Nonfiction is prose writing that relates actual events, people, and information. Creative Nonfiction defines nonfiction as “True stories well told.”
Kinds of Nonfiction
- Narrative Writing
Tells a true story about a person, event, and/or place. Narratives are generally written in first-person point of view and contain factual information.
- Expository Writing
Explains or tells about a certain topic.
- Persuasive Writing
Argues a position, pro or con, on a given issue.
- Descriptive Writing
Describes a place, event, and/or person.
There are seven basic nonfiction subgenres.
- Nonfiction: Informational text dealing with an actual, real-life subject.
Nonfiction is usually expository writing, sometimes with persuasion if the author wants to convince readers of her viewpoint.
Think textbooks, academic tomes. Also, books written for a lay audience of varying degrees of expertise, like Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by linguist John McWhorter who examines curse words throughout history to explore why they have so much power and why we love them. Such books will often have narrative and/or descriptive writing. I’m thinking of the book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey about huge, deadly waves, the scientists who study them, and super surfers who ride them.
- Journalism: Factual account of current events.
Journalism is usually expository writing, with some descriptive writing. More and more, it includes narrative writing. Opinion pieces are persuasive writing.
Think newspapers and certain magazines and blogs. For books, think of accounts of elections and various scandals. But also books like: The Big Short by Michael Lewis, about the financial crisis of the mid-aughts, or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, about the working poor in the U.S.
- Essay: Literary composition that reflects the author’s outlook or point.
Essays are traditionally expository and persuasive writing, with a bit of narrative thrown in.
Think of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor about cancer in which she challenged victim-blaming when discussing diseases, or James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son in which he discussed various issues of race.
These two older books are mentioned as examples as current best-selling collections of essays are more narrative writing than expository or persuasive writing. Seth Rogen says of his book of essays, Yearbook, it “is a collection of true stories that I desperately hope are just funny at worst, and life-changingly amazing at best.” [sic] Sebastian Matthews’ Beyond Repair: A memoir in essays, is a collection of vignettes all centering around the trauma of his auto accident and what he came to realize was the trauma of our times. So clearly, creative nonfiction and essays are being conflated.
- Journal/Letter: Personal thoughts, observations about a person’s life, written over time.
Journals and letters can be narrative, expository and/or descriptive writing.
Think The Dairy of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank, The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara edited by Daniel James, and The Letters of Charlotte Smith edited by Judith Stanton.
- Creative or Narrative Nonfiction: Factual information in the form of a story.
Creative Nonfiction magazine defines this genre as “true stories well told.” Most often creative non-fiction pieces are narrative and descriptive writing about people and places. However, the term creative nonfiction is relatively new, and the definitions are still fluid. One definition that includes poetry as a subgenre, a classification some poets might disagree with.
Think My Year in Provence by Peter Mayle about his first year in Provence, The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah about his restoring a villa in Casablanca, Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui about her relationship, and our, relationship with water
- Biography/Autobiography: Narrative of a person’s life, a true story about a real person.
Biographies and autobiographies recount major events in a life, beginning from birth, often including parents’ even grandparents’, background and continue through death or in the case of autobiography, to the current point in life. Biographies and autobiographies are generally expository, and readers often look to such people as role models.
For autobiographies think The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley, et al.
- Memoir: Reflection on an event, related events, or an aspect in a person’s life.
Memoir, like creative nonfiction, combines narrative, descriptive writing, but adds expository writing in reflections about an event or person. Most often the people are family members; the events traumatizing–death, abuse, accidents, health issues. But not always. There are memoirs about sports, good friends, happy times. Most often memoirs are written sometime after the event allowing the writer to develop a perspective and realize lessons learn and/or wisdom gained.
Here, think My Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.
What is the difference between creative nonfiction, autobiography, and memoir? Not much in popular usage. These terms are often used interchangeably.
Jonny Diamond, Lit Hub Editor-in-Chief, in reviewing the memoir H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald wrote: “Creative nonfiction already redefines, for many readers and writers alike, what nonfiction can do; as nonfiction that uses the mechanical techniques of fiction, it allows us to create expansive, experimental writing that may look at a glance, almost indistinguishable from a short story, novel, or lyrical prose poem.”
~ Carol Phillips
To learn more about nonfiction genres, check out these resources:
Reedy.com “Nonfiction: 24 Genres and Types of Fact-Based Books”: htps://blog.reedsy.com/guide/nonfiction/
Purdue University Online Writing Lab “Essay Writing” https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/essay_writing/index.html
Naropa University “Essay Genres” https://www.naropa.edu/documents/programs/jks/naropa-writing-center/essay-genres.pdf
Find Your Creative Muse: “Types of Memoirs” https://davehood59.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/types-of-memoirs/