Nonfiction writing doesn’t have to be boring. Many of the techniques that make fiction enjoyable can be used in nonfiction writing as well. As readers, we want to read engaging material, whether it is a book about investing money or an epic tale. As writers, we want to hold our readers’ attention, to inform or persuade them. When we write well crafted prose, we have a better chance of doing just that.
Creative nonﬁction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. Feature stories in the New York Times and other newspapers also fall into this category, though straight-up journalism does not.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a great example of creative nonfiction. She tells the story of the woman whose cells were used extensively in cancer research, though her children didn’t have health insurance. In The First National Bank of Dad, David Owen explores how to help kids save and become savvy with their money. He shares stories of his adventures with his children and also tips and best practices with a touch of humor. Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire are well-written, informative books and can be considered creative nonfiction as well. What do all of these books have in common? The author conveys the information through story.
Tell a Story
The most powerful device at hand for a nonfiction writer is story. Story gives meaning to the information we convey. It is how humans make sense of the world and their place in it. Story is how we connect. When you sit down to write nonfiction, think about your audience, and think about the meaning you want them to take away. Tell that story.
We’re fooling ourselves if we think we communicate primarily by bursts of information. We live for stories—whether they’re movies or TV shows or plays or poems or even newspaper pieces. We want stories told to us over and over again. Why else would we want to watch movies multiple times, or insist on seeing “White Christmas” and “Miracle on 34th Street” every year? They comfort us, they arouse us, they excite us and educate us, and when they touch our hearts we embrace them and keep them with us.
Setting matters as much in nonfiction as it does in fiction. Concrete details are landmarks of connection for the reader, and they bring a story to life. They engender images, sounds, and feelings in the mind. Include the weather, the food people are eating, the shade of the dress, the sound of the lawn mower droning next door. Be sure to provide a context for your story.
Subtext or Meaning
The subtext or meaning is the message the writer is trying to convey beyond the facts. The writer creates an interesting story with concrete details, but it is journalism or technical writing unless there is another point. Keeping the subtext in mind while crafting your piece will help you accurately communicate exactly the point you’re trying to make.
Here are a few subgenres of creative nonfiction:
An essay can be informative, descriptive, or persuasive. It is a way to share experience, thought, and opinion.
It opens a window into someone else’s life and sensibility, I’ll explain. Reveals something about the world that we didn’t know. Engages us with a distinctive voice. Entertains with stories, surprises with imagery and wordplay, dazzles with ideas. Conveys a deeper meaning.
Life Story Writing
This category of writing includes autobiography, biography, and memoir. Autobiography and biography are straightforward accounts of your own or someone else’s life. Memoir covers a particular time or a particular theme within a life, often telling the story in the context of time, place, or culture. Life story writing often starts with research, the collecting of dates, events, images, and artifacts. From there, it can go a million different ways.
Here are some examples of life story writing. In Gretchen Rubin’s Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, she writes about Churchill from 40 different perspectives, including as a parent, champion of liberty, and statesman. This book represents an interesting twist on traditional biographies. Many memoirs explore relationship. For example, Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett tells the story of her relationship with her friend and fellow writer Lucy Grealy. In Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy writes about her relationship with her face and the cancer that caused her to lose part of her jaw, several reconstructive surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. In Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick tells the story of her relationship with her mother through conversations while walking the streets of New York City.
Travel writing is simply writing about the places you’ve been and the experiences you’ve had there. Seasoned travel writers take lots of notes and pictures, include the context for the trip (how did the author come to be there?), and provide the cultural narrative of the place visited (who lives there and why?).
Most of us are familiar with blogs; they are personal or professional collections of prose, photographic, or video entries that regularly appear. They usually cover a particular subject matter from personal experience and hobbies to professional advice. Writers benefit from having a blog because it is a great way to engage with readers, share excerpts of work, and gain followers. The most successful blogs focus on a particular niche within a subject area, contain useful and unique content, and are updated regularly. One suggestion is to take your niche and make a list of all the possible topics you could write about within that subject. If you have between twenty and thirty, this is a good start.
Want to explore this topic further? Check out these great resources.
- The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Philip Lopate.
- Here you will find a great essay about writing essays.
- Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg is a great reference for writing memoir.
- Here is a great website for life story writing.
- You can find twenty-four of the best travel writing blogs here. Also, check out advice from the Matador Network, The Guardian, and Lonely Planet.
- You can find great advice for bloggers from Problogger and Blogging Basics.
- Here you’ll find a comprehensive list of excellent blogs by category, updated for 2015.
Do you enjoy writing creative nonfiction? Do you find it hard to tell a story outside of fiction? Let us know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this post and want more, join our crew. You’ll receive our monthly newsletter, hear about our promotions first, and receive a free copy of The Writership Sampler, a collection of some of our favorite exercises to inspire your writing.