The Secret to Writing Powerful Words

The Secret to Writing Powerful Words

Alright. I’m not going to say that thing I’m not supposed to say, but I might as well give up on calling Ali Hale a guest poster. She’s more like a Featured Blogger ’round here at the Pen Men Palace. (Can we have disco music and flashing lights?)

Well, she would have been, except she called copywriters vanilla. Now I’m offended. I’m hurt. And I need to talk about my feelings with her. So while I do that, you read this post, mmkay?

Writers come in different flavors. There are copywriters, bloggers, academic writers (the vanilla of the writing world?), technical writers and…

Fiction writers.

Your local bookstore draws a clear divide between fiction and non-fiction novels, but we writers can’t be divided into two neat camps the same way, even if you tried.

When you’re standing in the non-fiction camp, it’s easy to dismiss fiction.

  • Writing fiction is self-indulgence.
  • Fiction doesn’t pay.
  • Getting published is difficult.
  • Most likely, no one’s going to read it.
  • It’s hard to write good fiction.

I’d love to say there’s no grain of truth in that list. Sadly, there is. If you want to make money writing, you’re far more likely to achieve the goal through non-fiction. It’s not that hard to get good enough at non-fiction for people to buy your words.

Fiction is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a very different story.

But fiction matters, even though you’re not making money from it. Even though writing a short story takes a week of hard graft. Even though only your mom and your writers’ group will ever read your fiction.

Fiction is great training to become a good writer.

Let me tell you a quick story. When I was seventeen, I took classes in math and physics, and we studied mechanics in physics. I do not have a good mechanical head. I mix up left and right. I steer well clear of DIY.

So I found physics lessons hard. I thought I’d never get it.

Then we started doing mechanics in math, and that was even harder. (This was, incidentally, the point where I decided to pledge my troth to words and ditch my love affair with numbers…) The math lessons never became easy.

But the physics classes did.

I’ve noticed this happens with non-fiction writing. When I started blogging and writing articles, it felt damn hard. I struggled along. But once I’d acquired a ton of fiction experience under my belt, I found writing non-fiction became easier. I didn’t need to do much redrafting.

The words came out right the first time.

Fiction is really hard to write well .You might never reach world-class standard. You might never have your work published. But by writing fiction, you’re pushing those writing muscles hard. Once you’ve written a few short stories, those daily blog posts that once were hard to write are going to get a lot easier.

It’s no accident that several great bloggers also write fiction.
Naomi Dunford wants to write a romance novel (see #4 here). Hunter Nuttall posted his NaNoWriMo novel. And your very own James participates in creative fiction challenges and even runs Escaping Reality. (Or did. He’s currently on hiatus, but he still writes fiction daily.)

Of course, fiction isn’t just a good training ground to being a better writer.

Fiction is important because stories are powerful.

How often do you remember a blog post or a magazine article you read? How often do you skim the words, remember them for a little bit and then forget them?

Now answer this: How often do you remember a story?

We’re hardwired for story. (Get a copy of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick if you want the authoritative take on this.) Stories, from simple fables to powerful novels, tend to stick.

Want an example? Go and read Tim Brownson’s post Imagine This.

As a fiction writer, you create stories. You invent characters who engage readers’ hearts and minds. You draw the reader into an invented world that makes the real one fade away like mist.

We still read novels that were written in the 18th century. We still watch plays that were written in the 16th century – or even earlier. And often, these ancient stories were based on earlier ones.

If you want your writing to outlive you, fiction is the ultimate evergreen content. Technology changes, trends come and go, scientific theories don’t last – but human nature, the subject matter of fiction, always stays the same.

Stories aren’t just powerful for readers, either.

Writing fiction can be an incredible escape for you.

This might be where the myth that fiction is an indulgence began. Writing fiction is hugely absorbing and engaging and joyful.

I love blogging, but there’s something special about writing fiction that just isn’t there in non-fiction gigs. When I write a novel, anything goes. I make up the world and I decide the plot twists. I create the characters get to write about snarky people and crazy people and amazing people. I can write witty comebacks that I’d never say aloud in real life.

I can fling words onto the page with abandon, knowing that I can always redraft, that no one ever needs to see my work but me. It’s my playground. It’s my secret world.

When something in real life is bugging me, I can escape in the fiction I’m writing. That’s not just a way of putting my head in the sand – it’s a great way to work through emotions or issues. I can channel anger or sadness or frustration into the words. I can invent characters that are kinder, braver and more patient than I am.

If you’ve ever written fiction, you’ve probably discovered the same. For some folks, fiction is literally a lifesaver. For many others, it’s a way to deal with the ups and downs and dark comedy of life. It’s an outlet, a way to take the little hurts and upsets of life and create something unique and wonderful.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that writing fiction is self-indulgent or unimportant.

And don’t look for permission to write fiction either. You don’t need qualifications. You sure as hell don’t need to start out perfect. You don’t need to be the best fiction writer ever.

You just need to find a story – one of your stories – and start writing it.

Ali Hale changes lives and reaches readers through her powerful words. You’ll find more great advice (and stories worth reading) from Ali over at her blog,Aliventures, a place for thinking people who aren’t satisfied with easy, glib answers.

Just in case you're brand-new and feeling a little unsure about fiction, check out these top recommendations for fiction that leaps off the page, improves your non-fiction skills and gets readers falling in love with you:

You'll be writing powerful words before you know it.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. “How often do you remember a blog post or a magazine article you read? How often do you skim the words, remember them for a little bit and then forget them?

    Now answer this: How often do you remember a story?”

    Yeah I agree. It’s funny but it’s real. I do not think I remember many blog posts, even those that are just a week or month old (and I read them a lot), but stories, that is a different case. Even if it is a story I read a year back, I still remember it. It has a strong effect on the mind.

    I also skim through the article sometimes, but never with a story, just like you said!

    Why is that?


  2. Hi Ali (I´ve read your pieces enough times to make that my natural response to you 😉 )

    I love seeing my own “camp” praised like this, and, this is so true!

    Writing fiction gives you an opportunity to practise using and finding the right words without any pressure of having to bring forth a specific point or results… it´s all yours to twist and turn.

    Creative writing, people! everybody should at least try it 😉
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..Some People =-.

  3. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Yesterday I spent the day writing an academic paper. Maybe it was vanilla, but the sweet taste lasted all day.

    You’re right about stories, nothing is better. Even Jesus know that.

    ps. So James, have you started your memoir?

  4. Right on Agent x. My first priority in writing is fiction and although I’ve only managed to get some of my stories published (just online), I’m determined not to quit until I saw them in print. Unfortunately, economic pressure is also just turning me away from fiction.

  5. Hey Agent X,

    I agree! Great post.

    All writing ought to be storytelling. This notion that “businessish” writing has to be dull and dry makes zero sense. Who makes up this nonsense? All good writing is a blend of fiction and non-fiction!

    Almost all my blog posts contain a short story … Thx. Giulietta
    .-= Giulietta Nardone´s last blog ..Why don’t more adults play with abandon? =-.

  6. Thank you for this well-timed (for me) post. I’m at the midway point of a rewrite of about 80k words of fiction. I keep thinking of what my blog readers and family have said. I’ve already written a book. It’s just in blog form. So why do I keep pushing myself to complete this manuscript? Escape. The desire to finish something with a longer format. The way I feel when I have a good writing day. Yes, you’re right. It may never be published, it will likely never pay or maybe even get read, but I’ll keep going.
    .-= lisahgolden´s last blog ..There Is A Light That Never Goes Out =-.

  7. I edit copywriters. When they go off reservation and write fiction or personal opinion pieces, their writing shines. The difference in mood, pace, and emotion is striking. I believe all copywriters should include time for fiction and personal writing.

    ps. Thanks for the link-love to James The Assassin’s page. I’m sure once he sees it, he will write another episode today. I bet he can’t do it in under 5 minutes though. 😉

  8. I feel the same way about reading, too. I enjoy reading non-fiction. I find it interesting, informative, and intriguing … but I simply cannot avoid reading fiction. I burn through something like 20 novels a month and about 2-5 non-fiction books simply because, no matter how GOOD the non-fiction is, it doesn’t satisfy my reading “itch” as much as fiction. (Hell, there’s a reason I only ever watch scripted shows on television, too–I yearn for stories, not contests and grand-standing.)

    And, yes, same thing with writing. As much as I enjoy the blog-post, copy-writing kind of stuff, it’s just not satisfying in QUITE the same way as writing fiction is. Not unless I can work a good story into it, anyway. (Which reminds me, did I tell you about the time that I …)
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Review: An Offer from Time =-.

  9. @Shane – Five minutes, 4 seconds.

  10. This is such a powerful insight. I think I was aware of it on some level, but thank you for putting it into words. Now, I have to admit, I really haven’t written any fiction per se, but I do have a story-creating specialty: bedtime stories made up on the spot. My niece and nephew have been a great audience for this over the years – especially when I weave in favourite subject matter such as rocket ships, fire trucks, princesses, cross-country voyages, cake and presents!

    I also agree with Deb about the power of *reading* fiction. Like her, my appetite for reading fiction is much greater than for non-fiction and often the learning, insights and inspiration are just as great!

  11. Ali, I’ve been a full-time nonfiction writer for the last 20 or so years, and I do love it. I just recently started reading more fiction and have thought about writing a short story or two just to bust out of my normal routine. For now I still write the occasional haiku, although I’ve been too lazy to submit any for the last few years.

    And, ahem, much of my paying nonfiction work has been in the academic field. There’s a lot of money in those billion-dollar companies, and I get to keep learning.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Resolved: Coffee Increases Productivity… =-.

  12. @James: Now if we can only get Ali to submit. That would be icing on the cake for me today! 😉
    .-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..Creative Copy Challenge #52 =-.

  13. Cheers to fiction writing! I love reading it and once upon a time I loved writing it. Fiction writing has begun courting me again and while I am playing hard to get, remembering that the writing itself is a form of play is encouraging. Thanks!
    .-= Christine Myers´s last blog ..We Interrupt This Life. . . =-.

  14. Sure fictional writing is self-indulgent. Why would people do it if it wasn’t? However, that’s what’s so great about it.

    I think the line between the un-leaded and leaded fiction is very little anyhoo. Your subject is still alive, they just aren’t walking around breathing like the rest of use (well, some of us-you never know with zombies).

    If you can’t tell a good yarn when you are writing copy, no one is going to buy from you. On the flipside, if you can’t sell your fictional character to the audience then you will lose your readership their as well.

    …just like Einstein says “it’s all relative”

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Is it a Bird? A Plane? Nope, Just Another Underdog Millionaire =-.

  15. What a fun post. Fiction writing DOES make our non-fiction writing more powerful. I remember when I wrote fiction exclusively in university. Whenever I wrote a non-fiction essay I felt as though it had a bit more flair than my non-fiction writing does now.

    I have a feeling that because I write non-fiction more exclusively my writing has become more rigid. This makes me think it could be a good idea to revisit that novel I have on my hard drive.
    .-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..Why Donations are More Effective Than Votes =-.

  16. Does lying count?


    I believe that truly good fiction writing requires more than just writing skill. You need to be a STORYTELLER, and that is a true natural talent and much different than writing.

    Some folks can learn to write fiction, even be pretty decent. But to be a great fiction writer, if you aren’t a good story teller well, I just don’t believe you’ll be able to write really good fiction.
    .-= Paul Novak´s last blog ..Bear With Me =-.

  17. After doing a short writing course, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge and amazed myself by meeting it (writing a 50,000 novel in 30 days). I found that writing a novel was just the same as reading it and just as absorbing.

    I am currently working on web content which can be repetitive. The fiction writing is as essential as reading for me, even though I am likely to be the only one who reads it…

    Great post and food for thought as always.
    .-= Sarah Charmley´s last blog ..Finding a Writing Job Part 1 =-.

  18. This is a good point about non fiction writers recognising the power of fiction and harnessing this to create more powerful and mememorable non fiction pieces. I think everyone starts off loving creative writing at public school and then that is replaced by non fiction writing in highschool. We need to go back and embrace the child within us obviously 🙂

  19. I’m not a big writer of stories but I do a lot of blogging. I do add some personal things into my blog which allows me to escape and just feel better. Writing, depending on what kind it is, can definitely bring more people in and keep them interested.

  20. I have 2 main blogs and I try to be personal with both of them. I use a lot of personal experiences and I even talk about my family sometimes. I think it makes you more human to your readers, rather than just words on a screen.

  21. Just wanted to say huge thanks to all of you for the comments, and apologies for my total silence here. We’ve been moving house over the past month, and it’s been a lot of boxes, cleaning, packing, unpacking … and woefully lacking internet-connections!

    Glad this one struck a chord. And yep, like many of you, I agree that *reading* fiction is also hugely useful as a writer.

  22. Oh my this is so inspirational! I love writing stories and delving into the world of imagination. It excites me so much and I guess writing all starts with that spark. With that raw emotion and truly fiction can take us into that river of creativity – very different from logical non fiction writing.
    Exclellent article!
    All the best,

  23. Anstee Taylor says:

    interesting, I’m a former journalist who found nonfiction a splendid workout for writing fiction.


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