That title is a mess. It’ll have to do.

As so many of my posts start, I read a thread the other day that asked “Will writing fiction improve your non-fiction writing skills?” This is a question I’ve seen a lot, in many different forms. And a lot of times, people answer with, “Sure! It doesn’t matter what you’re writing–writing well is writing well!”

And that’s… kind of true? A little? But I don’t agree with the spirit of that answer.

Here’s why.

Some writing skills are universal.

Grammar. Spelling. The ability to choose words that mean what you want them to mean. The ability to identify your target audience and write toward their level of understanding.

These are your transferable skills. It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a fact sheet, a lesson plan, or a marketing campaign. These matter. Someone who is good at these will have the basic skills needed to write anything.

But it doesn’t mean that someone with good writing skills will be good at all kinds of writing, because…

Different kinds of writing have different institutional skills.

Unfortunately, “writing well” is not the only thing you need to write a good novel or a really successful marketing campaign. Every style of writing has its own, separate sub-skills that are unique to that medium–and if you don’t know them, you may be okay at writing, but you won’t be amazing.

Think about it this way: do you think that people who do marketing writing have to know different things than people who do technical writing? Or hey, you’ve written novels: do you think you could stroll into an ad agency and get a job as a copywriter, right now, with no other training?

Of course not. There’s a reason that you could get a degree in marketing, journalism, technical writing, and English and learn completely different skills. They all probably have a 101 course to beat basic writing skills into you, and they all probably have professors who’d rail on you for using too many unnecessary words. But they’d also teach you specialized skills that are unique to each style of writing.

For example, let’s look at what I do for a living: web writing.

You don’t write websites like you do novels. All web writing is designed around the idea that people skim, people search, and no one reads everything you’ve written. How often do you go through a website and read every single page on the site? Never, right? Heck, people rarely even start at the top of a page and read every single word on the way down.

So when you write for web, you write in tiny little paragraph-nuggets of information. You use headers to break text into distinct sections, so people can jump to just the part that they care about. You use short paragraphs. You use lots of white space, and things that facilitate white space, like bullets. You have to think about how links are used and how they’re written. And that’s without getting into the more technical requirements, like SEO.

And I’ve seen exceptional writers–people with 20 years of experience writing technical reports–sit down and write 10-page, super-dense, extremely deep websites, with… references? And footnotes?! And the words are good, because they’re great at explaining things, but no one’s going to read that thing because it’s not good web writing.

This isn’t to say this hypothetical person couldn’t be good at web writing. Of course they could! They’d probably pick it up quickly, because they have a really good foundation. But to be actually good at it, writing well is not enough–they’d have to learn the skills that make web writing unique.

This is exactly the same for fiction.

Seriously. Let’s think about it:

  • Being good at writing English class essays doesn’t mean you know how to do the plotting, worldbuilding, characterization, or tension development that’s needed to write a fiction novel.
  • Knowing how to write a good novel doesn’t mean you can write a good query letter. Queries are more like marketing documents than create writing–and a lot of writers struggle with them.
  • And, to answer the question this post started with: writing fiction won’t teach you how to structure a non-fiction book, how to convey real-world experiences or data in an engaging way, or any of the other talents that non-fiction writers use and novelists don’t.  (And to make things worse, non-fiction and fiction books are also queried differently.)

Like all things, the devil’s in the details.

So when someone asks if writing fiction makes you good at non-fiction, or if writing essays or doing online roleplaying or anything that isn’t writing novels would make you a better novelist, I’d answer… not… really? Writing novels, learning about novels, and studying novel-related skills makes you better at novels. Because, in the end, writing well is a lot more than just grammar.

TL;DR: You get better at something by practicing it, not something kind of similar to it.

I guess I could have probably just replaced this entire article with that, huh?