What Is Creative Nonfiction? Definitions, Examples, and Guidelines - TCK Publishing (2022)

What Is Creative Nonfiction? Definitions, Examples, and Guidelines - TCK Publishing (1)

The term “creative nonfiction” tends to puzzle many writers and readers. If nonfiction is supposed to be about the facts, how is there room to get “creative” with it?

It turns out, there are many ways to present real facts and events besides boring reports and charts. 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.

This is what your favorite memoirists, travel writers, and journalists do every day, and you can, too. Even if you don’t intend on publishing your work, learning to be an effective storyteller can enrich both your writing and communication skills.

What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses elements of creative writing to present a factual, true story. Literary techniques that are usually reserved for writing fiction can be used in creative nonfiction, such as dialogue, scene-setting, and narrative arcs.

However, a work can only be considered creative nonfiction if the author can attest that 100% of the content is true and factual. (In other words, even if just a few details from one scene are imagined, the story could not be considered creative nonfiction.)

The label “creative nonfiction” can be applied to a number of nonfiction genres, including:

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  • Autobiography
  • Literary journalism
  • Nature writing
  • Sports writing
  • Personal essay

What Is the Difference Between Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction?

The primary difference between nonfiction and creative nonfiction is that regular nonfiction informs or instructs by sticking to the facts.

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.

What Are the Elements of Creative Nonfiction?

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:

  • Facts: Creative nonfiction must be rooted in facts. No part of the story can be made up or fabricated.
  • Extensive research: Both primary and secondary sources should be used throughout the research process. It is the writer’s responsibility to conduct extensive research for the most accurate narrative possible.
  • Reporting: The writer should use said research to accurately document events or personal experiences.
  • Personal experiences or opinions: Though this is not a requirement, personal experiences or the opinions of others can help create a more complete picture.
  • Exposition or explanations: The topic or experience(s) presented should be explained to the reader.

In order to build a narrative around a set of facts, creative nonfiction uses a set of elements that we usually associate with fiction.

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Storytelling/narration: Unlike a straightforward historical report, creative nonfiction should be told like a story, meaning that inciting incidents, goals, challenges, turning points, and resolutions are present.
  • Characters: Every creative nonfiction piece should have a main “character,” even though they must be real and accurately presented. In a memoir, for example, the narrator is typically the protagonist.
  • Setting/Scene development: The setting should be brought to life with vivid descriptions and scenes filled with action and dialogue.
  • Plot structure: The story should have a plot, with key events that make up the story. There might be one event in a personal essay, or several significant events and turning points, as is common in memoirs.
  • Figurative language: Figures of speech, such as similes or metaphors, can be used to create an interesting work of creative nonfiction.
  • Imagery: A skillful use of imagery is essential in creative nonfiction in order to bring important scenes alive for the readers.
  • Point of view: Point of view is important in this genre, as it affects the entire storytelling process. Most often, these stories are told in the first person (using “I” to narrate firsthand experiences and events).
  • Dialogue: Dialogue can really help build the narrative and develop scenes. Rather than reporting with “he said/she said”, including scenes with dialogue helps to place the reader directly in the scene.
  • Theme: Every essay and story should have a theme, or central idea that ties the whole work together. This can also be considered the main “message” of your work.

When Did Creative Nonfiction Start?

According to a Poets & Writers article published in 2009, Lee Gutkind is often credited with coining the term “creative nonfiction” as early as 1973, when he also taught a course at the University of Pittsburgh with those same words in its title.

However, Gutkind himself has admitted that this wasn’t really the case, and that he had heard the term before, but couldn’t remember where or from who.

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Indeed, there is earlier written evidence of the term, as it appeared in a 1969 review by David Madden of Frank Conroy’sStop-Time.

Madden mentioned in the review, “InMaking It, Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor ofCommentary, who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence.”

In that same review, Madden called for a “redefinition” of nonfiction writing in the wake of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Jean Stafford, all writers whose style reflects the characteristics of what we defined earlier as “creative nonfiction.”

Examples of Creative Nonfiction

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.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while he was still working on this book. At just 36 years old and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

With a wife and a young child, Kalanithi became “possessed…by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life.”

Through his narrative, Kalanithi documents the struggles, both internal and external, that he and his young family endured, but also offers inspiration to all of us for how life should be lived.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

On a lighter note, journalist Bianca Bosker brings us Cork Dork, her firsthand account of the fascinating world of wine, sommeliers, scientists, and producers.

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Follow her dive into underground tastings, exclusive restaurants, and mass-market factories as Bosker seeks an answer to the question many of us wonder about: What’s the big deal about wine?

With her insightful reporting and delightful storytelling, you may just find yourself becoming a “cork dork,” too.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer unfolds the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man who gave $25,000 in savings to charity and abandoned most of his possessions before walking alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

McCandless’s decomposing body was found four months later by a moose hunter. In this book, which also became a feature film, Krakauer explores how this young man came to die, and what led him on such a journey in the first place.

Through remarkable storytelling, Krakauer brings this pilgrimage out of the shadows and shines a light on McCandless’s motives with a rare understanding.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara, true crime journalist and creator of the site TrueCrimeDiary.com, became obsessed with finding the violent psychopath known as the “Golden State Killer,” a serial rapist and murderer.

McNamara studied police records, interviewed victims, and joined the online communities of people who were as obsessed as she was with this case.

This book offers a chilling account of a criminal mastermind, while also providing a portrait of Michelle’s obsession and pursuit of the truth.

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Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

If you want to try your hand at writing creative nonfiction, it’s important that you know how to take great notes and practice your observation skills.

After all, your first responsibility is to present people and events accurately, so keeping a notebook or journal handy is important for scribbling down all those important details that you won’t want to forget.

You can also try out some of our creative writing prompts, which includes a section for writing memoirs and nonfiction to inspire you.

Do you have any favorite examples of creative nonfiction? Share them with us in the comments below!

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What Is Creative Nonfiction? Definitions, Examples, and Guidelines - TCK Publishing (2)

Kaelyn Barron

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As a blog writer for TCK Publishing, Kaelyn loves crafting fun and helpful content for writers, readers, and creative minds alike. She has a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Italian Studies, but her true passion has always been writing. Working remotely allows her to do even more of the things she loves, like traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.


What is the best definition of creative nonfiction? ›

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.

What are the guidelines for writing creative non fiction? ›

The 4 Golden Rules of Writing Creative Nonfiction
  • Make sure everything is factually accurate. ...
  • Play with person. ...
  • Follow emotion. ...
  • Incorporate literary techniques.
Sep 29, 2021

What are the elements of creative nonfiction and their definition? ›

The main elements of creative nonfiction are setting, descriptive imagery, figurative language, plot, and character.

What is a non fictional writing within a publication? ›

Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction that tells a story. Unlike fiction, however, the story you're telling is true. Some other subgenres of nonfiction are narrative too: memoir, autobiography, and biography, for instance, also tell a story. With this kind of writing, it's all about telling.

What is creative writing definition types & examples? ›

The four forms of creative writing are fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and scriptwriting which is sometimes called screenwriting or play writing. Creative nonfiction can take several forms such as memoir and personal essay.

What is an example of nonfiction? ›

Major types

Common literary examples of nonfiction include expository, argumentative, functional, and opinion pieces; essays on art or literature; biographies; memoirs; journalism; and historical, scientific, technical, or economic writings (including electronic ones).

What are the 11 guidelines in writing a creative nonfiction? ›

Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction
  • Research the topic. ...
  • Never invent or change facts. ...
  • Provide accurate information. ...
  • Provide concrete evidence. ...
  • Use humour to make an important point.
  • Show the reader what happened, don't tell them what happened. ...
  • Narrate the story. ...
  • Write about the interesting and extraordinary.
Feb 17, 2010

What is the importance of creative nonfiction? ›

It boosts your artistic self-expression

Writing creative nonfiction fosters artistic self-expression. When you express yourself in any creative form — art, music, or writing — you're connecting your thoughts and emotions with words.

What are the different types of creative nonfiction? ›

6 Types of Creative Nonfiction Personal Essays
  • Braided essay. The braided essay weaves together multiple threads (usually two to four) that stand alone but make the whole even greater.
  • Fragmented essay. ...
  • Graphic essay. ...
  • Hermit crab essay. ...
  • Lyric essay. ...
  • Personal reportage essay.
Apr 22, 2022

What are the 8 terms associated to the word creative nonfiction? ›

Some of these names are: Literary Nonfiction; Narrative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism; Imaginative Nonfiction; Lyric Essay; Personal Essay; Personal Narrative; and Literary Memoir.

What are 5 nonfiction examples? ›

Here are some of the most prominent types of nonfiction genres.
  • History. ...
  • Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. ...
  • Travel guides and travelogues. ...
  • Academic texts. ...
  • Philosophy and insight. ...
  • Journalism. ...
  • Self-help and instruction. ...
  • Guides and how-to manuals.
Sep 29, 2021

What kind of nonfiction is published by the news media? ›

An example of persuasive nonfiction is an editorial in a newspaper. Descriptive nonfiction: With descriptive nonfiction, the writer uses figurative language, rich details and sensory language to help readers understand the information.

How do I start publishing creative writing? ›

Start out by submitting your work to literary journals, entering reputable literary contests (beware of contests that require a substantial submission fee), and applying for writing scholarships and prizes. For a list of trusted and legitimate contests and awards, you can visit the award listings at Poets & Writers.

What is creative writing in your own words? ›

Creative writing is an expressive form of literature; one which demands you to use your own creativity, imagination and story to portray a particular message, emotion, or plot. It defies the traditional bounds of other forms of writing and is completely subjective to our own preferences and experiences.

What are the 4 most common types of nonfiction? ›

There are many different types of nonfiction, but they broadly fit into these categories: expository nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, persuasive nonfiction, and descriptive nonfiction.

How do you start a nonfiction story example? ›

How to Start Writing a Non-Fiction Book - YouTube

What are the 5 most common forms of nonfiction? ›

Five Common Forms of Nonfiction
  • Slices of Life: Personal Narratives. A personal narrative is an essay that describes an actual experience in the author's life. ...
  • A Time of Your Life: Memoir. ...
  • The Whole Life Story: Autobiography. ...
  • The Lives of Others: Biography. ...
  • Just the Facts, Ma'am: Expository Writing.

What is creative nonfiction quizlet? ›

Creative Nonfiction. A branch of writing that employs the literary techniques usually associated with fiction or poetry to reporton actual persons, places or events. Fiction.

How do you identify a creative non fiction? ›

However, a work can only be considered creative nonfiction if the author can attest that 100% of the content is true and factual. (In other words, even if just a few details from one scene are imagined, the story could not be considered creative nonfiction.)

What is the importance of creative nonfiction? ›

It boosts your artistic self-expression

Writing creative nonfiction fosters artistic self-expression. When you express yourself in any creative form — art, music, or writing — you're connecting your thoughts and emotions with words.

What is your most significant learning in creative nonfiction? ›

When reading a work of creative nonfiction, it is important to remember the story is true. This means the author does not have as much artistic freedom as a fiction writer or poet might, because they cannot invent events which did not happen.


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