Non-fiction – obviously

I’ve spent a lot of my life in the freelance art business, most of it as a full-time artist, making my living from printmaking or pottery. Usually I haven’t had to take another job to keep the bills paid.

Of course I think a lot about money. It would be great not to think about money; unfortunately, Hydro and Bell and the grocery store all insist on being paid in the stuff. One of the directions I’ve decided to take this year is non-fiction. I’ve pitched some non-fiction articles and had them accepted, which is extremely heartening.

I’ve written non-fiction before. Well, we all have, haven’t we? That report you did on elephants in grade five – that was non-fiction. The high school history essay on the evils of slavery (or its benefits – I did both as an exercise) was non-fiction. While there are skills that you need for both – the ability to write a grammatical sentence, the ability to organize your writing into a comprehensible whole – writing non-fiction requires some skills that aren’t obviously necessary in fiction, skills like research and footnoting (or attribution). Also, not unlike with high school papers, you need to make deadline.

Research is the most important one. Who said the world ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”? I edited a document once which attributed that statement to Robert Frost. In fact, it was T.S. Eliot. If I plan to quote someone, I check the words of the quotation and the attribution. My husband accuses me of having a quotation, a song or a poem for every occasion, and it’s true that I carry a lot around in my head, but when I write for publication, I check. I’m not particularly happy about mistaking the source of a quotation when I’m among friends, but I’m really, really unhappy about doing it when I’m putting that stuff out in public, in writing.

Attribution – often done in footnotes – is also usually not required in fiction. In non-fiction, it’s essential. If you got it somewhere, you should credit your source, either in the text or in a footnote, depending on the format of the article. I once got a telephone message – “Some dude called – he said he’d call back.” An unattributed quotation or an unsubstantiated fact is some dude calling and leaving no message. It’s unsatisfying to the reader – why should he or she believe you? It’s frustrating to someone who might want to use your article as a reference. And it’s discourteous to the source. It may also be legally risky.

As for deadlines, I had a high school history teacher, Keith Rossel, who said that he would not accept late papers except, he said, “in case of a death in the family, preferably your own.” While most editors might cut you a little more slack than Mr. Rossel did his students, don’t bet on it. If you miss the deadline, you don’t get paid.

Okay, this all sounds incredibly obvious. Do your research, credit your sources, be on deadline. Probably ninety percent of the advice anyone’s going to give you is obvious, so why should I be any different? Most of it’s common sense.

So far I’ve pitched and sold eight or nine non-fiction pieces this year. I’m aiming higher – again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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2 Responses to Non-fiction – obviously

  1. Be True Farm says:

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I like your latest blog – got some good advice and I have no question you will succeed in this area. I am cheating and looking at your last sentence – I should really wait until tomorrow but well done!!! I will fill you in tomorrow on my progress.
    Also, want to say Thanks for the wordpress lesson. I am slowly getting things done there. Hopefully, pictures will be in by the end of this week.
    Tracy.

  2. ecreith says:

    Thank you! And today I got your first blog post! How exciting is that? You’re coming along just great – it took me several weeks to get this up to speed.

    Elizabeth

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