between fiction and non-fiction.

Here are five points on the continuum of non-fictional purpose and function:

  1. Present an academic analysis (make a contribution to the body of scholarly knowledge).
  2. Present information for its own sake (make a contribution to the body of a particular audience’s knowledge).
  3. Present applications for information in a broad and general way, rather than within the constraints of a single specific example, purpose and set of values.
  4. Use experience (anecdote) as a secondary element to analysis.
  5. Present experience with or without story arc (make a moral argument without a vicarious transformational experience).

My challenge to fiction writers is this: please make sure you don’t attempt to squish the above into a fiction format. As we proceed in the Fiction Focus articles, it’ll be clear why there’s no room for any of the above in a selling story. However, of more importance than the vague idea of “room” is purpose: the particular persuasive power of fiction isn’t found in any of the above.

Now, let’s put these five functions to good use.

Non-Fiction Self Check #1

Which purpose primarily describes your writing? Why do you want to communicate your topic? Is it to increase available knowledge? To assist in new applications of known things? To document real-life applications that match (or seem to challenge) your analysis of a thing? To create a record of real-life experience?

Your purpose is to communicate something to someone. The Five Functions remind you to look at who your audience is. What do they want?

  • An academic audience is different than laypeople seeking information.
  • People seeking information and those seeking to apply it may also be different–or the same.
  • People seeking to apply information may differ from those seeking to see how others have interacted with an idea, event or thing.
  • Some people may want to view the world through other, real people’s eyes rather than invented characters–to share in human experience.

Knowing your primary purpose will help you choose your communication style. To be effective, communication style should always use irreducible complexity: that is, it should be as simple as it possibly can without ceasing to function. The person who can explain quantum physics to Average Joe has a true mastery of the subject.

Non-Fiction Self Check #2

How high is your reliance on jargon? We think of jargon as sounding more academic; loftier; more knowledgeable. There’s strong temptation to use it in order to persuade readers of our knowledge. But just as your purpose may not be to write an academic treatise, the purpose of jargon is not actually to act as an insider’s language.

Insider talk is just a side effect.

One more time: Jargon does not exist for the purpose of insider code. That would be colloquialism, idiom and slang–word usages arising from the unique traits of specific cultures, usually verbal rather than written in origin. Slang is semantic. It invents entirely new words out of a language’s recognized sounds, or it brings extra layers of implication to common words. Jargon is syntactic. It brings extra specificity–narrower, more precise meaning–to information.

They’re pretty much opposites.

(And speaking of verbal, are you transitioning your brain from spoken word to written word?)

Jargon is specific wording used to differentiate similar but distinct concepts. Knowing which of the Five Functions is your primary one will help you choose how much genuine jargon to use. If you’re writing to an audience that cares very much about the crystal-clear details of the topic, the level of jargon will be higher (like a technical article). If you’re writing anecdotally about how people interact with the topic, the level of jargon will probably be lower (like a narrative).

This, by the way, is how jargon becomes idiom as a side effect: only a particular community needs highly specific jargon. The rest of us are fine with general language. And, of course, that particular community converses about its topic. Not just academically; there are jokes, arguments, mistakes of speech, inflammatory events or triumphant ones.

All these contribute to an idiomatic use of jargon. Jargon as idiom is a great way to show understanding if you’re talking to that community. But it’s pointless if the semantic layers aren’t available to an outside audience.

Non-Fiction Self Check #3

Does your analysis/argument succeed under more than one type of presentation? This sounds like an obscure question, but it means this:

  • Does your work translate with reasonable freedom between highly specific wording and generic presentation?
  • Does the abstract concept connect to known examples of real-life experience?
  • Does your theory stand up to application?

In other words, are you using one or more of the Five Functions in addition to your primary purpose?

Do so, and you’ll have a strong case. The more functional your information, the better it will communicate its meaning and purpose.

For more on how fiction and non-fiction connect to people, read the incomparable Kristen Lamb talking about The Road to Success.

Image credit: 5 by losmininos on Flickr | License: CC-BY-SA


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