My first published words on the internet were a series of short fanfiction stories about the Heroes television series. Thankfully, they've since disappeared, and I've become a much better writer, or at least a readable one!
These days most of my time is spent in the nonfiction world, writing blogs, essays, email newsletters, and more. But I often get the question: "Do I feel limited by this?" As in, would I have more fun or feel more freedom if I had chosen to pursue fiction writing over nonfiction?
In my opinion, fiction and nonfiction offer authors the same amount of freedom.
It's just delivered in different ways. Below, we'll dive into the key differences between them and close the article with a few targeted questions to help you choose the right genre for you.
How is nonfiction writing different from fiction writing?
You probably already have a basic sense of how these forms differ from one another. Still, I would like to go one-level deeper and offer my own opinions as an author who has published in both.
Fiction authors rely less on facts.
Fiction tends to rely more heavily upon the imagination, while nonfiction writing intentionally ties itself more closely to real events, people, and stories. However, as the image above shows, this is a scale.
Plenty of fiction stories are set in real locations or built upon existing people. The same happens in nonfiction as writers take creative license and make new genres like creative nonfiction or magical surrealism.
Nonfiction and fiction have different goals.
Most works of fiction aim to entertain their audiences. Most nonfiction aims to educate. But neither of these are exclusive.
Writers like Malcolm Gladwell have attracted huge audiences because of how engaging their nonfiction work is to consume. And fiction books play a core role in education as they're able to address difficult topics in an accessible way.
Nonfiction writing has stricter boundaries.
Readers bring all sorts of expectations to the works they encounter. This is important because some genre-blending is allowed, but much more in the fiction realm than in the nonfiction one.
For example, a fiction story that breaks conventions will likely be better for it. But a nonfiction story that begins as an autobiography can't become a travelogue midway through, or a self-help book evolve into investigative journalism.
So, yes — there are key differences between nonfiction and fiction writing, but fewer than most people think. Both can offer incredible freedom when crafting the story you want to share.
Now, let’s review a few questions to ask yourself.
Common questions to help you choose a writing genre
Is it easier to build a career with fiction or nonfiction?
From my experience, it's easier to build a career in nonfiction writing.
Whereas fiction writers only have a few possible career paths (book author, television writer, story developer), nonfiction writers have the same opportunities and many additional ones in content marketing, technical fields, copywriting, and more.
Is it easier for first-time writers to get published with fiction or nonfiction?
From my limited experience, the difficulty level is about equal once all factors are considered. If you are sure you want to pursue a traditional publisher over the self-publishing model, make sure you find a good agent.
Do fiction or nonfiction books make more money?
The answer depends on how you calculate total revenue. On the surface, fiction books make more money because they sell more copies.
However, many nonfiction books are tied to additional revenue opportunities (e.g., speaking, consulting, courses) and can earn significant amounts from them.
Can authors write both types of work?
Absolutely! Interestingly enough, most well-known authors have published works in both genres.
Is it okay to only read or write in one genre? Is something wrong with people who do?
Reading or writing in only one genre is perfectly acceptable. It's all about preference.
Also, I think many people don't read simply because they haven't found the right sub-genre for them. But, once you find something you enjoy, why not stick with it!
Are there any books that exist as both fiction and nonfiction?
Yes. The genres to look for are usually called narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and magical surrealism. I’m sure there are others as well if you’re up for a little research.
Now that you know a bit more about how nonfiction and fiction work and the freedom they offer, which do you think is a good fit for you and your long-term goals? Are you choosing what you think you have to write or what you truly want to write? Desire will make all the difference.