Creative Nonfiction: What It Is and How to Write It - Writers.com (2022)

What is creative nonfiction? Despite its slightly enigmatic name, no literary genre has grown quite as quickly as creative nonfiction in recent decades. Literary nonfiction is now well-established as a powerful means of storytelling, and bookstores now reserve large amounts of space for nonfiction, when it often used to occupy a single bookshelf.

Like any literary genre, creative nonfiction has a long history; also like other genres, defining contemporary CNF for the modern writer can be nuanced. If you’re interested in writing true-to-life stories but you’re not sure where to begin, let’s start by dissecting the creative nonfiction genre and what it means to write a modern literary essay.

What Creative Nonfiction Is

Creative nonfiction employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story.

How do we define creative nonfiction? What makes it “creative,” as opposed to just “factual writing”? These are great questions to ask when entering the genre, and they require answers which could become literary essays themselves.

In short, creative nonfiction (CNF) is a form of storytelling that employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story. Creative nonfiction writers don’t just share pithy anecdotes, they use craft and technique to situate the reader into their own personal lives. Fictional elements, such as character development and narrative arcs, are employed to create a cohesive story, but so are poetic elements like conceit and juxtaposition.

The CNF genre is wildly experimental, and contemporary nonfiction writers are pushing the bounds of literature by finding new ways to tell their stories. While a CNF writer might retell a personal narrative, they might also focus their gaze on history, politics, or they might use creative writing elements to write an expository essay. There are very few limits to what creative nonfiction can be, which is what makes defining the genre so difficult—but writing it so exciting.

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Different Forms of Creative Nonfiction

From the autobiographies of Mark Twain and Benvenuto Cellini, to the more experimental styles of modern writers like Karl Ove Knausgård, creative nonfiction has a long history and takes a wide variety of forms. Common iterations of the creative nonfiction genre include the following:

Memoir

Also known as biography or autobiography, the memoir form is probably the most recognizable form of creative nonfiction. Memoirs are collections of memories, either surrounding a single narrative thread or multiple interrelated ideas. The memoir is usually published as a book or extended piece of fiction, and many memoirs take years to write and perfect. Memoirs often take on a similar writing style as the personal essay does, though it must be personable and interesting enough to encourage the reader through the entire book.

Personal Essay

Personal essays are stories about personal experiences told using literary techniques.

When someone hears the word “essay,” they instinctively think about those five paragraph book essays everyone wrote in high school. In creative nonfiction, the personal essay is much more vibrant and dynamic. Personal essays are stories about personal experiences, and while some personal essays can be standalone stories about a single event, many essays braid true stories with extended metaphors and other narratives.

Personal essays are often intimate, emotionally charged spaces. Consider the opening two paragraphs from Beth Ann Fennelly’s personal essay “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79.

We didn’t question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten.

We didn’t know yet that this blizzard would earn itself a moniker that would be silk-screened on T-shirts. We would own such a shirt, which extended its tenure in our house as a rag for polishing silver.

The word “essay” comes from the French “essayer,” which means “to try” or “attempt.” The personal essay is more than just an autobiographical narrative—it’s an attempt to tell your own history with literary techniques.

Lyric Essay

The lyric essay contains similar subject matter as the personal essay, but is much more experimental in form.

The lyric essay contains similar subject matter as the personal essay, with one key distinction: lyric essays are much more experimental in form. Poetry and creative nonfiction merge in the lyric essay, challenging the conventional prose format of paragraphs and linear sentences.

The lyric essay stands out for its unique writing style and sentence structure. Consider these lines from “Life Code” by J. A. Knight:

(Video) Creative Writing Class 5: Creative Nonfiction

The dream goes like this: blue room of water. God light from above. Child’s fist, foot, curve, face, the arc of an eye, the symmetry of circles… and then an opening of this body—which surprised her—a movement so clean and assured and then the push towards the light like a frog or a fish.

What we get is language driven by emotion, choosing an internal logic rather than a universally accepted one.

Lyric essays are amazing spaces to break barriers in language. For example, the lyricist might write a few paragraphs about their story, then examine a key emotion in the form of a villanelle or a ghazal. They might decide to write their entire essay in a string of couplets or a series of sonnets, then interrupt those stanzas with moments of insight or analysis. In the lyric essay, language dictates form. The successful lyricist lets the words arrange themselves in whatever format best tells the story, allowing for experimental new forms of storytelling.

Literary Journalism

Much more ambiguously defined is the idea of literary journalism. The idea is simple: report on real life events using literary conventions and styles. But how do you do this effectively, in a way that the audience pays attention and takes the story seriously?

You can best find examples of literary journalism in more “prestigious” news journals, such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Salon, and occasionally The New York Times. Think pieces about real world events, as well as expository journalism, might use braiding and extended metaphors to make readers feel more connected to the story. Other forms of nonfiction, such as the academic essay or more technical writing, might also fall under literary journalism, provided those pieces still use the elements of creative nonfiction.

Consider this recently published article from The Atlantic: The Uncanny Tale of Shimmel Zohar by Lawrence Weschler. It employs a style that’s breezy yet personable—including its opening line.

So I first heard about Shimmel Zohar from Gravity Goldberg—yeah, I know, but she insists it’s her real name (explaining that her father was a physicist)—who is the director of public programs and visitor experience at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Common Elements and Techniques

What separates a general news update from a well-written piece of literary journalism? What’s the difference between essay writing in high school and the personal essay? When nonfiction writers put out creative work, they are most successful when they utilize the following elements.

Narration

Just like fiction, nonfiction relies on effective narration. Telling the story with an effective plot, writing from a certain point of view, and using the narrative to flesh out the story’s big idea are all key craft elements. How you structure your story can have a huge impact on how the reader perceives the work, as well as the insights you draw from the story itself.

Consider the first lines of the story “To the Miami University Payroll Lady” by Frenci Nguyen:

You might not remember me, but I’m the dark-haired, Texas-born, Asian-American graduate student who visited the Payroll Office the other day to complete direct deposit and tax forms.

Because the story is written in second person, with the reader experiencing the story as the payroll lady, the story’s narration feels much more personal and important, forcing the reader to evaluate their own personal biases and beliefs.

Observation

Telling the story involves more than just simple plot elements, it also involves situating the reader in the key details. Setting the scene requires attention to all five senses, and interpersonal dialogue is much more effective when the narrator observes changes in vocal pitch, certain facial expressions, and movements in body language. Essentially, let the reader experience the tiny details – we access each other best through minutiae.

The story “In Transit” by Erica Plouffe Lazure is a perfect example of storytelling through observation. Every detail of this flash piece is carefully noted to tell a story without direct action, using observations about group behavior to find hope in a crisis. We get observation when the narrator notes the following:

Here at the St. Thomas airport in mid-March, we feel the urgency of the transition, the awareness of how we position our bodies, where we place our luggage, how we consider for the first time the numbers of people whose belongings are placed on the same steel table, the same conveyor belt, the same glowing radioactive scan, whose IDs are touched by the same gloved hand[.]

What’s especially powerful about this story is that it is written in a single sentence, allowing the reader to be just as overwhelmed by observation and context as the narrator is.

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Braiding

We’ve used this word a lot, but what is braiding? Braiding is a technique most often used in creative nonfiction where the writer intertwines multiple narratives, or “threads.” Not all essays use braiding, but the longer a story is, the more it benefits the writer to intertwine their story with an extended metaphor or another idea to draw insight from.

The Crush” by Zsofia McMullin demonstrates braiding wonderfully. Some paragraphs are written in first person, while others are written in second person.

The following example from “The Crush” demonstrates braiding:

Your hair is still wet when you slip into the booth across from me and throw your wallet and glasses and phone on the table, and I marvel at how everything about you is streamlined, compact, organized. I am always overflowing — flesh and wants and a purse stuffed with snacks and toy soldiers and tissues.

The author threads these narratives together by having both people interact in a diner, yet the reader still perceives a distance between the two threads because of the separation of “I” and “you” pronouns. When these threads meet, briefly, we know they will never meet again.

Insight

Speaking of insight, creative nonfiction writers must draw novel conclusions from the stories they write. When the narrator pauses in the story to delve into their emotions, explain complex ideas, or draw strength and meaning from tough situations, they’re finding insight in the essay.

Often, creative writers experience insight as they write it, drawing conclusions they hadn’t yet considered as they tell their story, which makes creative nonfiction much more genuine and raw.

The story “Me Llamo Theresa” by Theresa Okokun does a fantastic job of finding insight. The story is about the history of our own names and the generations that stand before them, and as the writer explores her disconnect with her own name, she recognizes a similar disconnect in her mother, as well as the need to connect with her name because of her father.

The narrator offers insight when she remarks:

I began to experience a particular type of identity crisis that so many immigrants and children of immigrants go through — where we are called one name at school or at work, but another name at home, and in our hearts.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: the 5 R’s

CNF pioneer Lee Gutkind developed a very system called the “5 R’s” of creative nonfiction writing. Together, the 5 R’s form a general framework for any creative writing project. They are:

  1. Write about real life: Creative nonfiction tackles real people, events, and places—things that actually happened or are happening.
  2. Conduct extensive research: Learn as much as you can about your subject matter, to deepen and enrich your ability to relay the subject matter. (Are you writing about your tenth birthday? What were the newspaper headlines that day?)
  3. (W)rite a narrative: Use storytelling elements originally from fiction, such as Freytag’s Pyramid, to structure your CNF piece’s narrative as a story with literary impact rather than just a recounting.
  4. Include personal reflection: Share your unique voice and perspective on the narrative you are retelling.
  5. Learn by reading: The best way to learn to write creative nonfiction well is to read it being written well. Read as much CNF as you can, and observe closely how the author’s choices impact you as a reader.

You can read more about the 5 R’s in this helpful summary article.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Give it a Try!

Whatever form you choose, whatever story you tell, and whatever techniques you write with, the more important aspect of creative nonfiction is this: be honest. That may seem redundant, but often, writers mistakenly create narratives that aren’t true, or they use details and symbols that didn’t exist in the story. Trust us –real life is best read when it’s honest, and readers can tell when details in the story feel fabricated or inflated. Write with honesty, and the right words will follow!

Ready to start writing your creative nonfiction piece? If you need extra guidance or want to write alongside our community, take a look at the upcoming nonfiction classes at writers.com. Now, go and write the next bestselling memoir!

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To some the phrase creative nonfiction might seem like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Creative nonfiction is about sharing your story, facts, and reality in a compelling way, so your readers are both informed and entertained. It grants writers the freedom to build scenes and play with form, while remain

He shares his pain, thoughts, and emotions about both, allowing himself to become a full character in his story instead of just a reporter.. He shows his reader his experience instead of telling them.. This is why creative nonfiction is successful and popular: it makes the truth real and entertaining through description, dialogue, and other fiction techniques.. One way authors can get creative with nonfiction is through form.. If Kinnamon began her memoir with her childhood, it would probably no longer be considered a memoir and would not leave her readers with the same message about what happens after we die.. By not commenting on the facts he’s reporting, Ourednik creates an objective, omniscient point of view rarely seen in historical texts.. The form of Europeana is what makes the novel.. These are the creative nonfiction poems.. Creative nonfiction can delve into a single person’s experience to share a universal truth or emotion, or it can show the panoramic view of an event or life.. However, the experiences and events Kaur focuses on are her own, and the point of view she most often uses is first person.. Memoirs and Kaur’s poetry zoom in on a specific perspective in order to convey their authors’ emotions, opinions, and experiences.. Readers are as close to the narrating character (the author) as they can be.. As creative nonfiction writers, it is up to you to decide how to phrase dialogue and where to put it to keep your story factual and entertaining.. It can be told in scene through a memoir, as a cyclical, memorizing collection of events, or through poetry.. Do you find creative nonfiction difficult to write?

Discover the definition of creative nonfiction, along with its origins, elements, and examples of works that fall under this genre.

The term “creative nonfiction” tends to puzzle many writers and readers.. In fact, the best journalists and writers are often the ones who can present accurate information while also telling a riveting story.. Creative nonfiction combines 100% factual information with literary elements to tell real stories that resonate with readers and provide insight to actual events.. Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses elements of creative writing to present a factual, true story.. Creative nonfiction also informs readers, but it does so by building a narrative around the facts by introducing the scene and building the characters of real people so readers can better relate to them.. Because creative nonfiction is still nonfiction , there are important criteria that a piece of writing must meet in order to be considered part of this genre.. The writing must include:. Reporting : The writer should use said research to accurately document events or personal experiences.. There might be one event in a personal essay, or several significant events and turning points, as is common in memoirs.. Most often, these stories are told in the first person (using “I” to narrate firsthand experiences and events).. Rather than reporting with “he said/she said”, including scenes with dialogue helps to place the reader directly in the scene.. To gain a better understanding of this genre, let’s take a look at several examples of real books that can be considered creative nonfiction.. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while he was still working on this book.. You can also try out some of our creative writing prompts , which includes a section for writing memoirs and nonfiction to inspire you.

Different Forms of Creative Nonfiction. Memoir. Also known as biography or autobiography, the memoir form is probably the most recognizable form of creative nonfiction. ... . Personal Essay. ... . Lyric Essay. ... . Literary Journalism. ... . Narration. ... . Observation. ... . Braiding. ... . Insight.

What is creative nonfiction?. Creative nonfiction employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story.. In short, creative nonfiction (CNF) is a form of storytelling that employs the creative writing techniques of literature, such as poetry and fiction, to retell a true story.. Memoirs often take on a similar writing style as the personal essay does, though it must be personable and interesting enough to encourage the reader through the entire book.. Personal essays are stories about personal experiences told using literary techniques.. The lyric essay contains similar subject matter as the personal essay, but is much more experimental in form.. Think pieces about real world events, as well as expository journalism, might use braiding and extended metaphors to make readers feel more connected to the story.

Editor’s Note: In this interview on writing anxiety, instructor Giulietta Nardone describes what creative writing anxiety is, what causes it, and---most importantly---how to get over writing anxiety. What is writing anxiety? There are many people who would like to start writing, or to take a writing class, but they never get started because the critical voice that lives in their head---which we

There are many people who would like to start writing, or to take a writing class, but they never get started because the critical voice that lives in their head—which we all have—tells them they’re not good enough to write, that no one wants to hear what they want to say.. Most of my stories, even the ones I’ve had published, I don’t think were perfect.. The thing I feared in my life ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.. I keep saying, “What would have happened if I didn’t sign up?” Many years later, I wrote an essay about taking the class, and sold it to the college where I took the class.. Write.. Write.. You have to do the thing you’re afraid of.. So just write.. You’ve got to start.. I wanted it to be fun like Dr. Seuss.. I make myself do that all the time, and I’m always glad I do: I’ve done some great things just jumping right in.

A great way to improve your writing, or even just to hold yourself accountable to writing creative nonfiction, is to take creative nonfiction writing classes online. If you haven’t taken creative nonfiction writing classes online before, though, it can be difficult to know if a particular creative nonfiction writing class is the right fit for you. In this article, we’ll look

A great way to improve your writing, or even just to hold yourself accountable to writing creative nonfiction, is to take creative nonfiction writing classes online.. What makes creative nonfiction “creative”?. As a creative nonfiction instructor, I believe it comes down to two things: creative nonfiction’s goals, and creative nonfiction’s writing techniques.. To create this “felt life” experience, creative nonfiction adapts the techniques of other forms of creative writing to nonfiction.. Depending on your goals and the kinds of creative nonfiction that you enjoy, you’ll find some creative nonfiction online courses to be a better fit than others.. When you take creative nonfiction writing classes online, you’re going to read.. When you take creative nonfiction writing classes online, you’re going to read.. Nonfiction writing classes are, after all, about writing.

Here are a few things I have learned along the way in my life of writing creative nonfiction.

Take a look at this one from “The Guardian.” The writer talks about how creative nonfiction is an important genre for storytelling, but she doesn’t say much beyond that.. You don’t have to read every piece of creative nonfiction that has ever been published (though you’ll probably want to at some point), but you must read enough so that when you start writing your work, the style feels familiar and comfortable.. Read the work of other writers.. You want to tell a good story that is interesting for the reader and makes them want to keep reading.. The most important thing is not being afraid to try new things so long as we stay true to ourselves and ultimately that means finding creative nonfiction that resonates with us because then (and only then) will we truly enjoy reading our writing

Learn about Creative Nonfiction, what it is, the various forms and types commonly used, and how a literary approach is beneficial in fact-based writing.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the book couldn’t solely be classified as a novel per se, as the story was based on “real life”; because of its biographical and historical context it sat comfortably within the genre of creative nonfiction.. The term creative nonfiction has been credited to American writer Lee Gutkin, who first coined the phrase in the journal he founded in 1993: Creative Nonfiction .. Expanding on Gutkin’s definition I would add that the main difference between creative nonfiction – also known as narrative nonfiction – and other genres is that in creative nonfiction the focus is on literary style, and it is very much like reading a novel, with the important exception that everything in the story has actually happened.. Essentially, creative nonfiction incorporates techniques from literature, including fiction and poetry, in order to present a narrative that flows more like story than, say, a journalistic article or a report.. In short, then, it is a form of storytelling that employs creative writing techniques including literature to retell a true story, which is why emphasis is placed on the word creative .. The good news is that the expanse of creative nonfiction as a genre is considerable and there is ample scope for writers of every persuasion, in terms of categorisation and personal creative preference.. In the early days of the genre literary journalism hogged the headlines; it was, according to The Herald Tribune , “a hotbed of so-called New Journalism, in which writers like Tom Wolfe used the tools of novelists — characters, dialogue and scene-setting — to create compelling narratives.” The way this fits into the creative nonfiction genre is that it uses the style and devices of literary fiction in fact-based journalism.. If you choose to pursue reportage it is imperative that you pay close attention to notes and record-keeping as reporting is not – as with other elements of creative nonfiction – based on your personal experiences or opinions and, therefore, has to be scrupulously accurate and verifiable.. Other types of creative nonfiction include personal essays whereby the writer crafts an essay that’s based on a personal experience or single event, which results in significant personal resonance, or a lesson learned.. This element of creative nonfiction is very broad in scope and includes travel writing, food writing, nature writing, science writing, sports writing, and magazine articles.. In Lee Gutkind’s essay, The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction , he summarised the salient points of successfully writing creative nonfiction and, if you followed these instructions, you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong:. We now know what kind of creative nonfiction exists, and what to bear in mind before writing, but when it comes to starting your story…where do you begin?. In your outline you should bear in mind the main elements of creative nonfiction and the fact that there are some universal literary techniques you can use:. Even a mere whiff of fiction in your writing will automatically disqualify it as creative nonfiction.. Also, remember, whatever your interest, the extent of creative nonfiction dictates that there’s likely to be a market for your writing.

There are two types of writing: fiction and nonfiction. Creative nonfiction uses literary techniques and craft to tell stories about the real world, history, science, places, people, and personal experiences. A creative nonfiction piece can inform readers, touch them, or make a lasting impact.

There are two types of writing: fiction and nonfiction.. The term “creative writing” is often used to refer to various forms of writing, including fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.. Fiction includes stories about people, places, and emotions, while poetry refers to free-verse poems and songs written on a theme.. While fiction and nonfiction have similarities, they are different genres of writing.. Creative writing includes many genres.. First, fiction writing has a theme.. There are some common elements of fiction writing, so it helps to have an idea of what they want to say before writing it.

What is creative nonfiction? What are nonfiction genres? Check out some guidelines for writing creative nonfiction and then give it a try.

Memoir Autobiography and biography Personal essays Literary journalism Speeches Journaling Any topical material, such as food or travel writing, self-development, art, or history, can be creatively written with a literary angle. Biographies, for example, are a genre of literary journalism, which is a form of nonfiction writing.. Literary journalism also conveys facts and information, but it honors the craft of writing by incorporating storytelling techniques and literary devices.. 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.. Have you ever written creative nonfiction?

There are many creative nonfiction principles you can translate into your fiction craft. In this article we'll go over some of the tenets and forms of creative nonfiction and ways you can transfer your newly gained knowledge into your fiction writing.

Now, I have plenty of problems with the term “true stories” because plenty of fiction constitutes a true story, and you can often find and understand truth better in a fictitious story than a “true” story.. Creative nonfiction writing consists of personal essays, memoir writing, true crime, blogging, and much more.. My favorite writer, Edward Abbey (I know he’s controversial for plenty of reasons), has written plenty of fiction and nonfiction, and I think he’s a great example of the ways the two genres can improve each other.. The 2014 book, Just Mercy , presents us with another form of creative nonfiction.. The true crime novel and other nonfiction novels teach us that even though we call it nonfiction, most creative writing has elements from other genres, whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.. Creative nonfiction recognizes that and gives creative liberties to the writer.. You may have read about creative nonfiction and thought to yourself, I’d actually like to give it a try!. But, there’s plenty of room for memoirs in fiction (where you don’t need to be famous) or at least take some of what memoirs do really well and include it in your story.. The memoir’s focus on key moments of one’s life is a great way to trim down your novel and make sure that you include only the important things.. Memoirs can be very raw in their emotions and the lessons learned in life.. Creative essays, especially personal essays, play with structure unlike most other types of writing.. You probably won’t get to fictionize the essay, but you can definitely try to produce those same emotions and language moments in your novel as the essay does.. (Or start by writing a braided essay and see if you enjoy it.). The true crime novel already has borrowed so much from fiction as it reads like a novel, so if you were to make a fantasy or sci-fi true crime novel, you’d do well to follow the tone of these books and could actually make some great comedic moments.. Maybe you’ll love one of these genres so much you’ll master the structure and conventions to the point where you could write a fictional parody on the genre.

In this article, we’ll talk about fiction vs nonfiction: how they differ, what sorts of people prefer each, how to choose between the two genres, and...

The point of fiction is often to tell a story about a character.. People tend to get confused around creative nonfiction and memoirs.. It’s a similar story with memoir.. Nonfiction is usually preferred by adults, and slightly more men than women tend to read it.. Find subgenres you love—maybe fantasy doesn’t do it for you, but you love crime and mystery novels.. Who are you writing for, and what are those people reading?. Say you’ve got a story to share about your story as a woman undergoing a certain situation—you’ll want to write that story for other women who might be going through the same thing.. If you have no idea where to start, it definitely helps to consider your target audience, look at trending categories, and read a little bit of everything.. It might be the case that writing a memoir or some other nonfiction account of things actually makes it come much more naturally to you.

Let award-winning writer Jennifer Boresz Engelking help you uncover local mysteries and put the puzzle pieces together when writing and researching a local history book.

Another may be a photo someone posted on a historical site’s social media page, or a crumbling document found in the untouched archives of a small community’s historical society.. It’s what I hope and strive for each time I write a local history book.. Writing a book for the first time can be daunting, but particularly when writing local history because it has often already been written about repeatedly.. So, how do you go about finding unknown stories and photos to make sure your book is fresh and interesting?. Some of the best places to research these stories is local historical societies.. One of the most important roles in researching and writing local history is preserving the stories.. If the stories aren’t written down and printed to share with others they will be lost and pieces of who we are, forgotten.

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