March 19, 2012

Five Writing Lessons I Learned at University

Filed under: Uncategorized — nascentnovelist @ 7:34 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, I wrote a guest post about the differences between writing fiction and academic research. Well, to be honest, it was mostly about fear of rejection, but the differences between academia and fiction writing was in there. If you don’t believe me, go read for yourself. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: today I’m going to semi-contradict myself and talk about the similarities.

You see, there are five important lessons I learned from academic writing that I readily utilize in my fiction writing:

1. Research, research, research
The only way to really know a subject is to research it extensively. This is as true for world building as it is for academic papers.

I learned that lesson during the defense of my thesis, when my opponent brought out three relatively obscure sources using a different form of language research, but overlapping source material, and asked why I didn’t reference them in my reading list. How could I have missed those?

I imagine that feet melting feeling to be somewhat similar to one you’d get after reading a forum comment by a fan who didn’t buy your universe’s quantum mechanics because you didn’t adhere to some not-wikipediable theory. And sure, you can bluff your way out of it, like I did in the defense of the thesis (it went okay), but wouldn’t you rather be on top of your game?

2. Research, then move on
The flip side of the first lesson is knowing when you’ve studied enough. How to draw the line between extensive research, and procrastination. Sure, it’s important to know your field, but you have to make it narrow enough that you can know it well. And you have to move on once you have a good enough idea about what you’re studying that you can write the story.

I’m sure we’ve all gotten stuck in endless research mode once or twice, the key is knowing when to shake ourselves loose.

3. Write the introduction last
Okay, so I know this header is a bit misleading, because I always write my introduction first. That’s how I get into any article, story or novel. But the advice stands. The only way to write a good introduction (or a great first chapter) is if you know what’s happening at the end. You need to know what to allude to.

My method: write the introduction first, then never look at it until you’re done writing the whole thing (be it article, thesis or novel). Then write the intro again, fitting the shape the story took, not the shape you thought it would take in the first few weeks.

4. Make an outline
When I moved from academia to fiction, I threw out all my outlining lessons and let my imagination run free. After finishing the first draft of a novel, I understood that the outline was key after all, so I brought it back into my work. You see, outlines structure us in a good way. A good outline helps you shape your story, and gets you past those bumpy parts where you can’t remember what you originally thought you wanted to say and maybe you’re not sure you want to be a writer after all, maybe you were really meant to be a trucker, driving along the open road, or maybe a boss at a big company or a personal trainer, they have fun, right? I hate those parts, and my outline lets me skip past the panic by letting me save the hard parts for later, because I know where the scene leads, so I can start there, and go back later.

5. Screw the outline
As with academic papers, stories evolve while we write them. That’s why I use my outline as I use my initial introduction. I write it, then I ignore furiously. Outlining is a good exercise, but never let yourself be bound by it. The goal is knowing where you want to go on the map, but if you take a detour, the outline will change to match it, not the other way around.

How about you? Any other similarities between academic and fiction writing? What was your greatest success going from academia into fiction, or the other way around?



  1. As an archaeologist, I find some of my main characters share my field. I think I’m doing a good job of bringing a sense of realism to their jobs without weighing down the story with too many “facts” about the field. But if I wrote fiction in “archaeology-speak,” no one would ever want to read it!

    Very helpful post!

    Comment by jmmcdowell — March 19, 2012 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

    • Hehe. I’ve resisted making my main characters historians so far. Don’t think I could pull it off without ending up way off track in discourse analysis land. But who knows, maybe I’ll be brave enough to try it soon. And maybe it’ll be amazing.

      Comment by nascentnovelist — March 19, 2012 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  2. Martine, I love your points here. All are very valid. And I like that you are presenting the counterpoint to your guest blog. 🙂
    For me, the most important similarity is having a passion for my topic. Whether it be the evolution of China’s banking system or teenagers time traveling to solve a mystery, I have to care about what I’m writing.

    Comment by Kourtney Heintz — March 20, 2012 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • Oh, me too! But I’m such a history nerd that I always had passion for every topic I wrote, from the agrarian revolution to shipping logs in the 1900th century and their impact on our knowledge of trade routes and international commerce.

      Comment by nascentnovelist — March 20, 2012 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

    • Guess I’m just a geek. 😉

      Comment by nascentnovelist — March 20, 2012 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: