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Hopkins, Lutz, Solomon, & Wight 1

Mary Wight, Kaitlyn Hopkins, Mattie Solomon & James Lutz

ENGL 297-0101
26 April 2017

Ethnographic Research Report:

What It Means to be a Successful Fiction/Non-fiction Writer


Our research project studied UMD Professor Danuta Hinc to learn what motivates a
writer to make a compelling story and what kind of techniques writers use in order to engage in
and encourage successful fiction/non-fiction writing. We conducted an in-home interview with
our research subject and learned about the mechanical and creative processes behind fiction/non-
fiction writing. We analyzed the information we gathered using Chapter 15 of Solving Problems
in Technical Communication, where we used the heuristics given to organize our data into
different categories. We studied the amount and quality of writing that is entailed and expected as
a fiction/non-fiction writer, genres and rhetorical strategies, approaches to and processes for
writing, knowledge and skills required, and the personal traits and qualities a writer may possess.
Examining these heuristics will give a powerful insight into the world of fiction/non-fiction
writing through the perspective of Professor Hinc. We also hope that by focusing on the
following heuristics, we will be able to gain insight on what it means to be a successful writer.
We will go into detail on the research location and subject, the data collection methods used in
our research, the results of our research, and conclude what there is to take away from our
research on fiction/non-fiction writing.
Research Location & Subject:

Our research subject is Professor Danuta Hinc, who works in the English department at
the University of Maryland, where she teaches professional writing courses. Professor Hinc
originally comes from Poland, where she got her first Masters in Philology and fell in love with
the English language. After she came to the United States, she became a professor at the
University of Maryland. Two years ago, she obtained her second Masters of Fine Arts degree
from Bennington College. Professor Hinc also writes short stories and essays for various writing
platforms including the Literary Hub, a website that claims to be, the source for all news, ideas
and richness of contemporary literary life. Hinc mostly writes literary fiction, along with her
teaching career. While attending Bennington College, she produced some non-fiction work as
well, especially during the controversial 2016 presidential election, where she wrote an essay on
In 2011, Professor Hinc published her first fictitious novel, To Kill the Other. This book
takes place twenty years before the terrorist attack on September 11th, and focuses on the
spiritual transformation of a young, affluent, Egyptian boy to a ruthless killer. Professor Hinc did
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three years of extensive research before completing the book, which included emailing with
several people in the middle east to ensure that she made her novel as accurate as possible.
Professor Hinc, while primarily writing fiction, has a certain interest in non-fiction
editorial writing. She mentioned during our meeting that she has lately become more interested
in non-fiction essays. Along with her longer fiction novels and short stories, she has also written
some essays that have been published in The Muse, Litteraria, and the Word Riot. These essays,
while titled as non-fiction are not that different from the writing she is used to. She writes in
order to understand the world better, and whether that is in fiction or non-fiction, one can see her
commitment to research and learning in both.
We conducted the face-to-face interview in Professor Hincs home located in Ellicott
City, as we wanted to observe her in her natural writing environment. Her office was located on
the top floor of her home, and featured a beautiful window with a view of the forest in her
backyard. Her office was small, but very organized, and filled with books.

Data Collection Methods:

As we conducted the in-home interview with Professor Hinc, each of us were assigned a
different method of collecting data. One person recorded the entire interview on a recording
application that is automatically installed within every iPhone while another person recorded
important bits of the dialogue into their notebook, and two other people recorded data into their
computer. We all participated in a friendly, flowing conversation of Professor Hincs passion for
fiction/non-fiction writing. We all agreed on certain questions to pose during the interview via
Google Docs so that we could keep the conversation flowing as well as answer any necessary
questions about the process of fiction/non-fiction writing that guide our research.

Questions used to guide interview:

-How long did it take you to write your first book, To Kill the Other?
-What was the process involved in writing this book and how much of it was research vs. actual
-Did you have to interview or contact any additional sources to write your book?
-How much of your writing process involved the Tate publishing company that helped publish
your first book?
-Did you ever consider self-publishing?
-What are the steps throughout the process of writing: do you establish purpose first? Audience?
-How aware did you have to be of your own writing voice and how much did it shape or
influence the way you wrote your book?
-Do you like constraints or guidelines on your writing or do you enjoy freedom in unthemed
-Any advice for upcoming, prospective fiction writers?
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The interview started at 6:30 pm and went on until 8:30 pm. This interview also served as
a primary point for our research. The results we gathered for this report developed from our
observations of Professor Hincs work space (her home), works she has published, and the
information gained from our interview. Due to some of the difficulty we had finding and
contacting an informant, we feel as though we were extremely lucky to get into contact with
Professor Hinc. She gave us a lot of great insight into the field of fiction/non-fiction writing, and
what follows is a set of findings based on three of the heuristics mentioned in Chapter 15 of
Solving Problems in Technical Communication.


Genres and Rhetorical Strategies

The field of technical writing encompasses various types of interests, styles and forms,
which ultimately are reflected in the body of work that a technical writer produces. Covering all
the different types of technical writing is difficult when considering how broad the field is, and
how many different professional writers work to define their own specific brand of writing. One
of the main distinctions we were interested in our research was the differences and similarities
between fiction and non-fiction writing and reporting. While seemingly two very different
genres, we found that the two are actually a lot more related than one may think. While
interviewing Professor Hinc in her home/work space, our questions about the distinctions
between fiction and non-fiction were challenged in a way that reversed our preconceptions of
the writing styles. While attempting to gain a concrete definition of what fiction is compared to
non-fiction, this series of questions and comments spurred from Professor Hincs interpretation
of our question. This is one point of our interview that was particularly interesting in that is
worked to break down the barrier between the two genres of writing. The conversation went as

Mary: What is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?

Hinc: I think i am predominantly a fiction writer, who also writes non-fiction...I think
fiction writing is seeing connections in the world that other people dont see, or are not
obvious. I see stories and I always have stories.
Kaitlyn: Do you find that as a writer you kind of view events in a different way do
you watch the world differently in any way?
Hinc: I am very much interested in people in history, and questions about why people
are the way they are and what influences them... I am interested in understanding.
Kaitlyn: Do you find that your books are kind of like a lense? Do you write them in
order to understand?
Hinc: Yes I think this is a good observation, because I think I also write stories to
understand more about myself. Writing helps me make sense of the world around me.
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Mattie: Yeah, because I think a lot of people think there is this clear distinction between
fiction and non-fiction, where non-fiction is more analytical and historical, while fiction
is more interpretive and artistic. But do you feel like you can apply all of these qualities
to both?
Hinc: You know, there is an author whose name is Karl Ove Knausgaard, who writes
fiction, but its actually exactly his life. He admits that it is about his life.
Mary: What makes it fiction?
Hinc: Because he says its fiction. He believes that he is expanding the meaning of a
novel, which means that his life is a story. I am writing it, and I will call it a novel.
Mary: But it's not an autobiography?
Hinc: But it's not an autobiography. Ill tell you, he differs from an
autobiography...although it depends on how you write it, it is not chronological, not
everything is there, what is there is what he wants to write about. But if you didn't know
that that is his life, you would think that this is a novel written in first person and it is a
novel. And this is all true. Then there is another writer, Elena Ferrante, who writes as if
she is writing about her life, but it's all fiction. And Elena Ferrante is not even her real

Chapter 15 of Solving Problems in Technical Communication states that Technical

communicators need, in essence, to know how versatile and flexible they will need to be, both in
regards to the kinds of documents they will be asked to write and in regards to the rhetorical
strategies they will need (Johnson-Eilola, 369). The style in which a person writes all depends
upon their own understanding of what their text is and how it relates to the wider scope of
writing that already exists. Professor Hinc mentions some examples of writers who question the
definition of fiction and non-fiction writing, and this helped us to understand the creative and
ever changing nature of writing genres. In order to create a successful text, one needs to be able
to adhere to their own brand of either fiction or non-fiction writing.
While we primarily focused on genre, as opposed to rhetorical situation, we found that
this discussion shed a lot of light on how a writer's intention can determine his or her rhetorical
situation. In other words, by personally defining one's own work as either fiction or non-fiction,
that writer is therefore able to create a text that gains its significance and purpose from its
authorial intent. Writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante are successful writers due
to their ability to control the genre they write in and create meaning from that definition of genre.

Approaches to and Processes For Writing

Most of Professor Hincs writing is based off of historical and personal events. For
example, her stories may be inspired by real events like 9/11, which was the historical context
for her novel, To Kill The Other. She is also inspired by her personal life, which is the case for
her current novel that she is working on about her grandfather's experience during World War II
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called Angels in the Forest. Both of these, while fictional, still require a large amount of research
in order to tell her story as accurately and realistic as possible.
We found that for Professor Hincs writing, the research process is just as important as
the writing process. Before even beginning to write a novel, one must be able to understand
whatever culture or subgroup they are hoping to write about. Similar to one doing field research,
a fiction/non-fiction writer must be able to be open and willing to discover new cultures,
environments, and histories. For Professor Hinc, we found that research is one of the most
intensive aspects of fiction writing. She specifically writes in the genre of historical fiction,
which again seems to blur this line between fiction and non-fiction writing.
One interesting thing that Professor Hinc said in regards to her writing process and how
she finishes her work is that she simply cannot explain the process. During our interview we
were interested in how she organizes her writing schedule with her professional career as a
college professor. She noted that she is dedicated to her writing and tries to set deadlines for a
certain amount of pages per month. For the two novels she is currently writing, she has set page
requirement for each month for both texts. Another thing she does in order to aid in her writing
process, along with her adherence to a schedule, is a visual outline of the events in the novel.
Although she stated that she does not really use an outline in her writing, she did show us one
that she has up in her work space. This was a timeline of events written out on a large poster,
which she believes this helps her to think about the events in the novel and how they will all fit
together chronologically.
For every writer, the research and writing process will be different, however, one thing
that seems to be consistent in Professor Hincs writing, and her success with writing, is her
ability to stay organized. No matter what plan a writer devises, it is important to keep a schedule
of your work in order to make the most of your time and efforts.

Qualities of a Writer
The final heuristic that we focused on is the certain qualities and personality traits that a
writer needs to have in order to be successful. There qualities and traits are important because it
determines one's ability to write, his or her passion for the practice, and how they will make the
most of their writing. We asked Professor Hinc about these qualities towards the end of our
interview with her. We thought that by closing our interview this way, we introduced ourselves to
Professor Hinc as not just students researching her work, but also as students genuinely
interested in pursuing professional writing careers.
In response to this question, Professor Hinc emphasized the importance of genuinely
loving writing, reading, and researching. In order to be a great writer, one needs to be a great
reader as well. By taking a special interest in others writing, you are therefore able to effectively
cultivate your own style and voice. Not do these interests strengthen the actual content of your
writing, but it also improves your work ethic, problem solving abilities, and collaborative skills.
Professor Hincs advice, while seemingly and simple straightforward, really tackles many
of the different traits necessary to be a writer. This passion will lend itself to other qualities that
are necessary for being a professional writer. By genuinely loving what you do, you not only
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build upon your own skills, but you effect the people you are around, which can make for
positive and collaborative work environments.


To conclude our ethnography, Professor Hinc turned out to be an amazing insight into the
world of fiction and non-fiction writing. Her passion for writing gave us an exciting overview of
the creative and mechanical processes involved in her profession. We came into the research with
a few of our own biases, but came out learning information that we never would have expected
to find if we hadnt conducted the in-home interview. We found that by focusing our analysis of
our research on some of the heuristics mentioned in Chapter 15 of Solving Problems in Technical
Communication, we were able to extract some key aspects of successful fiction/non-fiction
writing. Our main takeaways from our informant was on the importance of identifying one's own
genre, staying organized, and being passionate about the writing process. In Professor Hincs
words, To be a good fiction writer, you have to love it. We appreciated the time and steady
flow of conversation that Professor Hinc, a member of the writing community, offered as we
learned all about what motivates, inspires, and moves a writer to start their process and finish a
product that shares a piece of their life with everyone.
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Works Cited
Johnson-Eilola, J., & Selber, S. A. (2013). Solving problems in technical communication.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.