Writing Creative Nonfiction

Creative or literary nonfiction is a  genre of writing that combines two traditional fields: traditional nonfiction and literary fiction.

Traditional nonfiction – the type of true or factual reading you may be most accustomed to - includes:

factual biographies that list events, dates, experiences in a third person perspective

traditional newspaper articles

technical essays or how to essays

book reports and reviews

research papers and journal articles

history books that don’t use literary scenes, emotions, and descriptions

Creative (or literary) nonfiction combines the fact-based aspect of nonfiction and the descriptive prose of fiction. 

Although this style is often referred to as relatively new, creative nonfiction is not really a new invention. Hannah Butler, an editor at writemypaper4me.co, emphasizes that one type of creative nonfiction that you may be familiar with is the memoir; we all know that memoirs have been around for quite some time, and memoires have fallen under criticism for crossing the lines between fact and fiction. One popular example is Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s rich depictions capture the reader as well as any other literary piece, as you can see here:

At Philomena’s house the sisters and their husbands ate and drank while Angela sat in a corner nursing the baby and crying. Philomena stuffed her mouth with bread and ham and rumbled at Angela, That’s what you get for being such a fool. Hardly off the boat and you fall for that lunatic.

Interestingly, McCourt does not use quotation marks in his dialogue, an omission which seems to acknowledge that the conversations are representations of events, as opposed to historical records.

Other types of creative nonfiction you may encounter include:

some biographies

literary journalism

published personal essays

historical investigations

What makes each of these creative or literary is the inclusion of scenes, feelings, opinions, and moods that bring a story to life, but may or may not be based on evidence. As an example, the following is from Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. It is a well-researched, historical investigation into the history behind the social (and sometimes sacred) role of beer throughout history and around the world:

After hours in a tiny bone-rattling, fume-filled bush plane the pilot yells over the roar of the engine and points down. Alan Eames, the beer anthropologist, peers through the insect-spattered windshield. In the midst of the dense jungle of the Amazon interior, near the muddy river snaking its way to the horizon, there is a clearing.

It doesn’t sound much like your average history textbook, does it? The descriptive words set a mood and tone to put the reader in the story – and this entire book does read like a story. The selection above demonstrates the difference between traditional histories and narrative histories.

Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

For students, there are two forms of creative nonfiction that are most likely to appear as required writing assignments. Those are the personal essay, which should cover some episode of life that is particularly significant, funny, or interesting and the autobiography, which would be more detailed and broad in time and scope.

First Research

Even though you are writing about a personal event in your life, you should talk to family and friends (conduct personal interviews) to get several perspectives of the event. 

You may also need to research places to gain some historical background. Just imagine how something like this could enrich your story: “Long before our house stood on the little hill, the ground served as a lookout for colonial scouts.”

Research important events that took place during your particular story so you can add interesting, amusing, or surprising (somewhat probable) details: “I was launched into this world at the very same moment as the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Use creative writing techniques to surround your facts. Establish a mood to match your story by using dialogue and descriptive words. Instead of saying "Jack was shocked," you could say "Jack's face turned ashy white," for example.

Use Dialogue to Represent Attitudes

​Practice the art of writing dialogue to convey important information and to propel the story along. Combine nervous gestures, awkward pauses, and facial expressions to set the tone.

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