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Creative Nonfiction: An Overview
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This resource provides an introduction to creative nonfiction, including an overview of the genre and an explanation of major sub-genres.
The Creative Nonfiction (CNF) genre can be rather elusive. It is focused on story, meaning it has a narrative plot with an inciting moment, rising action, climax and denoument, just like fiction. However, nonfiction only works if the story is based in truth, an accurate retelling of the author’s life experiences. The pieces can vary greatly in length, just as fiction can; anything from a book-length autobiography to a 500-word food blog post can fall within the genre.
Additionally, the genre borrows some aspects, in terms of voice, from poetry; poets generally look for truth and write about the realities they see. While there are many exceptions to this, such as the persona poem, the nonfiction genre depends on the writer’s ability to render their voice in a realistic fashion, just as poetry so often does. Writer Richard Terrill, in comparing the two forms, writes that the voice in creative nonfiction aims “to engage the empathy” of the reader; that, much like a poet, the writer uses “personal candor” to draw the reader in.
Creative Nonfiction encompasses many different forms of prose. As an emerging form, CNF is closely entwined with fiction. Many fiction writers make the cross-over to nonfiction occasionally, if only to write essays on the craft of fiction. This can be done fairly easily, since the ability to write good prose—beautiful description, realistic characters, musical sentences—is required in both genres.
So what, then, makes the literary nonfiction genre unique?
The first key element of nonfiction—perhaps the most crucial thing— is that the genre relies on the author’s ability to retell events that actually happened. The talented CNF writer will certainly use imagination and craft to relay what has happened and tell a story, but the story must be true. You may have heard the idiom that “truth is stranger than fiction;” this is an essential part of the genre. Events—coincidences, love stories, stories of loss—that may be expected or feel clichéd in fiction can be respected when they occur in real life .
A writer of Creative Nonfiction should always be on the lookout for material that can yield an essay; the world at-large is their subject matter. Additionally, because Creative Nonfiction is focused on reality, it relies on research to render events as accurately as possible. While it’s certainly true that fiction writers also research their subjects (especially in the case of historical fiction), CNF writers must be scrupulous in their attention to detail. Their work is somewhat akin to that of a journalist, and in fact, some journalism can fall under the umbrella of CNF as well. Writer Christopher Cokinos claims, “done correctly, lived well, delivered elegantly, such research uncovers not only facts of the world, but reveals and shapes the world of the writer” (93). In addition to traditional research methods, such as interviewing subjects or conducting database searches, he relays Kate Bernheimer’s claim that “A lifetime of reading is research:” any lived experience, even one that is read, can become material for the writer.
The other key element, the thing present in all successful nonfiction, is reflection. A person could have lived the most interesting life and had experiences completely unique to them, but without context—without reflection on how this life of experiences affected the writer—the reader is left with the feeling that the writer hasn’t learned anything, that the writer hasn’t grown. We need to see how the writer has grown because a large part of nonfiction’s appeal is the lessons it offers us, the models for ways of living: that the writer can survive a difficult or strange experience and learn from it. Sean Ironman writes that while “[r]eflection, or the second ‘I,’ is taught in every nonfiction course” (43), writers often find it incredibly hard to actually include reflection in their work. He expresses his frustration that “Students are stuck on the idea—an idea that’s not entirely wrong—that readers need to think” (43), that reflecting in their work would over-explain the ideas to the reader. Not so. Instead, reflection offers “the crucial scene of the writer writing the memoir” (44), of the present-day writer who is looking back on and retelling the past. In a moment of reflection, the author steps out of the story to show a different kind of scene, in which they are sitting at their computer or with their notebook in some quiet place, looking at where they are now, versus where they were then; thinking critically about what they’ve learned. This should ideally happen in small moments, maybe single sentences, interspersed throughout the piece. Without reflection, you have a collection of scenes open for interpretation—though they might add up to nothing.
A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction
by Melissa Donovan | Mar 4, 2021 | Creative Writing | 12 comments
Try your hand at writing creative nonfiction.
Here at Writing Forward, we’re primarily interested in three types of creative writing: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
With poetry and fiction, there are techniques and best practices that we can use to inform and shape our writing, but there aren’t many rules beyond the standards of style, grammar, and good writing . We can let our imaginations run wild; everything from nonsense to outrageous fantasy is fair game for bringing our ideas to life when we’re writing fiction and poetry.
However, when writing creative nonfiction, there are some guidelines that we need to follow. These guidelines aren’t set in stone; however, if you violate them, you might find yourself in trouble with your readers as well as the critics.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
Telling True Stories (aff link).
What sets creative nonfiction apart from fiction or poetry?
For starters, creative nonfiction is factual. A memoir is not just any story; it’s a true story. A biography is the real account of someone’s life. There is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts.
So what makes creative nonfiction writing different from something like textbook writing or technical writing? What makes it creative?
Nonfiction writing that isn’t considered creative usually has business or academic applications. Such writing isn’t designed for entertainment or enjoyment. Its sole purpose is to convey information, usually in a dry, straightforward manner.
Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, pays credence to the craft of writing, often through literary devices and storytelling techniques, which make the prose aesthetically pleasing and bring layers of meaning to the context. It’s pleasurable to read.
According to Wikipedia:
Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing truth which uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.
Like other forms of nonfiction, creative nonfiction relies on research, facts, and credibility. While opinions may be interjected, and often the work depends on the author’s own memories (as is the case with memoirs and autobiographies), the material must be verifiable and accurately reported.
Creative Nonfiction Genres and Forms
There are many forms and genres within creative nonfiction:
- Autobiography and biography
- Personal essays
- Literary journalism
- Any topical material, such as food or travel writing, self-development, art, or history, can be creatively written with a literary angle
Let’s look more closely at a few of these nonfiction forms and genres:
Memoirs: A memoir is a long-form (book-length) written work. It is a firsthand, personal account that focuses on a specific experience or situation. One might write a memoir about serving in the military or struggling with loss. Memoirs are not life stories, but they do examine life through a particular lens. For example, a memoir about being a writer might begin in childhood, when the author first learned to write. However, the focus of the book would be on writing, so other aspects of the author’s life would be left out, for the most part.
Biographies and autobiographies: A biography is the true story of someone’s life. If an author composes their own biography, then it’s called an autobiography. These works tend to cover the entirety of a person’s life, albeit selectively.
Literary journalism: Journalism sticks with the facts while exploring the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a particular person, topic, or event. Biographies, for example, are a genre of literary journalism, which is a form of nonfiction writing. Traditional journalism is a method of information collection and organization. Literary journalism also conveys facts and information, but it honors the craft of writing by incorporating storytelling techniques and literary devices. Opinions are supposed to be absent in traditional journalism, but they are often found in literary journalism, which can be written in long or short formats.
Personal essays are a short form of creative nonfiction that can cover a wide range of styles, from writing about one’s experiences to expressing one’s personal opinions. They can address any topic imaginable. Personal essays can be found in many places, from magazines and literary journals to blogs and newspapers. They are often a short form of memoir writing.
Speeches can cover a range of genres, from political to motivational to educational. A tributary speech honors someone whereas a roast ridicules them (in good humor). Unlike most other forms of writing, speeches are written to be performed rather than read.
Journaling: A common, accessible, and often personal form of creative nonfiction writing is journaling. A journal can also contain fiction and poetry, but most journals would be considered nonfiction. Some common types of written journals are diaries, gratitude journals, and career journals (or logs), but this is just a small sampling of journaling options.
Writing Creative Nonfiction (aff link).
Any topic or subject matter is fair game in the realm of creative nonfiction. Some nonfiction genres and topics that offer opportunities for creative nonfiction writing include food and travel writing, self-development, art and history, and health and fitness. It’s not so much the topic or subject matter that renders a written work as creative; it’s how it’s written — with due diligence to the craft of writing through application of language and literary devices.
Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Here are six simple guidelines to follow when writing creative nonfiction:
- Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberties with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be scrutinized. Negative publicity might boost sales, but it will tarnish your reputation; you’ll lose credibility. If you can’t refrain from fabrication, then think about writing fiction instead of creative nonfiction.
- Issue a disclaimer. A lot of nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and include a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
- Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction. Some people are extremely private and don’t want any details of their lives published. Others might request that you leave certain things out, which they want to keep private. Otherwise, make sure you’ve weighed the repercussions of revealing other people’s lives to the world. Relationships have been both strengthened and destroyed as a result of authors publishing the details of other people’s lives.
- Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with harsh criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
- Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
- Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.
Are you looking for inspiration? Check out these creative nonfiction writing ideas.
Ten creative nonfiction writing prompts and projects.
The prompts below are excerpted from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts , which contains fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction writing prompts. Use these prompts to spark a creative nonfiction writing session.
1200 Creative Writing Prompts (aff link).
- What is your favorite season? What do you like about it? Write a descriptive essay about it.
- What do you think the world of technology will look like in ten years? Twenty? What kind of computers, phones, and other devices will we use? Will technology improve travel? Health care? What do you expect will happen and what would you like to happen?
- Have you ever fixed something that was broken? Ever solved a computer problem on your own? Write an article about how to fix something or solve some problem.
- Have you ever had a run-in with the police? What happened?
- Have you ever traveled alone? Tell your story. Where did you go? Why? What happened?
- Let’s say you write a weekly advice column. Choose the topic you’d offer advice on, and then write one week’s column.
- Think of a major worldwide problem: for example, hunger, climate change, or political corruption. Write an article outlining a solution (or steps toward a solution).
- Choose a cause that you feel is worthy and write an article persuading others to join that cause.
- Someone you barely know asks you to recommend a book. What do you recommend and why?
- Hard skills are abilities you have acquired, such as using software, analyzing numbers, and cooking. Choose a hard skill you’ve mastered and write an article about how this skill is beneficial using your own life experiences as examples.
Do You Write Creative Nonfiction?
Have you ever written creative nonfiction? How often do you read it? Can you think of any nonfiction forms and genres that aren’t included here? Do you have any guidelines to add to this list? Are there any situations in which it would be acceptable to ignore these guidelines? Got any tips to add? Do you feel that nonfiction should focus on content and not on craft? Leave a comment to share your thoughts, and keep writing.
Shouldn’t ALL non-fiction be creative to some extent? I am a former business journalist, and won awards for the imaginative approach I took to writing about even the driest of business topics: pensions, venture capital, tax, employment law and other potentially dusty subjects. The drier and more complicated the topic, the more creative the approach must be, otherwise no-one with anything else to do will bother to wade through it. [to be honest, taking the fictional approach to these ghastly tortuous topics was the only way I could face writing about them.] I used all the techniques that fiction writers have to play with, and used some poetic techniques, too, to make the prose more readable. What won the first award was a little serial about two businesses run and owned by a large family at war with itself. Every episode centred on one or two common and crucial business issues, wrapped up in a comedy-drama, and it won a lot of fans (happily for me) because it was so much easier to read and understand than the dry technical writing they were used to. Life’s too short for dusty writing!
I believe most journalism is creative and would therefore fall under creative nonfiction. However, there is a lot of legal, technical, medical, science, and textbook writing in which there is no room for creativity (or creativity has not made its way into these genres yet). With some forms, it makes sense. I don’t think it would be appropriate for legal briefings to use story or literary devices just to add a little flair. On the other hand, it would be a good thing if textbooks were a little more readable.
I think Abbs is right – even in academic papers, an example or story helps the reader visualize the problem or explanation more easily. I scan business books to see if there are stories or examples, if not, then I don’t pick up the book. That’s where the creativity comes in – how to create examples, what to conflate, what to emphasis as we create our fictional people to illustrate important, real points.
Thanks for the post. Very helpful. I’d never thought about writing creative nonfiction before.
You’re welcome 🙂
Love your website. You always give a fun and frank assessment of all things pertaining to writing. It is a pleasure to read. I have even bought several of the reference and writing books you recommended. Keep up the great work.
Top 10 Reasons Why Creative Nonfiction Is A Questionable Category
10. When you look up “Creative Nonfiction” in the dictionary it reads: See Fiction
9. The first creative nonfiction example was a Schwinn Bicycle Assembly Guide that had printed in its instructions: Can easily be assembled by one person with a Phillips head screw driver, Allen keys, adjustable wrench and cable cutters in less than an hour.
8. Creative Nonfiction; Based on actual events; Suggested by a true event; Based on a true story. It’s a slippery slope.
7. The Creative Nonfiction Quarterly is only read by eleven people. Five have the same last name.
6. Creative Nonfiction settings may only include: hospitals, concentration camps, prisons and cemeteries. Exceptions may be made for asylums, rehab centers and Capitol Hill.
5. The writers who create Sterile Nonfiction or Unimaginative Nonfiction now want their category recognized.
4. Creative; Poetic License; Embellishment; Puffery. See where this is leading?
3. Creative Nonfiction is to Nonfiction as Reality TV is to Documentaries.
2. My attorney has advised that I exercise my 5th Amendment Rights or that I be allowed to give written testimony in a creative nonfiction way.
1. People believe it is a film with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Queen Latifa.
Hi Steve. I’m not sure if your comment is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, but I found it humorous.
My publisher is releasing my Creative Nonfiction book based on my grandmother’s life this May 2019 in Waikiki. I’ll give you an update soon about sales. I was fortunate enough to get some of the original and current Hawaii 5-0 members to show up for the book signing.
Hi, when writing creative nonfiction- is it appropriate to write from someone else’s point of view when you don’t know them? I was thinking of writing about Greta Thungbrurg for creative nonfiction competition – but I can directly ask her questions so I’m unsure as to whether it’s accurate enough to be classified as creative non-fiction. Thank you!
Hi Madeleine. I’m not aware of creative nonfiction being written in first person from someone else’s point of view. The fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t be creative nonfiction because a person cannot truly show events from another person’s perspective. So I wouldn’t consider something like that nonfiction. It would usually be a biography written in third person, and that is common. You can certainly use quotes and other indicators to represent someone else’s views and experiences. I could probably be more specific if I knew what kind of work it is (memoir, biography, self-development, etc.).
Dear Melissa: I am trying to market a book in the metaphysical genre about an experience I had, receiving the voice of a Civil War spirit who tells his story (not channeling). Part is my reaction and discussion with a close friend so it is not just memoir. I referred to it as ‘literary non-fiction’ but an agent put this down by saying it is NOT literary non-fiction. Looking at your post, could I say that my book is ‘creative non-fiction’? (agents can sometimes be so nit-picky)
Hi Liz. You opened your comment by classifying the book as metaphysical but later referred to it as literary nonfiction. The premise definitely sounds like a better fit in the metaphysical category. Creative nonfiction is not a genre; it’s a broader category or description. Basically, all literature is either fiction or nonfiction (poetry would be separate from these). Describing nonfiction as creative only indicates that it’s not something like a user guide. I think you were heading in the right direction with the metaphysical classification.
The goal of marketing and labeling books with genres is to find a readership that will be interested in the work. This is an agent’s area of expertise, so assuming you’re speaking with a competent agent, I’d suggest taking their advice in this matter. It indicates that the audience perusing the literary nonfiction aisles is simply not a match for this book.
- Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 03-11-2021 | The Author Chronicles - […] If your interests leans toward nonfiction, Melissa Donovan presents a guide to writing creative nonfiction. […]
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Creative Nonfiction: How to Spin Facts into Narrative Gold
Creative nonfiction is a genre of creative writing that approaches factual information in a literary way. This type of writing applies techniques drawn from literary fiction and poetry to material that might be at home in a magazine or textbook, combining the craftsmanship of a novel with the rigor of journalism.
Here are some popular examples of creative nonfiction:
- The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
- Intimations by Zadie Smith
- Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Creative nonfiction is not limited to novel-length writing, of course. Popular radio shows and podcasts like WBEZ’s This American Life or Sarah Koenig’s Serial also explore audio essays and documentary with a narrative approach, while personal essays like Nora Ephron’s A Few Words About Breasts and Mariama Lockington’s What A Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew also present fact with fiction-esque flair.
Writing short personal essays can be a great entry point to writing creative nonfiction. Think about a topic you would like to explore, perhaps borrowing from your own life, or a universal experience. Journal freely for five to ten minutes about the subject, and see what direction your creativity takes you in. These kinds of exercises will help you begin to approach reality in a more free flowing, literary way — a muscle you can use to build up to longer pieces of creative nonfiction.
If you think you’d like to bring your writerly prowess to nonfiction, here are our top tips for creating compelling creative nonfiction that’s as readable as a novel, but as illuminating as a scholarly article.
Write a memoir focused on a singular experience
Humans love reading about other people’s lives — like first-person memoirs, which allow you to get inside another person’s mind and learn from their wisdom. Unlike autobiographies, memoirs can focus on a single experience or theme instead of chronicling the writers’ life from birth onward.
For that reason, memoirs tend to focus on one core theme and—at least the best ones—present a clear narrative arc, like you would expect from a novel. This can be achieved by selecting a singular story from your life; a formative experience, or period of time, which is self-contained and can be marked by a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When writing a memoir, you may also choose to share your experience in parallel with further research on this theme. By performing secondary research, you’re able to bring added weight to your anecdotal evidence, and demonstrate the ways your own experience is reflective (or perhaps unique from) the wider whole.
Example: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking , for example, interweaves the author’s experience of widowhood with sociological research on grief. Chronicling the year after her husband’s unexpected death, and the simultaneous health struggles of their daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking is a poignant personal story, layered with universal insight into what it means to lose someone you love. The result is the definitive exploration of bereavement — and a stellar example of creative nonfiction done well.
📚 Looking for more reading recommendations? Check out our list of the best memoirs of the last century .
Tip: What you cut out is just as important as what you keep
When writing a memoir that is focused around a singular theme, it’s important to be selective in what to include, and what to leave out. While broader details of your life may be helpful to provide context, remember to resist the impulse to include too much non-pertinent backstory. By only including what is most relevant, you are able to provide a more focused reader experience, and won’t leave readers guessing what the significance of certain non-essential anecdotes will be.
💡 For more memoir-planning tips, head over to our post on outlining memoirs .
Of course, writing a memoir isn’t the only form of creative nonfiction that lets you tap into your personal life — especially if there’s something more explicit you want to say about the world at large… which brings us onto our next section.
Pen a personal essay that has something bigger to say
Personal essays condense the first-person focus and intimacy of a memoir into a tighter package — tunneling down into a specific aspect of a theme or narrative strand within the author’s personal experience.
Often involving some element of journalistic research, personal essays can provide examples or relevant information that comes from outside the writer’s own experience. This can take the form of other people’s voices quoted in the essay, or facts and stats. By combining lived experiences with external material, personal essay writers can reach toward a bigger message, telling readers something about human behavior or society instead of just letting them know the writer better.
Example: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison's widely acclaimed collection The Empathy Exams tackles big questions (Why is pain so often performed? Can empathy be “bad”?) by grounding them in the personal. While Jamison draws from her own experiences, both as a medical actor who was paid to imitate pain, and as a sufferer of her own ailments, she also reaches broader points about the world we live in within each of her essays.
Whether she’s talking about the justice system or reality TV, Jamison writes with both vulnerability and poise, using her lived experience as a jumping-off point for exploring the nature of empathy itself.
Tip: Try to show change in how you feel about something
Including external perspectives, as we’ve just discussed above, will help shape your essay, making it meaningful to other people and giving your narrative an arc.
Ultimately, you may be writing about yourself, but readers can read what they want into it. In a personal narrative, they’re looking for interesting insights or realizations they can apply to their own understanding of their lives or the world — so don’t lose sight of that. As the subject of the essay, you are not so much the topic as the vehicle for furthering a conversation.
Often, there are three clear stages in an essay:
- Initial state
- Encounter with something external
- New, changed state, and conclusions
By bringing readers through this journey with you, you can guide them to new outlooks and demonstrate how your story is still relevant to them.
Had enough of writing about your own life? Let’s look at a form of creative nonfiction that allows you to get outside of yourself.
Tell a factual story as though it were a novel
The form of creative nonfiction that is perhaps closest to conventional nonfiction is literary journalism. Here, the stories are all fact, but they are presented with a creative flourish. While the stories being told might comfortably inhabit a newspaper or history book, they are presented with a sense of literary significance, and writers can make use of literary techniques and character-driven storytelling.
Unlike news reporters, literary journalists can make room for their own perspectives: immersing themselves in the very action they recount. Think of them as both characters and narrators — but every word they write is true.
If you think literary journalism is up your street, think about the kinds of stories that capture your imagination the most, and what those stories have in common. Are they, at their core, character studies? Parables? An invitation to a new subculture you have never before experienced? Whatever piques your interest, immerse yourself.
Example: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
If you’re looking for an example of literary journalism that tells a great story, look no further than Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World , which sits at the intersection of food writing and popular science. Though it purports to offer a “plant’s-eye view of the world,” it’s as much about human desires as it is about the natural world.
Through the history of four different plants and human’s efforts to cultivate them, Pollan uses first-hand research as well as archival facts to explore how we attempt to domesticate nature for our own pleasure, and how these efforts can even have devastating consequences. Pollan is himself a character in the story, and makes what could be a remarkably dry topic accessible and engaging in the process.
Tip: Don’t pretend that you’re perfectly objective
You may have more room for your own perspective within literary journalism, but with this power comes great responsibility. Your responsibilities toward the reader remain the same as that of a journalist: you must, whenever possible, acknowledge your own biases or conflicts of interest, as well as any limitations on your research.
Thankfully, the fact that literary journalism often involves a certain amount of immersion in the narrative — that is, the writer acknowledges their involvement in the process — you can touch on any potential biases explicitly, and make it clear that the story you’re telling, while true to what you experienced, is grounded in your own personal perspective.
Approach a famous name with a unique approach
Biographies are the chronicle of a human life, from birth to the present or, sometimes, their demise. Often, fact is stranger than fiction, and there is no shortage of fascinating figures from history to discover. As such, a biographical approach to creative nonfiction will leave you spoilt for choice in terms of subject matter.
Because they’re not written by the subjects themselves (as memoirs are), biographical nonfiction requires careful research. If you plan to write one, do everything in your power to verify historical facts, and interview the subject’s family, friends, and acquaintances when possible. Despite the necessity for candor, you’re still welcome to approach biography in a literary way — a great creative biography is both truthful and beautifully written.
Example: American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Alongside the need for you to present the truth is a duty to interpret that evidence with imagination, and present it in the form of a story. Demonstrating a novelist’s skill for plot and characterization, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus is a great example of creative nonfiction that develops a character right in front of the readers’ eyes.
American Prometheus follows J. Robert Oppenheimer from his bashful childhood to his role as the father of the atomic bomb, all the way to his later attempts to reckon with his violent legacy.
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The biography tells a story that would fit comfortably in the pages of a tragic novel, but is grounded in historical research. Clocking in at a hefty 721 pages, American Prometheus distills an enormous volume of archival material, including letters, FBI files, and interviews into a remarkably readable volume.
📚 For more examples of world-widening, eye-opening biographies, check out our list of the 30 best biographies of all time .
Tip: The good stuff lies in the mundane details
Biographers are expected to undertake academic-grade research before they put pen to paper. You will, of course, read any existing biographies on the person you’re writing about, and visit any archives containing relevant material. If you’re lucky, there’ll be people you can interview who knew your subject personally — but even if there aren’t, what’s going to make your biography stand out is paying attention to details, even if they seem mundane at first.
Of course, no one cares which brand of slippers a former US President wore — gossip is not what we’re talking about. But if you discover that they took a long, silent walk every single morning, that’s a granular detail you could include to give your readers a sense of the weight they carried every day. These smaller details add up to a realistic portrait of a living, breathing human being.
But creative nonfiction isn’t just writing about yourself or other people. Writing about art is also an art, as we’ll see below.
Put your favorite writers through the wringer with literary criticism
Literary criticism is often associated with dull, jargon-laden college dissertations — but it can be a wonderfully rewarding form that blurs the lines between academia and literature itself. When tackled by a deft writer, a literary critique can be just as engrossing as the books it analyzes.
Many of the sharpest literary critics are also poets, poetry editors , novelists, or short story writers, with first-hand awareness of literary techniques and the ability to express their insights with elegance and flair. Though literary criticism sounds highly theoretical, it can be profoundly intimate: you’re invited to share in someone’s experience as a reader or writer — just about the most private experience there is.
Example: The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
Take The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, a seminal work approaching Victorian literature from a feminist perspective. Written as a conversation between two friends and academics, this brilliant book reads like an intellectual brainstorming session in a casual dining venue. Highly original, accessible, and not suffering from the morose gravitas academia is often associated with, this text is a fantastic example of creative nonfiction.
Tip: Remember to make your critiques creative
Literary criticism may be a serious undertaking, but unless you’re trying to pitch an academic journal, you’ll need to be mindful of academic jargon and convoluted sentence structure. Don’t forget that the point of popular literary criticism is to make ideas accessible to readers who aren’t necessarily academics, introducing them to new ways of looking at anything they read.
If you’re not feeling confident, a professional nonfiction editor could help you confirm you’ve hit the right stylistic balance.
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Within the world of creative writing, the term creative nonfiction encompasses texts about factual events that are not solely for scholarly purposes. Creative nonfiction may include memoir, personal essays, feature-length articles in magazines, and narratives in literary journals. This genre of writing incorporates techniques from fiction and poetry in order to create accounts that read more like story than a piece of journalism or a report. The audience for creative nonfiction is typically broader than the audiences for scholarly writing.
The term creative nonfiction is credited to Lee Gutkind, who defines this genre as “true stories well told.” However, the concept of literary nonfiction has its roots in ancient poetry, historical accounts, and religious texts. Throughout history, people have tried to keep a record of the human experience and have done so through the vehicle of story since the invention of language. For more about the origins of the term creative nonfiction, see the article What is Creative Nonfiction ?
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Examples of Creative Nonfiction: What It Is & How to Write It
POSTED ON Jul 21, 2023
Written by P.J McNulty
When most people think of creative writing, they picture fiction books – but there are plenty of examples of creative nonfiction. In fact, creative nonfiction is one of the most interesting genres to read and write. So what is creative nonfiction exactly?
More and more people are discovering the joy of getting immersed in content based on true life that has all the quality and craft of a well-written novel. If you are interested in writing creative nonfiction, it’s important to understand different examples of creative nonfiction as a genre.
If you’ve ever gotten lost in memoirs so descriptive that you felt you’d walked in the shoes of those people, those are perfect examples of creative nonfiction – and you understand exactly why this genre is so popular.
But is creative nonfiction a viable form of writing to pursue? What is creative nonfiction best used to convey? And what are some popular creative nonfiction examples?
Today we will discuss all about this genre, including plenty of examples of creative nonfiction books – so you’ll know exactly how to write it.
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What is Creative Nonfiction?
Creative nonfiction is defined as true events written about with the techniques and style traditionally found in creative writing . We can understand what creative nonfiction is by contrasting it with plain-old nonfiction.
Think about news or a history textbook, for example. These nonfiction pieces tend to be written in very matter-of-fact, declarative language. While informative, this type of nonfiction often lacks the flair and pleasure that keep people hooked on fictional novels.
Imagine there are two retellings of a true crime story – one in a newspaper and the other in the script for a podcast. Which is more likely to grip you? The dry, factual language, or the evocative, emotionally impactful creative writing?
Podcasts are often great examples of creative nonfiction – but of course, creative nonfiction can be used in books too. In fact, there are many types of creative nonfiction writing. Let's take a look!
Types of creative nonfiction
Creative nonfiction comes in many different forms and flavors. Just as there are myriad types of creative writing, there are almost as many types of creative nonfiction.
Some of the most popular types include:
Literary nonfiction refers to any form of factual writing that employs the literary elements that are more commonly found in fiction. If you’re writing about a true event (but using elements such as metaphor and theme) you might well be writing literary nonfiction.
Writing a life story doesn’t have to be a dry, chronological depiction of your years on Earth. You can use memoirs to creatively tell about events or ongoing themes in your life.
If you’re unsure of what kind of creative nonfiction to write, why not consider a creative memoir? After all, no one else can tell your life story like you.
The beauty of the natural world is an ongoing source of creative inspiration for many people, from photographers to documentary makers. But it’s also a great focus for a creative nonfiction writer. Evoking the majesty and wonder of our environment is an endless source of material for creative nonfiction.
If you’ve ever read a great travel article or book, you’ll almost feel as if you've been on the journey yourself. There’s something special about travel writing that conveys not only the literal journey, but the personal journey that takes place.
Writers with a passion for exploring the world should consider travel writing as their form of creative nonfiction.
For types of writing that leave a lasting impact on the world, look no further than speeches. From a preacher's sermon, to ‘I have a dream’, speeches move hearts and minds like almost nothing else. The difference between an effective speech and one that falls on deaf ears is little more than the creative skill with which it is written.
Noteworthy figures from history and contemporary times alike are great sources for creative nonfiction. Think about the difference between reading about someone’s life on Wikipedia and reading about it in a critically-acclaimed biography.
Which is the better way of honoring that person’s legacy and achievements? Which is more fun to read? If there’s someone whose life story is one you’d love to tell, creative nonfiction might be the best way to do it.
So now that you have an idea of what creative nonfiction is, and some different ways you can write it, let's take a look at some popular examples of creative nonfiction books and speeches.
Examples of Creative Nonfiction
Here are our favorite examples of creative nonfiction:
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
No list of examples of creative nonfiction would be complete without In Cold Blood . This landmark work of literary nonfiction by Truman Capote helped to establish the literary nonfiction genre in its modern form, and paved the way for the contemporary true crime boom.
2. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is undeniably one of the best creative memoirs ever written. It beautifully reflects on Hemingway’s time in Paris – and whisks you away into the cobblestone streets.
3. World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
If you're looking for examples of creative nonfiction nature writing, no one does it quite like Aimee Nezhukumatathil. World of Wonders is a beautiful series of essays that poetically depicts the varied natural landscapes she enjoyed over the years.
4. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most beloved travel writers of our time. And A Walk in the Woods is perhaps Bryson in his peak form. This much-loved travel book uses creativity to explore the Appalachian Trail and convey Bryson’s opinions on America in his humorous trademark style.
5. The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
While most of our examples of creative nonfiction are books, we would be remiss not to include at least one speech. The Gettysburg Address is one of the most impactful speeches in American history, and an inspiring example for creative nonfiction writers.
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Few have a way with words like Maya Angelou. Her triumphant book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , shows the power of literature to transcend one’s circumstances at any time. It is one of the best examples of creative nonfiction that truly sucks you in.
7. Hiroshima by John Hershey
Hiroshima is a powerful retelling of the events during (and following) the infamous atomic bomb. This journalistic masterpiece is told through the memories of survivors – and will stay with you long after you've finished the final page.
8. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you haven't read the book, you've probably seen the film. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most popular travel memoirs in history. This romp of creative nonfiction teaches us how to truly unmake and rebuild ourselves through the lens of travel.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Never has language learning brought tears of laughter like Me Talk Pretty One Day . David Sedaris comically divulges his (often failed) attempts to learn French with a decidedly sadistic teacher, and all the other mishaps he encounters in his fated move from New York to Paris.
10. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Many of us had complicated childhoods, but few of us experienced the hardships of Jeannette Walls. In The Glass Castle , she gives us a transparent look at the betrayals and torments of her youth and how she overcame them with grace – weaving her trauma until it reads like a whimsical fairytale.
Now that you've seen plenty of creative nonfiction examples, it's time to learn how to write your own creative nonfiction masterpiece.
Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Writing creative nonfiction has a lot in common with other types of writing. (You won’t be reinventing the wheel here.) The better you are at writing in general, the easier you’ll find your creative nonfiction project. But there are some nuances to be aware of.
Writing a successful creative nonfiction piece requires you to:
Choose a form
Before you commit to a creative nonfiction project, get clear on exactly what it is you want to write. That way, you can get familiar with the conventions of the style of writing and draw inspiration from some of its classics.
Try and find a balance between a type of creative nonfiction you find personally appealing and one you have the skill set to be effective at.
Gather the facts
Like all forms of nonfiction, your creative project will require a great deal of research and preparation. If you’re writing about an event, try and gather as many sources of information as possible – so you can imbue your writing with a rich level of detail.
If it’s a piece about your life, jot down personal recollections and gather photos from your past.
Plan your writing
Unlike a fictional novel, which tends to follow a fairly well-established structure, works of creative nonfiction have a less clear shape. To avoid the risk of meandering or getting weighed down by less significant sections, structure your project ahead of writing it.
You can either apply the classic fiction structures to a nonfictional event or take inspiration from the pacing of other examples of creative nonfiction you admire.
You may also want to come up with a working title to inspire your writing. Using a free book title generator is a quick and easy way to do this and move on to the actual writing of your book.
Draft in your intended style
Unless you have a track record of writing creative nonfiction, the first time doing so can feel a little uncomfortable. You might second-guess your writing more than you usually would due to the novelty of applying creative techniques to real events. Because of this, it’s essential to get your first draft down as quickly as possible.
Rewrite and refine
After you finish your first draft, only then should you read back through it and critique your work. Perhaps you haven’t used enough source material. Or maybe you’ve overdone a certain creative technique. Whatever you happen to notice, take as long as you need to refine and rework it until your writing feels just right.
Ready to Wow the World With Your Story?
You know have the knowledge and inspiring examples of creative nonfiction you need to write a successful work in this genre. Whether you choose to write a riveting travel book, a tear-jerking memoir, or a biography that makes readers laugh out loud, creative nonfiction will give you the power to convey true events like never before.
Who knows? Maybe your book will be on the next list of top creative nonfiction examples!
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The New Outliers: How Creative Nonfiction Became a Legitimate, Serious Genre
Lee gutkind on the birth and surprising history of a different type of narrative form.
Many of my students, and even some younger colleagues, think—assume—that creative nonfiction is just part of the literary ecosystem; it’s always been around, like fiction or poetry. In many ways, of course, they are right: the kind of writing that is now considered to be under the creative nonfiction umbrella has a long and rich history. Many, of course, look to Michel de Montaigne as the father of the modern essay, but, to my mind, the more authentic roots of creative nonfiction are in the eighteenth century: Daniel Defoe’s historical narratives, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, and Samuel Johnson’s essays built a foundation for later writers such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
That is to say, even if the line between fact and fiction was perhaps a little fuzzy in the early days, it’s not hard to find rich nonfiction narratives that predate the use of the word “nonfiction” (1867, according to the Oxford English Dictionary ) and were around long before the first recorded use of the phrase “creative nonfiction” (1943, according to research William Bradley did for Creative Nonfiction some years ago).
But in a lot of important ways, creative nonfiction is still very new, at least as a form of literature with its own identity. Unfortunately, it took a long time—longer than it should have, if you ask me—for the genre to be acknowledged in that ecosystem. And, of course, you’ll still encounter people who are unfamiliar with the term or want to make that dumb joke, “Creative nonfiction: isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Be that as it may, there’s no real doubt at this point that creative nonfiction is a serious genre, a real thing. You probably won’t find a “creative nonfiction” bookshelf at your local bookstore, and maybe it’s not on the menu at Amazon the way “fiction” is, but nonfiction narratives are everywhere. Newspapers, formerly the realm of straight journalism, with its inverted-pyramid, who-what-where-when-why requirements, have welcomed personal essays not only on their op-ed pages but in many different sections. Memoir, labeled a “craze” in the 1990s, is a mainstay of the publishing industry. Twenty or so years ago, almost no one was publishing essay collections, and even the word “essay” was the kiss of death if you wanted a trade publisher to consider your work, but now essay collections are routinely on best-seller lists. And, increasingly, even non-narrative creative nonfiction like lyric essays and hybrid forms have gained legitimacy and commercial viability.
So, you might ask, what happened? How did we get to this era of acceptance and legitimacy? The genre’s success, I believe, a gradual process over almost a half-century, emerged in many important ways from an unlikely and dominant source. I am not at all sure I would be writing this today, or that you would be reading this in an almost thirty-year-old magazine devoted exclusively to creative nonfiction, if not for the academy, and specifically departments of English.
Now, if you’ve been following my writing over the past thirty or so years, you may be surprised to hear me say this. After all, I’ve written a great deal about the power struggles that went on in the early 1970s, when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and to a lesser degree at other universities and trying to expand the curriculum to include what was then called, mostly because of Tom Wolfe, “new journalism.”
I find that many of my students today aren’t very familiar with the New Journalists—Wolfe, Gay Talese, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin, Barbara Goldsmith, and Jane Kramer, among others—and it’s probably also true that some of the work from that time hasn’t aged terribly well. Sure, sometimes some of these writers went a little overboard, like Tom Wolfe, for example, interrupting his sentences with varoom-varooms and other stylistic flourishes. He was being playful and maybe a bit silly and arrogant, or it might seem so today, but he was also trying to loosen things up, to not be as predictable and sometimes downright boring as journalists then could be, and in that regard, he was quite successful.
You have to realize that the New Journalists were doing some very exciting stuff, seemingly groundbreaking. They were writing in scenes, recreating dialogue, manipulating timelines, and including themselves—their voices and ideas—in the stories they were writing. Stuff we pretty much take for granted now, but back then, with journalists especially hampered and handcuffed by rules and guidelines, so liberating.
Remember this was all happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rule breaking, change, and defying the establishment were in the air everywhere, and the idea of the “new” in journalism captured the tone and spirit of the times. But I am not just talking here about journalism. Other writers, recognized for their literary achievements, were also taking chances, pushing boundaries. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , his “nonfiction novel,” stunned and obsessed the literary world when it was published first in the New Yorker in 1965 and then, the following year, as a book. In 1969, another novelist, Norman Mailer, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters for The Armies of the Night , about the Washington, DC, peace demonstrations . Mailer was awarded a second Pulitzer in 1980 for his intense, thousand-plus-page deep-dive into murder, obsession, and punishment, The Executioner’s Song , which became a centerpiece of a national conversation about the death penalty. Mailer’s award for his self-described “true-life novel” was for fiction, but all three books, if published today, would be considered creative nonfiction.
I couldn’t see why this kind of work—which was as exciting to students as it was to me—didn’t belong in the classroom. In an English department. Not just as a one-off work, to be taught once in a while, but as part of the curriculum. Why wasn’t there a category for writing that wasn’t poetry or fiction or essay or journalism but that could bring the various literary and journalistic techniques used in all of those forms together into one unique work of art and craft? Why didn’t this amalgam of literary and journalistic richness belong . . . somewhere?
Thinking back, I didn’t really belong either. I had pushed my way into the English department first as a part-time lecturer and then as tenure-track faculty by campaigning for this new or different way of writing nonfiction. And to be honest, I think I began to succeed, to make inroads, because, for one thing, most faculty at the time did not want to teach this stuff—nonfiction—especially if it was called or related to journalism. It’s also true I was a bit of an interloper—I was a published author in what might be described as a more commercial vein (books about motorcycles, baseball, backwoods America, targeted to general audiences), a rarity in English departments. And worse, I was a lowly BA. No advanced degrees.
But in many ways, I was also fortunate; during this time, with student protests confronting the old guard on campuses, I got by as a token of change, tolerated but not yet completely accepted. I felt like a misbehaving adolescent, rough around the edges and not yet ready to grow up, learn the rules, and pay my dues. I didn’t even know how to pay my dues. There were few options. Creative-writing programs, ubiquitous today, were rare and in many ways faced resistance in English departments.
Of course, part of the resistance to creative-writing courses, generally, was just the kind of turf defending that goes on in any academic department, where resources can be unfortunately scarce. Giving a tenure slot to a novelist or a poet, after all, can mean losing a tenure slot and resources for research and travel for a literature PhD.
But I think the resistance to creative nonfiction as being part of creative writing went even deeper and had something to do with how we define literature. I remember one particularly contentious debate back in the early 1970s, after one of my students had made a presentation arguing for an entire course devoted to new journalism. (I’d been incorporating pieces into my classes, but there was no entire course devoted to the stuff.) One of the English professors slammed a pile of books—classics—down on the table; his argument, I think, was that my student should have to prove he’d read those works before he was remotely qualified to weigh in on the curriculum. Anyway, perhaps predictably, it turned into a heated debate about which particular works were classics, a debate the department chair ended by observing, “After all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here—not writing .”
(Were there women in the room? Of course there were.)
Now, what was going on here? Why didn’t these professors think of this writing as literary? And I mean not just contemporary works like In Cold Blood but the work that came before it, too—the nonfiction written by H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain, James Baldwin and Jack London, not to forget the father of English journalism, Daniel Defoe. And what about pioneering narrative journalists like Nellie Bly and Ida Tarbell? I guess I have a few theories.
First, the lack of a unifying name—what to call it—was definitely a complicating factor. “New journalism” wasn’t great because (the argument went, in English departments, at least) journalism was a trade, not a literary pursuit. There were other names floated—“the literature of fact,” “literary nonfiction,” “belles lettres” (which is what the National Endowment for the Arts was using at that time). But using the word “literary” to describe contemporary writing, meaning that a person would have to say “I write literary nonfiction” … well, that felt sort of presumptuous, didn’t it? “Creative” sort of had the same problem; who was to say what that meant, and it also sort of implied that other kinds of writing weren’t creative, and that didn’t feel good, especially to the scholars. And to the journalists, “creative” sounded like it meant you were making stuff up. As for “belles lettres,” well . . . it just sounded pretentious.
Even more than that, I think there was something about the writing itself—and the writers—that felt threatening. Not just because of the rule breaking. So much of this new nonfiction was about real people and events and was often quite revelatory. We were really a no-holds-barred crew. Wherever there was a story we were there, boots on the ground, bringing it to life—and often revealing the darkest side of things, of war, of poverty, of inherent societal racism. And revealing our own foibles and flaws along the way. And it wasn’t just Mailer and Capote and Baldwin who were writing this stuff, but real people capturing their own lives and struggles in dramatic detail. The “new” whatever you wanted to call it was truly an awakening.
Students, undergrads mostly, at first, especially recognized and were energized by the appeal. Suddenly the doors were open to other options far more interesting than the inverted pyramid or the five-paragraph essay, and considering these new possibilities for what to write about and, more important, how to write their stories was liberating, challenging, and downright enjoyable. Student interest and subsequent demand invariably led to more courses, and more courses led to more writers and scholars who would agree to teaching what had once seemed so controversial.
I should also point out that as the dialogue and debate about nonfiction began to grow, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was traveling widely. I got invitations from not just universities, but also book clubs and local conferences, from Wyoming to Birmingham to Boston, and met not only with students but also with many of these “real” people who wanted to write. Some were professionals—doctors, teachers, scientists—but there were also firefighters, ambulance drivers, and what we then called homemakers, all with stories to write. They, too, saw the appeal of this nonfiction form that let you tell stories and incorporate your experiences along with other information and ideas and personal opinions.
These folks cared much less than the academics did about what it was called. But—after the dust had settled to a certain extent in academia; after the English department at Pitt had agreed, first, to a course called “The New Nonfiction” and then, nearly two decades later, to a whole master’s program concentrating on creative nonfiction writing (the first in the country, I believe), which later became an MFA program; and after the NEA, in 1989 or so, also adopted the term “creative nonfiction,” a tipping point for sure—well, it mattered tremendously to those folks that it had a name, this kind of writing they wanted to do. It brought a validation to their work, to know that there was a place or a category where their work belonged. The writing itself wasn’t necessarily anything new—people had been doing it forever, if you knew where to look for it—but now people were paying attention to it, and they had something to call it.
And then, a little later, when this journal (now, this magazine) started publishing, in 1993, that added another form of legitimacy. And, in fact, work from many of those writers I met during those years on the road was published in the first few issues of Creative Nonfiction . In the early issues of the journal, we attracted all kinds of writers who were, perhaps, tired of being locked in or limited. We published journalists and essayists and poets, all of them exploring and reaching.
All of this did not happen overnight. English departments did not jump right in and embrace nonfiction; it was, as I have said, a much more gradual and often reluctant acceptance, but clearly an inevitable—and eventually gracious—one, maybe mostly for practical reasons. Creative writing programs were becoming quite profitable, especially at a time when literature and liberal arts majors were waning. Adding nonfiction brought in an entirely new breed of students, not just literary types, but those interested in science and economics or those students who were just interested in finding a job after graduation. Learning to write true stories in a compelling way could only enhance future opportunities.
It may well be that English departments resisted change for various reasons at the beginning, but they also opened the doors and provided a place—a destination—for all of us creative nonfictionists to come together, dialogue and share our work, and earn a certain legitimacy that had been denied to us at the very beginning. I had no idea at the time I started teaching that creative nonfiction would become such a mainstay, not just in the academy, but as a force and influence in literature and in publishing. That was not my intent, and I was certainly not the only “warrior” who took up the fight. But I don’t think this fight could have taken place anywhere else but in the academy, where intellectual discourse and opportunities for new ideas can so richly flourish and be recognized. I have no idea whether an outsider like me, beating the bushes for support of a genre or an idea that did not seem to exist, could survive in an English department or anywhere else in the academy today; the atmosphere, the politics, the financial pressures, the tone of the times is so very different.
Even then, it was very much a minor miracle that I, uncredentialled and tainted, as some thought, by commercialism, was accorded such an opportunity. And that all of my campaigning and annoying persistence were tolerated. It would have been easy to eliminate me. But as much of an interloper as I was, I was rarely shut down; I could always speak my mind. And even though many of my colleagues were pretty damn unhappy about the new journalism and, later, creative nonfiction, they eventually came to recognize the popularity and potential of this new genre and, I think, to respect and appreciate the dedication and excitement displayed by our nonfiction students.
As the program grew and other universities followed suit, we outliers not only began to fit in, but also began to thrive. We added depth and substance not just to writing programs, but to the entire department. And as our students published, won awards, became popular teachers in their own right, we added more than a little bit of prestige.
What happened at Pitt and later at other English departments isn’t so very different than what happened as our genre evolved. Fifty years ago, we were hardly a blip on the radar, an add-on or an afterthought, a necessary annoyance at best. Today, we are not just a part of the literary ecosystem, we are its most active and impactful contributors—leaders and change makers and motivators where we once did not belong.
This essay originally appeared in Issue #76 of Creative Nonfiction under the title “ I’d Like to Thank the Academy .”
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4 Different Styles of Writing for Nonfiction Books
by The Book Professor | Feb 3, 2021 | How to write a book , Nonfiction Writing , Select Uncategorized , Writing Nonfiction , Writing Tips | 0 comments
How to choose between different types of writing styles for your nonfiction book.
Before you put pen to paper for your nonfiction book, you need to know the different styles of writing used for nonfiction and pick the style that best suits your project.
When we say “style,” what we really mean is writing voice. How do you “sound” inside the reader’s mind as they read your book?
Nonfiction authors tend to gravitate toward one of four distinct writing styles—but only one is the best fit for most nonfiction projects.
The AUTHORITATIVE Writing Style
What is it? This writing style sets you up as the expert imparting knowledge to your reader. It’s heavily fact-based and may use jargon or other special terms unfamiliar to most readers.
When to use it: Textbooks or peer-reviewed academic journals.
Some writers believe that to establish credibility with readers, they must sound like an expert with lofty language and plenty of facts. They may use multisyllable words in every paragraph and take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to their material.
This works well in textbooks or peer-reviewed journals. However, for other types of nonfiction—books of advice, books on business strategy, memoirs, etc.—the authoritative style falls flat. It hides the author’s personality from the reader, and readers want a connection with their author.
In addition, complicated words and jargon can make readers believe they don’t know enough about your field to be part of your audience. If a reader has to look up the definition of a word, you’ve lost them.
The LYRICAL Writing Style
What is it: The lyrical writing style uses descriptions and flowery language to evoke a beautiful mental picture for the reader. Imagine the imagery-dense poetry you read in high school English.
When to use: Novels and poetry
Authors gravitate towards this style because of the frequent adage “Show, don’t tell.” If you’re supposed to help your reader experience something rather than simply tell them about it, then descriptive language should form the bulk of your writing. Right?
Not so fast. Lyrical writing can slow down your story. Even novels must balance lyrical writing with narration and dialogue or readers get bored.
Nonfiction readers, when faced with a long passage of descriptions, may skip ahead to the next bit of dialogue or the next moment of forward momentum in the story. If they do this too often, they’ll get frustrated and put your book down.
You might choose to use moments of lyrical writing sparingly, particularly in memoirs, which share many traits with novels. Be aware, however, that your overall authorial voice should not be lyrical.
The CONVERSATIONAL Writing Style
What is it: Conversational language means that you write how you talk, including incorrect grammar and inefficient wording.
When to use it: Books written to teens, novels or short stories, poems.
Write how you talk. That sounds like good advice for connecting with readers—but is it really?
The goal of writing is to make the absorption of your ideas as smooth as possible for readers. Our everyday speech, on the other hand, is riddled with incomplete sentences and throwaway words like “just” and “actually” and “like.” As we talk, we don’t always arrange our thoughts in the most logical way. When written verbatim, our daily dialogue doesn’t make for quick, efficient reading.
Which one of these paragraphs is easier to read?
- I actually didn’t have all the ingredients after all, so I just went to the store to just pick them up. It was really busy at the store and I kept thinking I’d be late to the party. Or maybe miss it altogether.
- I didn’t have all the ingredients, so I went to the store. The store was busy and I worried I’d be late to the party or miss it altogether.
In example 2 with throwaway words removed, grammar corrected, and word length shortened, the meaning of the sentence is more clear.
You may use a bit of conversational language in dialogue to make your dialogue sound more realistic. Additionally, you might use conversational language more often if your book is written to teens. Teenagers connect with a casual style that sounds closer to the way people talk. Even in these instances, you don’t want to overuse the conversational style.
As with the lyrical style, conversational language should be used as a seasoning, not a main ingredient, in the recipe of your book.
The ACCESSIBLE Writing Style
What is it: Accessible writing uses everyday language and realistic examples to connect with your reader, and communicates clearly with good grammar and crisp, efficient words.
When to use: Business books, self-help books, memoirs, etc.
For most nonfiction writers, the accessible writing style will best serve your audience. It solves all the problems inherent with the previous three.
The accessible writing style won’t put readers off with unfamiliar five-syllable words on every page.
It moves your story along at a brisk pace and compels your readers to turn pages.
It cuts extraneous language to make every sentence a smooth experience. This helps readers better grasp and digest your ideas.
Remember: the best writing is when the reader doesn’t realize they’re reading. If you’ve done your job, your reader will immerse himself or herself into the story and flow with your ideas.
Your Voice is Unique
Remember, however, that choosing a style does not define your entire authorial voice. When you offer knowledge, advice, help, and hope that readers need, they want to feel connected to you. You can only do that if you allow your writing to sound authentically “you.”
So be unafraid to include your own personal story in your work, if it’s relevant. Allow your sense of humor, your outlook on life, and your sensibilities to enliven the prose. You can write something true to your voice and still make it accessible to readers.
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Here at The Book Professor®, we help authors find their true writing voice every day. We also help authors adhere to an accessible writing style while telling their story.
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How to Use All 4 Writing Styles to Create an Exciting Nonfiction Book
by Bennett R. Coles
In the world of book writing, there are four well-defined writing styles:
In simple terms, this style is used to inform and educate the reader (without expressing your opinion).
This style is used to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
This style is used to bring the reader along your character’s emotional journey.
This style is used to convince the reader to side with you and your beliefs.
Most book genres tend to rely on one or two styles. For example, fiction books tend to focus on the descriptive and narrative styles. Poetry and travel books tend to be written in the descriptive style . Political books or books centered on activism use primarily the persuasive style, and cookbooks, textbooks and research or scientific journals use the expository style.
But there’s one genre which is perfectly suited to take advantage of all four styles concurrently: nonfiction written by business people, professionals or consultants in order to solve a deep-seated problem with their audience.
By taking advantage of all four styles, you’ll be able to craft a book that hits all the major chords with your readers:
- You’ll be able to use the expository style to convey well-researched findings to back up your solution in a way that establishes you as an expert in their eyes.
- You’ll be able to use the descriptive style to paint vivid pictures in your audience’s mind of someone like them before and after they apply your solution.
- You’ll be able to use the narrative style to take your audience through an emotional journey from problem to solution as lived by the characters in your case studies.
- You’ll be able to use the persuasive style to convince your audience why your solution will be different than any other than they might have tried in the past.
Problem-solving nonfiction is ideally suited for the use of all four writing styles like no other genre is.
What Are the Four Types of Writing Styles?
Before we get into the details on how to apply each style to your book, let me introduce their unique characteristics.
Expository Writing style
The expository writing style is used to build your credibility as an expert. You’ll achieve this goal by presenting facts, statistics and other data required to back up your solution (it’s also important for this style that you quote your sources).
Also very important in this style is the use of diagrams, charts and other illustrations to provide different views of your data to enhance your presentation.
What Is the Main Goal of This Style?
To educate your audience about the background information required to support your unique solution.
What Are Some of Its Techniques?
- Use of facts
What is it Not Used For?
The expository writing style is not used to express your opinion or to influence your reader. Try to stay away from “loaded words” that carry a high emotional charge, since they’ll create a conflict with the factual nature of the style.
What Are Some Common Applications?
How-to books, textbooks, instruction manuals, cookbooks, business articles, professional and scientific journals and books about hobbies and interests.
Descriptive Writing style
As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is where the descriptive writing style comes in handy. One of the best devices to engage your reader’s senses is to paint a clear picture of how your solution will work in their lives.
Descriptive writing is not only used to engage your audience’s five senses but also their feelings. Your goal is to engage your reader so closely that they feel they’re actually “there.” This is a powerful literary device used to great effect in the fiction genre and you’ll be borrowing from it for your nonfiction book .
To engage your reader’s imagination so they can feel as if they’re experiencing the events in your book themselves.
- Adjectives used to descriptively enhance nouns
- Adverbs used to descriptively enhance verbs
- Focusing on small details
- Using the 5 senses
This style is not used to narrate. In other words, the descriptive style is never used to tell a story or to give insights into the thoughts or the emotional state of characters in your book.
Novels, poetry, journal writing, travel books and music lyrics.
Narrative Writing style
Narrative writing can be used very effectively in problem-solving nonfiction through the power of story telling. Nonfiction books without any story telling are not as engaging as they could be.
Use stories to create an emotional connection with your readers by making them become invested in characters that they can relate to – characters that also “feel their pain.” They could be about yourself, past clients, or fictional characters that combine the experiences of multiple clients.
To offer readers insights into the thoughts and feelings of characters going through a similar emotional journey than they’re going through themselves.
- Address the 5 W’s (what, when, where, how and why)
- Describe a sequence of events leading to a climax
- Include a description of the characters, settings, dialogue, conflict and resolution
Narrative writing is not used to introduce facts and figures and it’s not used to influence or persuade your audience.
Novels, poetry, short stories, screenplays and movie scripts.
Persuasive Writing style
The persuasive writing style can be used to great effect in problem-solving nonfiction books. Your goal is not just to communicate and teach new skills, but also to persuade your reader to take action and implement your solution in their lives.
You want to persuade readers by appealing to them on an emotional level and using your connection and your credibility as an expert to convince them to side with you. The aim of persuasive writing is to align your reader’s goals with your own.
To influence, to persuade, to convince.
- Emotive words
- Inclusive language
- Rhetorical questions
- Metaphors and similes
- Sarcasm (used tactfully)
- Logical arguments
Doing anything that takes your reader out of the plane of reality – such as by going into a detailed description of places, circumstances or events or into a deep narrative.
Academic papers, opinion pieces, newspaper editorials and books by political figures.
How Do I Apply the 4 Writing Styles to Enhance My Nonfiction Book
Now that we’ve covered all four styles let me show you an example of each so you can get an idea of practical applications.
Example of the Expository Writing Style
“The fundamental question of work and leisure raised by Weiss is particularly relevant as a generation called Millennials moves firmly into the workforce. I know many Millennials and in general they’re hard-working, passionate young men and women who are eager to work, but they want to enjoy and draw meaning from their jobs.
Most are sensible enough to have a day-job to pay the bills, but many have a “side hustle” – a hobby or a business idea into which they pour their passion and hope to one day monetize.
Weiss recognizes this trend in workers, but an interesting disconnect between Weiss’ article and today is the discussion of self-employment. Weiss notes that self-employed workers are generally most satisfied even if they earn less, but also makes the observation that self-employment has significantly declined.
In this example the author is using expository writing to present and analyze research findings by a recognized expert in the field.
Example of the Descriptive Writing Style
“Coming down to Bridge Park had been a good idea, he decided. Leaving the crowded mass of the city behind he’d ridden the train south, through the razed land and out onto the delta.
Rice paddies stretched to every horizon, blurring the line between land, river and sea. And then, in the shadow of the ruined supports of the bridge, the park rose like a garden oasis above the lowlands.
He obviously wasn’t the only person with the same idea today, and the park was lifted by the shrieks of children playing on the bridge replica fun zone behind him.”
In the above passage, the author is using descriptive writing to paint a picture in the mind of the reader by using specific adjectives and adverbs that appeal to the reader’s senses.
Example of the Narrative Writing Style
“ Christopher Reeve was one courageous person who fully accepted an unexpected change in direction in his life. The icon of superhuman strength in the 80’s, he was the quintessential Superman. An actor of great appeal and talent, he represented the ideal combination of manliness, strength, seeker of justice, and savior of humankind.
In May 1995, he was riding his horse and had a serious fall. The accident damaged his spinal cord such that he was left a quadriplegic and had to use a machine to help him breathe. The accident sent shockwaves around the world. How could Superman be rendered a quadriplegic? It was unfathomable.
After many months of grueling physical therapy, he learned how to function in this new altered state. The emotional toll was great as he and his family struggled with the changes this accident brought into their lives.
Within a year, however, he had founded a charitable organization called the Christopher Reeve Foundation in order to raise money for research on spinal cord injuries and made it his mission to find a way for all victims of these devastating injuries to walk again.”
Here the author is using narrative writing to portray the dramatic fall in the fortunes of a celebrity after a traumatic life event, and how he resolved the conflict in his life to become a real-life superhero in the eyes of his followers.
Example of the Persuasive Writing Style
“‘ I’m too old’ or ‘It’s too late to change’ are nothing but limiting beliefs. Like any other beliefs, they’re fully under your control and are totally replaceable. In the end, you’re the one who truly runs the show, as much as you’re taught to believe the opposite. When it comes to making changes in your life, you have the ultimate say. If you end up doing what others think you should, it’s only because on some level you’ve made the decision to believe that their ideas are more worthy than your own.
If you want to change, you have to start believing in what you want to do, no matter what other people’s ‘opinions’ are. And you have to believe that the changes you want to make are worth it, regardless of your age or your circumstances.
Life consists of a collection of ‘moments.’ This very moment and every moment after it are what your life is made of. If you live your life worrying about the future, regretting the past or even living how others tell you to live, then you aren’t living ‘your’ moments.
All it really takes to become in charge of your own life is to simply decide to do so. Your process of reinvention is 100% yours. Don’t be afraid to use it fully to our advantage. Don’t be afraid to think big thoughts. Remember, you can make a difference: you are the difference!”
In this example, the author is using persuasive writing to influence readers to take action by changing their belief system through replacing limiting beliefs with empowering ones.
Now you know what the four key styles used in writing are and how to apply them to your nonfiction book for maximum effect. But here’s a word of caution: if you lean on one style much more than the others, you risk being pigeonholed into a genre that doesn’t serve your message.
For example, too much narrative style will make your book feel more like a novel or creative nonfiction , and your persuasive message will be diluted.
Too much persuasive style will make your book feel dogmatic or proselytizing, and will break the connection of trust with your readers.
Too much descriptive style and your book will be too detached from reality, which will impact the expository techniques that are required to back up your findings with facts and data.
Too much expository style and your book will be too dry and mechanical, making you lose the connection with your readers.
Make sure that you create a good balance of expository, descriptive, narrative and persuasive writing skills in your manuscript and you’ll have an exciting nonfiction book in your hands.
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide , drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access .
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesse s.
Here are some related articles I highly recommend:
The 10 must-have writing skills for nonfiction authors, how to write a compelling book in 12 steps: a must-read guide for nonfiction authors.
Hey, this is a great article! Very informative and helpful, thank you.
Glad I was able to help!
FANTASTIC ARTICLE!! VERY INFORMATIVE!!
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