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How Fiction Writing can help Business Writing (and vice versa)

Writing fiction and writing copy for business purposes, while separated by marked differences in intent and style, still encompass many of the same elements necessary to keep a reader’s attention. The goal of the fiction writer is to capture the reader’s interest and imagination so that the reader continues reading; the goal of the business writer is to capture their audience’s attention, with the hope that they engage enough to form some sort of relationship with the company or individual putting out the copy. There are other distinctions, and we’ll get to some of them in this article.

For now, let’s focus on the similarities between fiction and business writing and how fiction can help improve the writing you do for your business. First, we’ll take a look at business writing (I lean towards B2B and B2C communication rather than internal communications below, though I do touch on internal communication as well).

Business Writing

  • In general, requires a deep understanding of a product or service

  • Must be clear and concise (simple) and factual (make use of short sentences)

  • Sticks to its precise subject matter

  • Is clear on who the target market/audience is and addresses them (and the problems they’re trying to solve) specifically and at the level of formality/informality they’re accustomed to and expect

  • Should not be ambiguous; business writing should be specific

  • Must be informative and educate the reader/potential customer/partner/vendor, etc.

  • Improves a company’s credibility

  • Must be free of grammatical and spelling errors

  • Uses the active voice

  • Leverages the old fiction writing trope “Show, don’t tell”

  • Should, if possible, be story-driven

  • Avoids jargon not intrinsically related to the industry

  • Uses vocabulary that is emotive

  • Is more formal than fiction, although often allows for a little bit of leeway (to come off as more human and less salesy)

  • Is actionable

  • Is persuasive

  • May create a sense of anticipation

  • Understands when to use first person, second person, or third person

  • May use anecdotes

  • Is likely done by a freelance or in-house copywriter

  • Should be so compelling that a reader will want to share it with others

  • Includes copy written for:

    • Newsletters

    • Websites

    • Emails

    • Memos

    • Proposals

    • RFP/RFIs (Request for proposals/Request for information) & responses

    • Business cases/selling ideas

    • Reports (internal or external)

    • Collateral

    • Handbooks/Policy documentation

    • Technical documentation (instruction manuals, tutorials, etc.)

    • Social media posts

    • Press releases

    • Meeting agendas and minutes

    • Responses to praise as well as complaints

    • Is likely meant to create a relationship between vendors, companies, and clients

    • If online, should be SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly

    • Can include cover letters, resumes, and thank you notes (candidates selling themselves to the companies where they want to find employment)

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Great writing releases opioids that turn on reward hot spots. Just like good food, a sooth­ing bath, or an enveloping hug, well—executed prose makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading.” (HBR, The Science of Strong Business Writing” by Bill Birchard, Jul-Aug, 2021).

Fiction does the same thing. Without using sentimentality to lessen or weaken the action (although plenty of novels and short stories use sentimentality), fiction writers, whether they realize it or not, are trying to “make us feel pleasure” and “release opioids that turn on reward hot spots.” As a fiction writer, I know that that’s what I’m doing, but it’s not top of mind, or at least I don’t mentally frame what I’m doing (i.e., writing) in that particular way. These things are all at the subconscious level for me, and when I do think of them, I don’t use those terms.

Fiction Writing

There are innumerable elements of fiction that should be considered when writing fiction, whether flash fiction (typically a few words), short stories, fables, prose poems, novels, or just long forms of prose that may or may not have some sort of form to them. Depending on the type of fiction you’re writing dictates which elements are required, and which are not. While fiction is more fluid and ambiguous than business writing in terms of what the “rules” and elements and tropes are and how many there are, the below is just a list of the main ones you’ll bump into when writing fiction:

  • Character (Round vs Flat, static vs dynamic, major vs minor) and Characterization

  • Backstory

  • Plots & subplots

  • Exposition

  • Inciting incident

  • Rising action

  • Climax

  • Falling action

  • Resolution/dénouement

  • Setting/Place

  • Point of view or POV (First person, second person, third person)

  • Description

  • Tense

  • Dialogue

  • Conflict & tension

  • Scene

  • Syntax

  • Theme

  • Mood

  • Tone

  • Pacing

  • Symbolism

  • Aphorisms

  • Style

  • Word choice

  • Structure

  • Genre

  • Showing instead of telling

  • Writing what you know

  • Fiction writing includes:

    • Poetry

    • Folklore

    • Fiction in verse

    • Fairy tales

    • Tall tales

    • Legend

    • Mythology

    • Speculative fiction

    • Drama

    • Short stories

    • Novellas

    • Novels (and below genres and subgenres, some of which may overlap)

      • Mystery

      • Historical fiction

      • Literary fiction

      • Science fiction

      • Horror

      • Fantasy

      • Magical realism

      • Gothic

      • Thrillers

      • Dystopian

      • Suspense

      • Crime fiction

      • Police procedurals

      • Action-Adventure

      • Young Adult (YA)

      • New Adult

      • Realism

      • Mainstream fiction

      • Romance

      • Westerns

      • Women’s fiction

Fiction writing should:

  • Be clear and concise (though obviously doesn’t always have to be factual)

  • Stick to its subject matter (fiction must be about someone wanting something and going after it desperately, then coming to a win or loss by the end)

  • Be clear on who the audience is (this is accomplished by how books are classified, i.e., genre, and where they sit on bookshelves)

  • Be specific (primarily in word choice and description)

  • Be informative (this varies based on genre, setting, plot, etc.)

  • Be free of grammatical errors and spelling errors (unless the author is showing character in some way)

  • Use the active voice

  • Show, don’t tell

  • Be story-driven, plot-driven or character-driven (story-driven fiction is normally not very satisfying to the reader)

  • Avoid jargon not intrinsic to the setting or story

  • Use vocabulary that is emotive (this is a tricky one because it can interfere with the Show don’t Tell part of writing fiction)

  • Be persuasive. What this means in fiction is that the writing should draw the reader in so much that she forgets she’s reading a book. She should be immersed in the world the writer has created for her to such an extent that she’s “persuaded” to continue reading.

  • Create a sense of anticipation. Good writing keeps readers on edge. The promise of a resolution to a problem or hurdle our hero faces keeps the reader interested.

  • Understand when to use first-person, second-person, or third-person, depending on which POV tells the story in the best, most compelling fashion.

  • Or may use anecdotes (but also similes, metaphors, analogies, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, and so on).

  • Be so compelling that the reader will want to share it with others.

Fiction writers must take these elements into consideration when writing their first drafts, but also when revising and rewriting. Much of it comes naturally to the experienced writer. Experienced writers, in particular writers published by indie publishers and traditional publishers, address all these issues in their final manuscripts. Self-published authors have a reputation for being less diligent when it comes to ensuring the quality of the final work, but not always. I don’t wish to denigrate authors who self-publish, as self-publishing is growing in acceptance and self-published authors are turning more and more to Developmental Editors (DEs), Substantive Editors (SEs), line editors, copy editors, proofreaders, and so on, to make sure their final manuscripts are on par with the works put out by professional publishers.

Where Business Writing and Fiction Writing Meet

Now that we’ve covered what business writing is and what fiction writing is, notice any similarities in the bullet points? There are many. While fiction writing allows the writer to embellish, invent, and just be more “creative” in general, the same core principals are in play in business writing. Clarity is important in both types of writing. As is specificity, persuasion, grammar and spelling, using the active voice over the passive voice, creating a sense of anticipation, understanding and speaking to the correct audience in the language that’s appropriate to that audience, understanding the pros and cons of which tense to use and when, and just telling a story in general that resonates with the reader and gets them to do what the writer wants, whether it be to buy their software or hardware or service offerings, or simply take them on a fictional journey that’ll pull them away for a few hours or days.

Business writers can learn much from fiction writers (and vice versa). Copywriters, technical writers, content writers and every other type of writer involved in the corporate world should not be averse to picking up a piece of fiction every now and then to see what techniques are available to them above and beyond the tools they currently use when performing their jobs.

Storytelling is a universal art. Storytelling in fiction and storytelling in business communications are two sides of the same coin. They can influence and improve each other if writers take the time to learn how their fellow writers influence their readers, the tips and tricks available to them that are used, and lead more productive lives work-wise than they ever have. As a fiction writer (and occasional nonfiction writer), I have worked with writers in the corporate world who build a separation between the “real” writers and the “hacks.” I tend to dismiss that distinction. A writer is a writer. The subject may not be the same, the intent may be slightly different, but the tools are there for everyone to leverage, and they should. What can it hurt?

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