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Creative Nonfiction: An Overview

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This resource provides an introduction to creative nonfiction, including an overview of the genre and an explanation of major sub-genres.

The Creative Nonfiction (CNF) genre can be rather elusive. It is focused on story, meaning it has a narrative plot with an inciting moment, rising action, climax and denoument, just like fiction. However, nonfiction only works if the story is based in truth, an accurate retelling of the author’s life experiences. The pieces can vary greatly in length, just as fiction can; anything from a book-length autobiography to a 500-word food blog post can fall within the genre.

Additionally, the genre borrows some aspects, in terms of voice, from poetry; poets generally look for truth and write about the realities they see. While there are many exceptions to this, such as the persona poem, the nonfiction genre depends on the writer’s ability to render their voice in a realistic fashion, just as poetry so often does. Writer Richard Terrill, in comparing the two forms, writes that the voice in creative nonfiction aims “to engage the empathy” of the reader; that, much like a poet, the writer uses “personal candor” to draw the reader in.

Creative Nonfiction encompasses many different forms of prose. As an emerging form, CNF is closely entwined with fiction. Many fiction writers make the cross-over to nonfiction occasionally, if only to write essays on the craft of fiction. This can be done fairly easily, since the ability to write good prose—beautiful description, realistic characters, musical sentences—is required in both genres.

So what, then, makes the literary nonfiction genre unique?

The first key element of nonfiction—perhaps the most crucial thing— is that the genre relies on the author’s ability to retell events that actually happened. The talented CNF writer will certainly use imagination and craft to relay what has happened and tell a story, but the story must be true. You may have heard the idiom that “truth is stranger than fiction;” this is an essential part of the genre. Events—coincidences, love stories, stories of loss—that may be expected or feel clichéd in fiction can be respected when they occur in real life .

A writer of Creative Nonfiction should always be on the lookout for material that can yield an essay; the world at-large is their subject matter. Additionally, because Creative Nonfiction is focused on reality, it relies on research to render events as accurately as possible. While it’s certainly true that fiction writers also research their subjects (especially in the case of historical fiction), CNF writers must be scrupulous in their attention to detail. Their work is somewhat akin to that of a journalist, and in fact, some journalism can fall under the umbrella of CNF as well. Writer Christopher Cokinos claims, “done correctly, lived well, delivered elegantly, such research uncovers not only facts of the world, but reveals and shapes the world of the writer” (93). In addition to traditional research methods, such as interviewing subjects or conducting database searches, he relays Kate Bernheimer’s claim that “A lifetime of reading is research:” any lived experience, even one that is read, can become material for the writer.

The other key element, the thing present in all successful nonfiction, is reflection. A person could have lived the most interesting life and had experiences completely unique to them, but without context—without reflection on how this life of experiences affected the writer—the reader is left with the feeling that the writer hasn’t learned anything, that the writer hasn’t grown. We need to see how the writer has grown because a large part of nonfiction’s appeal is the lessons it offers us, the models for ways of living: that the writer can survive a difficult or strange experience and learn from it. Sean Ironman writes that while “[r]eflection, or the second ‘I,’ is taught in every nonfiction course” (43), writers often find it incredibly hard to actually include reflection in their work. He expresses his frustration that “Students are stuck on the idea—an idea that’s not entirely wrong—that readers need to think” (43), that reflecting in their work would over-explain the ideas to the reader. Not so. Instead, reflection offers “the crucial scene of the writer writing the memoir” (44), of the present-day writer who is looking back on and retelling the past. In a moment of reflection, the author steps out of the story to show a different kind of scene, in which they are sitting at their computer or with their notebook in some quiet place, looking at where they are now, versus where they were then; thinking critically about what they’ve learned. This should ideally happen in small moments, maybe single sentences, interspersed throughout the piece. Without reflection, you have a collection of scenes open for interpretation—though they might add up to nothing.


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.

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:

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:

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.

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.


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.

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.

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:

  • Write about r eal life: Creative nonfiction tackles real people, events, and places—things that actually happened or are happening.
  • Conduct extensive r esearch: 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?)
  • (W) r ite 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.
  • Include personal r eflection: Share your unique voice and perspective on the narrative you are retelling.
  • Learn by r eading: 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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Sean Glatch

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Thank you so much for including these samples from Hippocampus Magazine essays/contributors; it was so wonderful to see these pieces reflected on from the craft perspective! – Donna from Hippocampus

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Absolutely, Donna! I’m a longtime fan of Hippocampus and am always astounded by the writing you publish. We’re always happy to showcase stunning work 🙂

[…] Source: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-complete-guide-to-writing-creative-nonfiction#5-creative-nonfiction-writing-promptshttps://writers.com/what-is-creative-nonfiction […]

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So impressive

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Thank you. I’ve been researching a number of figures from the 1800’s and have come across a large number of ‘biographies’ of figures. These include quoted conversations which I knew to be figments of the author and yet some works are lauded as ‘histories’.

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excellent guidelines inspiring me to write CNF thank you

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49 Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction

Dr. Karen Palmer

Introduction to Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction has existed for as long as poetry, fiction, and drama have, but only in the last forty years or so has the term become common as a label for creative, factual prose. The length is not  a factor in characterizing this genre: Such prose can take the form of an essay or a book. For this chapter’s discussion, we will focus on the essay , since not only will this shorter version of the form allow us to examine multiple examples for a better understanding of the genre, but also, you may have written creative nonfiction essays yourself. Looking carefully at the strategies exhibited by some successful essay writers will give us new ideas for achieving goals in our own writing.

Currently, creative non-fiction is the most popular literary genre. While generations past defined literature as poetry, drama, and fiction, creative nonfiction has increasingly gained popularity and recognition in the literary world.

Creative nonfiction stories depict real-life events, places, people, and experiences, but do so in a way that is immersive, so readers feel emotionally invested in the writing in a way they probably are not as invested in, say, a textbook or a more formal autobiography. While “nonfiction” (without the creative designation) tells true stories as well, there is less emphasis upon and space for creativity. If regular nonfiction were a person, it might say “just the facts, ma’am.” Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, might ask “and what color were her eyes as the moonlight reflected off the ocean into them, and what childhood memories did that moment dredge up?”

The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic — or literary — way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. It can be lyric and personal or representing important moments in history. They also might be more objective and scholarly, like many pieces of investigative journalism.

Key Takeaways

Creative Nonfiction Characteristics

  • True stories
  • Prose (usually, though sometimes poetry)
  • Uses literary devices/is more creative and artistically-oriented than “regular” nonfiction
  • Often told in first person
  • The narrator is often the author or a persona of the author, but not always

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. It is worthwhile, then, to pay attention to the literary devices and other artistic choices the narrator makes. Readers should consider: what choices were made here about what to include and what to omit? Are there repeating images or themes? How might the historical context influence this work?

First, let’s do what we can to more clearly define the creative nonfiction essay. What is the difference between this kind of essay and an academic essay? Although written in prose form ( prose is writing not visually broken into distinct lines as poetry is), the creative nonfiction essay often strives for a poetic effect , employing a kind of compressed, distilled language so that most words carry more meaning than their simple denotation (or literal meaning). Generally, this kind of essay is not heavy with researched information or formal argument; its priority, instead, is to generate a powerful emotional and aesthetic effect ( aesthetic referring to artistic and/or beautiful qualities).

In this video, Evan Puschak discusses the evolution of the essay with the advent of technology and gives some really interesting insight into the importance of essays.

How YouTube Changed The Essay | Evan Puschak | TEDxLafayetteCollege

Four Types of Essay

A narrative essay recounts a sequence of related events.  Narrative essays are usually autobiographical. Events are chosen because they suggest or illustrate some universal truth or insight about life. In other words, the author has discovered in his/her own experiences evidence for generalizations about themselves or society.


An argumentative essay strives to persuade readers. It usually deals with controversial ideas, creating arguments and gathering evidence to support a particular point of view. The author anticipates and answers opposing arguments in order to persuade the reader to adopt the author’s perspective.

In this video, the instructor gives an overview of the narrative and argumentative essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.


A descriptive essay depicts sensory observations in words. They evoke reader’s imagination and address complex issues by appealing to the senses instead of the intellect. While a narrative essay will certainly employ description, the primary difference between the two is that a descriptive essay focuses only on appealing to the senses, whereas a narrative essay uses description to tell a story.


An expository essay attempt to explain a topic, making it clear to readers. In an expository essay, the author organizes and provides information. Examples of this type of essay include the definition essay and the process analysis (how-to).

In this videos, the instructor gives an overview of the descriptive and expository essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.

Choosing a Topic & Reading the Essay: Steps 1 & 2

Your first step in writing a paper about an essay is to choose an essay and read it carefully. Essays confront readers directly with an idea, a problem, an illuminating experience, an important definition, or some flaw/virtue in the social system. Usually short, an essay embodies the writer’s personal viewpoint and speaks with the voice of a real person about the real word. Essays might also explore & clarify ideas by arguing for or against a position.

When reading an essay, ask yourself, “what is the central argument or idea?” Does the essay attack or justify something, or remind readers of something about their inner lives?

In this video, I do a close reading of the essay “ The Grapes of Mrs. Wrath .” As in any type of literature, you want to read first for enjoyment and understanding. Then, go back and do a close reading with a pen in hand, jotting down notes and looking for the ways in which the author gets his/her point across to the reader.

Virginia Woolf’s 1942 “The Death of the Moth” is an illuminating example of an argumentative essay. While the essay does not present a stated argument and proceed to offer evidence in the same way conventional academic argument would, it does strive to persuade . Consider this piece carefully and see if you can detect the theme that Woolf is developing.

“The Death of the Moth”

Here are some important items to consider when reading an essay.

1. The Thesis:

What is the point of the piece of writing? This should be your central concern. Once you know what the author’s main idea is, you can look at what techniques the author uses to get that point across successfully.

The title of Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” offers us, from the start, the knowledge of the work’s theme of death. What impression does the essay, as a whole, convey? The writer acknowledges that watching even such a small creature as the moth struggle against death, she sympathizes with the moth and not with the “power of such magnitude” that carries on outside the window—that of time and inevitable change, for this power is ultimately her own “enemy” as well. In her last line, “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am,” what lesson has she internalized regarding herself , a human being who at first observed the autumn day with no immediate sense of her own mortality?

2. Structure & detail:

  • opening lines capture attention
  • endings offer forceful assertions that focus the matter preceding them
  • body converts abstract ideas into concrete details

While this piece is not a poem, what aspects of it are poetic ? Consider the imagery employed to suggest the season of death, for all of nature. The writer describes her experience sitting at her desk next to the window, observing the signs of autumn: the plow “scoring the field” where the crop (or “share”) has already been harvested. Although the scene begins in morning—characterized by energetic exertions of nature, including the rooks, rising and settling into the trees again and again with a great deal of noise, “as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience”—the day shifts, as the essay progresses, to afternoon, the birds having left the trees of this field for some other place. Like the moth, the day and the year are waning. The energy that each began with is now diminishing, as is the case for all living things.

The writer is impressed with the moth’s valiant struggle against its impending death because she is also aware of its inevitable doom: “[T] here was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him.” As is common in poetry, Woolf’s diction not only suggests her attitude toward the subject, but also exhibits a lyrical quality that enhances the work’s  effect: She introduces words whose meanings are associated with youth and energy, as well as sounding strong with the “vigorous” consonants of “g,” “c,” “z,” and “t”—words such as “vigour,” “clamour,” and “zest.” Yet, the author counters this positive tone with other words that suggest, both in meaning and in their softer sounds, the vulnerability of living things: “thin,” “frail,” “diminutive,” and “futile.” In a third category of diction, with words of compliment—”extraordinary” and “uncomplainingly”—

Woolf acknowledges the moth’s admirable fight. In addition to indicating the moth’s heroism, the very length of these words seems to model the moth’s attempts to drag out its last moments of life.

3. Style and Tone

  • Style: writing skills that contribute to the effect of any piece of literature
  • Tone: attitude conveyed by the language a writer chooses

Woolf’s choice of tone for an essay on this topic is, perhaps, what distinguishes it from the many other literary works on the subject. The attitude is not one of tragedy, horror, or indignation, as we might expect. Rather, through imagery and diction, Woolf generates a tone of wistfulness . By carefully crafting the reader’s experience of the moth’s death, through the author’s own first person point of view, she reminds us of our own human struggle against death, which is both heroic and inevitable.

Step 2: Personal Response

For Further Reading

Believe it or not, people actually add essays to their reading lists! Here are a few folks talking about their favorite essay collections. 🙂



  • Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Licensed under CC BY NC SA .
  • Content adapted from “Creative Nonfiction, the 4th Genre” from Writing and Literature , licensed under CC BY SA .
  • Content adapted from “ What is Creative Non-Fiction ” licensed CC BY NC .

The Worry Free Writer Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Last updated on Feb 20, 2023

Creative Nonfiction: How to Spin Facts into Narrative Gold

Creative nonfiction is a genre of creative writing that approaches factual information in a literary way. This type of writing applies techniques drawn from literary fiction and poetry to material that might be at home in a magazine or textbook, combining the craftsmanship of a novel with the rigor of journalism. 

Here are some popular examples of creative nonfiction:

  • The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
  • Intimations by Zadie Smith
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Creative nonfiction is not limited to novel-length writing, of course. Popular radio shows and podcasts like WBEZ’s This American Life or Sarah Koenig’s Serial also explore audio essays and documentary with a narrative approach, while personal essays like Nora Ephron’s A Few Words About Breasts and Mariama Lockington’s What A Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew also present fact with fiction-esque flair.

Writing short personal essays can be a great entry point to writing creative nonfiction. Think about a topic you would like to explore, perhaps borrowing from your own life, or a universal experience. Journal freely for five to ten minutes about the subject, and see what direction your creativity takes you in. These kinds of exercises will help you begin to approach reality in a more free flowing, literary way — a muscle you can use to build up to longer pieces of creative nonfiction.

If you think you’d like to bring your writerly prowess to nonfiction, here are our top tips for creating compelling creative nonfiction that’s as readable as a novel, but as illuminating as a scholarly article.

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Write a memoir focused on a singular experience

Humans love reading about other people’s lives — like first-person memoirs, which allow you to get inside another person’s mind and learn from their wisdom. Unlike autobiographies, memoirs can focus on a single experience or theme instead of chronicling the writers’ life from birth onward.

For that reason, memoirs tend to focus on one core theme and—at least the best ones—present a clear narrative arc, like you would expect from a novel. This can be achieved by selecting a singular story from your life; a formative experience, or period of time, which is self-contained and can be marked by a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

When writing a memoir, you may also choose to share your experience in parallel with further research on this theme. By performing secondary research, you’re able to bring added weight to your anecdotal evidence, and demonstrate the ways your own experience is reflective (or perhaps unique from) the wider whole.

Example: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Creative Nonfiction example: Cover of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking , for example, interweaves the author’s experience of widowhood with sociological research on grief. Chronicling the year after her husband’s unexpected death, and the simultaneous health struggles of their daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking is a poignant personal story, layered with universal insight into what it means to lose someone you love. The result is the definitive exploration of bereavement — and a stellar example of creative nonfiction done well.

📚 Looking for more reading recommendations? Check out our list of the best memoirs of the last century .

Tip: What you cut out is just as important as what you keep

When writing a memoir that is focused around a singular theme, it’s important to be selective in what to include, and what to leave out. While broader details of your life may be helpful to provide context, remember to resist the impulse to include too much non-pertinent backstory. By only including what is most relevant, you are able to provide a more focused reader experience, and won’t leave readers guessing what the significance of certain non-essential anecdotes will be.

💡 For more memoir-planning tips, head over to our post on outlining memoirs .

Of course, writing a memoir isn’t the only form of creative nonfiction that lets you tap into your personal life — especially if there’s something more explicit you want to say about the world at large… which brings us onto our next section.

Pen a personal essay that has something bigger to say

Personal essays condense the first-person focus and intimacy of a memoir into a tighter package — tunneling down into a specific aspect of a theme or narrative strand within the author’s personal experience.

Often involving some element of journalistic research, personal essays can provide examples or relevant information that comes from outside the writer’s own experience. This can take the form of other people’s voices quoted in the essay, or facts and stats. By combining lived experiences with external material, personal essay writers can reach toward a bigger message, telling readers something about human behavior or society instead of just letting them know the writer better.

Example: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Creative nonfiction example: Cover of Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison's widely acclaimed collection The Empathy Exams  tackles big questions (Why is pain so often performed? Can empathy be “bad”?) by grounding them in the personal. While Jamison draws from her own experiences, both as a medical actor who was paid to imitate pain, and as a sufferer of her own ailments, she also reaches broader points about the world we live in within each of her essays.

Whether she’s talking about the justice system or reality TV, Jamison writes with both vulnerability and poise, using her lived experience as a jumping-off point for exploring the nature of empathy itself.

Tip: Try to show change in how you feel about something

Including external perspectives, as we’ve just discussed above, will help shape your essay, making it meaningful to other people and giving your narrative an arc. 

Ultimately, you may be writing about yourself, but readers can read what they want into it. In a personal narrative, they’re looking for interesting insights or realizations they can apply to their own understanding of their lives or the world — so don’t lose sight of that. As the subject of the essay, you are not so much the topic as the vehicle for furthering a conversation.

Often, there are three clear stages in an essay:

  • Initial state 
  • Encounter with something external
  • New, changed state, and conclusions

By bringing readers through this journey with you, you can guide them to new outlooks and demonstrate how your story is still relevant to them.

Had enough of writing about your own life? Let’s look at a form of creative nonfiction that allows you to get outside of yourself.

Tell a factual story as though it were a novel

The form of creative nonfiction that is perhaps closest to conventional nonfiction is literary journalism. Here, the stories are all fact, but they are presented with a creative flourish. While the stories being told might comfortably inhabit a newspaper or history book, they are presented with a sense of literary significance, and writers can make use of literary techniques and character-driven storytelling.

Unlike news reporters, literary journalists can make room for their own perspectives: immersing themselves in the very action they recount. Think of them as both characters and narrators — but every word they write is true. 

If you think literary journalism is up your street, think about the kinds of stories that capture your imagination the most, and what those stories have in common. Are they, at their core, character studies? Parables? An invitation to a new subculture you have never before experienced? Whatever piques your interest, immerse yourself.

Example: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Creative nonfiction example: Cover of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire

If you’re looking for an example of literary journalism that tells a great story, look no further than Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World , which sits at the intersection of food writing and popular science. Though it purports to offer a “plant’s-eye view of the world,” it’s as much about human desires as it is about the natural world.

Through the history of four different plants and human’s efforts to cultivate them, Pollan uses first-hand research as well as archival facts to explore how we attempt to domesticate nature for our own pleasure, and how these efforts can even have devastating consequences. Pollan is himself a character in the story, and makes what could be a remarkably dry topic accessible and engaging in the process.

Tip: Don’t pretend that you’re perfectly objective

You may have more room for your own perspective within literary journalism, but with this power comes great responsibility. Your responsibilities toward the reader remain the same as that of a journalist: you must, whenever possible, acknowledge your own biases or conflicts of interest, as well as any limitations on your research. 

Thankfully, the fact that literary journalism often involves a certain amount of immersion in the narrative — that is, the writer acknowledges their involvement in the process — you can touch on any potential biases explicitly, and make it clear that the story you’re telling, while true to what you experienced, is grounded in your own personal perspective.

Approach a famous name with a unique approach 

Biographies are the chronicle of a human life, from birth to the present or, sometimes, their demise. Often, fact is stranger than fiction, and there is no shortage of fascinating figures from history to discover. As such, a biographical approach to creative nonfiction will leave you spoilt for choice in terms of subject matter.

Because they’re not written by the subjects themselves (as memoirs are), biographical nonfiction requires careful research. If you plan to write one, do everything in your power to verify historical facts, and interview the subject’s family, friends, and acquaintances when possible. Despite the necessity for candor, you’re still welcome to approach biography in a literary way — a great creative biography is both truthful and beautifully written.

Example: American Prometheus  by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Creative nonfiction example: Cover of American Prometheus

Alongside the need for you to present the truth is a duty to interpret that evidence with imagination, and present it in the form of a story. Demonstrating a novelist’s skill for plot and characterization, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus is a great example of creative nonfiction that develops a character right in front of the readers’ eyes.

American Prometheus follows J. Robert Oppenheimer from his bashful childhood to his role as the father of the atomic bomb, all the way to his later attempts to reckon with his violent legacy.



How to Develop Characters

In 10 days, learn to develop complex characters readers will love.

The biography tells a story that would fit comfortably in the pages of a tragic novel, but is grounded in historical research. Clocking in at a hefty 721 pages, American Prometheus distills an enormous volume of archival material, including letters, FBI files, and interviews into a remarkably readable volume. 

📚 For more examples of world-widening, eye-opening biographies, check out our list of the 30 best biographies of all time .

Tip: The good stuff lies in the mundane details

Biographers are expected to undertake academic-grade research before they put pen to paper. You will, of course, read any existing biographies on the person you’re writing about, and visit any archives containing relevant material. If you’re lucky, there’ll be people you can interview who knew your subject personally — but even if there aren’t, what’s going to make your biography stand out is paying attention to details, even if they seem mundane at first.

Of course, no one cares which brand of slippers a former US President wore — gossip is not what we’re talking about. But if you discover that they took a long, silent walk every single morning, that’s a granular detail you could include to give your readers a sense of the weight they carried every day. These smaller details add up to a realistic portrait of a living, breathing human being.

But creative nonfiction isn’t just writing about yourself or other people. Writing about art is also an art, as we’ll see below.

Put your favorite writers through the wringer with literary criticism

Literary criticism is often associated with dull, jargon-laden college dissertations — but it can be a wonderfully rewarding form that blurs the lines between academia and literature itself. When tackled by a deft writer, a literary critique can be just as engrossing as the books it analyzes.

Many of the sharpest literary critics are also poets, poetry editors , novelists, or short story writers, with first-hand awareness of literary techniques and the ability to express their insights with elegance and flair. Though literary criticism sounds highly theoretical, it can be profoundly intimate: you’re invited to share in someone’s experience as a reader or writer — just about the most private experience there is.

Example: The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Creative nonfiction example: Cover of The Madwoman in the Attic

Take The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, a seminal work approaching Victorian literature from a feminist perspective. Written as a conversation between two friends and academics, this brilliant book reads like an intellectual brainstorming session in a casual dining venue. Highly original, accessible, and not suffering from the morose gravitas academia is often associated with, this text is a fantastic example of creative nonfiction.

Tip: Remember to make your critiques creative

Literary criticism may be a serious undertaking, but unless you’re trying to pitch an academic journal, you’ll need to be mindful of academic jargon and convoluted sentence structure. Don’t forget that the point of popular literary criticism is to make ideas accessible to readers who aren’t necessarily academics, introducing them to new ways of looking at anything they read. 

If you’re not feeling confident, a professional nonfiction editor could help you confirm you’ve hit the right stylistic balance.

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Writing Forward

A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

by Melissa Donovan | Mar 4, 2021 | Creative Writing | 12 comments

writing creative nonfiction

Try your hand at writing creative nonfiction.

Here at Writing Forward, we’re primarily interested in three types of creative writing: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

With poetry and fiction, there are techniques and best practices that we can use to inform and shape our writing, but there aren’t many rules beyond the standards of style, grammar, and good writing . We can let our imaginations run wild; everything from nonsense to outrageous fantasy is fair game for bringing our ideas to life when we’re writing fiction and poetry.

However, when writing creative nonfiction, there are some guidelines that we need to follow. These guidelines aren’t set in stone; however, if you violate them, you might find yourself in trouble with your readers as well as the critics.

What is Creative Nonfiction?

Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories (aff link).

What sets creative nonfiction apart from fiction or poetry?

For starters, creative nonfiction is factual. A memoir is not just any story; it’s a true story. A biography is the real account of someone’s life. There is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts.

So what makes creative nonfiction writing different from something like textbook writing or technical writing? What makes it creative?

Nonfiction writing that isn’t considered creative usually has business or academic applications. Such writing isn’t designed for entertainment or enjoyment. Its sole purpose is to convey information, usually in a dry, straightforward manner.

Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, pays credence to the craft of writing, often through literary devices and storytelling techniques, which make the prose aesthetically pleasing and bring layers of meaning to the context. It’s pleasurable to read.

According to Wikipedia:

Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing truth which uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.

Like other forms of nonfiction, creative nonfiction relies on research, facts, and credibility. While opinions may be interjected, and often the work depends on the author’s own memories (as is the case with memoirs and autobiographies), the material must be verifiable and accurately reported.

Creative Nonfiction Genres and Forms

There are many forms and genres within creative nonfiction:

  • Autobiography and biography
  • Personal essays
  • Literary journalism
  • Any topical material, such as food or travel writing, self-development, art, or history, can be creatively written with a literary angle

Let’s look more closely at a few of these nonfiction forms and genres:

Memoirs: A memoir is a long-form (book-length) written work. It is a firsthand, personal account that focuses on a specific experience or situation. One might write a memoir about serving in the military or struggling with loss. Memoirs are not life stories, but they do examine life through a particular lens. For example, a memoir about being a writer might begin in childhood, when the author first learned to write. However, the focus of the book would be on writing, so other aspects of the author’s life would be left out, for the most part.

Biographies and autobiographies: A biography is the true story of someone’s life. If an author composes their own biography, then it’s called an autobiography. These works tend to cover the entirety of a person’s life, albeit selectively.

Literary journalism: Journalism sticks with the facts while exploring the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a particular person, topic, or event. Biographies, for example, are a genre of literary journalism, which is a form of nonfiction writing. Traditional journalism is a method of information collection and organization. Literary journalism also conveys facts and information, but it honors the craft of writing by incorporating storytelling techniques and literary devices. Opinions are supposed to be absent in traditional journalism, but they are often found in literary journalism, which can be written in long or short formats.

Personal essays are a short form of creative nonfiction that can cover a wide range of styles, from writing about one’s experiences to expressing one’s personal opinions. They can address any topic imaginable. Personal essays can be found in many places, from magazines and literary journals to blogs and newspapers. They are often a short form of memoir writing.

Speeches  can cover a range of genres, from political to motivational to educational. A tributary speech honors someone whereas a roast ridicules them (in good humor). Unlike most other forms of writing, speeches are written to be performed rather than read.

Journaling: A common, accessible, and often personal form of creative nonfiction writing is journaling. A journal can also contain fiction and poetry, but most journals would be considered nonfiction. Some common types of written journals are diaries, gratitude journals, and career journals (or logs), but this is just a small sampling of journaling options.

what have you learned about creative nonfiction essay

Writing Creative Nonfiction (aff link).

Any topic or subject matter is fair game in the realm of creative nonfiction. 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. It’s not so much the topic or subject matter that renders a written work as creative; it’s how it’s written — with due diligence to the craft of writing through application of language and literary devices.

Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Here are six simple guidelines to follow when writing creative nonfiction:

  • Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberties with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be scrutinized. Negative publicity might boost sales, but it will tarnish your reputation; you’ll lose credibility. If you can’t refrain from fabrication, then think about writing fiction instead of creative nonfiction.
  • Issue a disclaimer. A lot of nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and include a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
  • Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction. Some people are extremely private and don’t want any details of their lives published. Others might request that you leave certain things out, which they want to keep private. Otherwise, make sure you’ve weighed the repercussions of revealing other people’s lives to the world. Relationships have been both strengthened and destroyed as a result of authors publishing the details of other people’s lives.
  • Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with harsh criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
  • Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
  • Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.

Are you looking for inspiration? Check out these creative nonfiction writing ideas.

Ten creative nonfiction writing prompts and projects.

The prompts below are excerpted from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts , which contains fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction writing prompts. Use these prompts to spark a creative nonfiction writing session.

what have you learned about creative nonfiction essay

1200 Creative Writing Prompts (aff link).

  • What is your favorite season? What do you like about it? Write a descriptive essay about it.
  • What do you think the world of technology will look like in ten years? Twenty? What kind of computers, phones, and other devices will we use? Will technology improve travel? Health care? What do you expect will happen and what would you like to happen?
  • Have you ever fixed something that was broken? Ever solved a computer problem on your own? Write an article about how to fix something or solve some problem.
  • Have you ever had a run-in with the police? What happened?
  • Have you ever traveled alone? Tell your story. Where did you go? Why? What happened?
  • Let’s say you write a weekly advice column. Choose the topic you’d offer advice on, and then write one week’s column.
  • Think of a major worldwide problem: for example, hunger, climate change, or political corruption. Write an article outlining a solution (or steps toward a solution).
  • Choose a cause that you feel is worthy and write an article persuading others to join that cause.
  • Someone you barely know asks you to recommend a book. What do you recommend and why?
  • Hard skills are abilities you have acquired, such as using software, analyzing numbers, and cooking. Choose a hard skill you’ve mastered and write an article about how this skill is beneficial using your own life experiences as examples.

Do You Write Creative Nonfiction?

Have you ever written creative nonfiction? How often do you read it? Can you think of any nonfiction forms and genres that aren’t included here? Do you have any guidelines to add to this list? Are there any situations in which it would be acceptable to ignore these guidelines? Got any tips to add? Do you feel that nonfiction should focus on content and not on craft? Leave a comment to share your thoughts, and keep writing.

Ready Set Write a Guide to Creative Writing



Shouldn’t ALL non-fiction be creative to some extent? I am a former business journalist, and won awards for the imaginative approach I took to writing about even the driest of business topics: pensions, venture capital, tax, employment law and other potentially dusty subjects. The drier and more complicated the topic, the more creative the approach must be, otherwise no-one with anything else to do will bother to wade through it. [to be honest, taking the fictional approach to these ghastly tortuous topics was the only way I could face writing about them.] I used all the techniques that fiction writers have to play with, and used some poetic techniques, too, to make the prose more readable. What won the first award was a little serial about two businesses run and owned by a large family at war with itself. Every episode centred on one or two common and crucial business issues, wrapped up in a comedy-drama, and it won a lot of fans (happily for me) because it was so much easier to read and understand than the dry technical writing they were used to. Life’s too short for dusty writing!

Melissa Donovan

I believe most journalism is creative and would therefore fall under creative nonfiction. However, there is a lot of legal, technical, medical, science, and textbook writing in which there is no room for creativity (or creativity has not made its way into these genres yet). With some forms, it makes sense. I don’t think it would be appropriate for legal briefings to use story or literary devices just to add a little flair. On the other hand, it would be a good thing if textbooks were a little more readable.

Catharine Bramkamp

I think Abbs is right – even in academic papers, an example or story helps the reader visualize the problem or explanation more easily. I scan business books to see if there are stories or examples, if not, then I don’t pick up the book. That’s where the creativity comes in – how to create examples, what to conflate, what to emphasis as we create our fictional people to illustrate important, real points.

Lorrie Porter

Thanks for the post. Very helpful. I’d never thought about writing creative nonfiction before.

You’re welcome 🙂


Hi Melissa!

Love your website. You always give a fun and frank assessment of all things pertaining to writing. It is a pleasure to read. I have even bought several of the reference and writing books you recommended. Keep up the great work.

Top 10 Reasons Why Creative Nonfiction Is A Questionable Category

10. When you look up “Creative Nonfiction” in the dictionary it reads: See Fiction

9. The first creative nonfiction example was a Schwinn Bicycle Assembly Guide that had printed in its instructions: Can easily be assembled by one person with a Phillips head screw driver, Allen keys, adjustable wrench and cable cutters in less than an hour.

8. Creative Nonfiction; Based on actual events; Suggested by a true event; Based on a true story. It’s a slippery slope.

7. The Creative Nonfiction Quarterly is only read by eleven people. Five have the same last name.

6. Creative Nonfiction settings may only include: hospitals, concentration camps, prisons and cemeteries. Exceptions may be made for asylums, rehab centers and Capitol Hill.

5. The writers who create Sterile Nonfiction or Unimaginative Nonfiction now want their category recognized.

4. Creative; Poetic License; Embellishment; Puffery. See where this is leading?

3. Creative Nonfiction is to Nonfiction as Reality TV is to Documentaries.

2. My attorney has advised that I exercise my 5th Amendment Rights or that I be allowed to give written testimony in a creative nonfiction way.

1. People believe it is a film with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Queen Latifa.

Hi Steve. I’m not sure if your comment is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, but I found it humorous.

Kirby Michael Wright

My publisher is releasing my Creative Nonfiction book based on my grandmother’s life this May 2019 in Waikiki. I’ll give you an update soon about sales. I was fortunate enough to get some of the original and current Hawaii 5-0 members to show up for the book signing.


Hi, when writing creative nonfiction- is it appropriate to write from someone else’s point of view when you don’t know them? I was thinking of writing about Greta Thungbrurg for creative nonfiction competition – but I can directly ask her questions so I’m unsure as to whether it’s accurate enough to be classified as creative non-fiction. Thank you!

Hi Madeleine. I’m not aware of creative nonfiction being written in first person from someone else’s point of view. The fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t be creative nonfiction because a person cannot truly show events from another person’s perspective. So I wouldn’t consider something like that nonfiction. It would usually be a biography written in third person, and that is common. You can certainly use quotes and other indicators to represent someone else’s views and experiences. I could probably be more specific if I knew what kind of work it is (memoir, biography, self-development, etc.).

Liz Roy

Dear Melissa: I am trying to market a book in the metaphysical genre about an experience I had, receiving the voice of a Civil War spirit who tells his story (not channeling). Part is my reaction and discussion with a close friend so it is not just memoir. I referred to it as ‘literary non-fiction’ but an agent put this down by saying it is NOT literary non-fiction. Looking at your post, could I say that my book is ‘creative non-fiction’? (agents can sometimes be so nit-picky)

Hi Liz. You opened your comment by classifying the book as metaphysical but later referred to it as literary nonfiction. The premise definitely sounds like a better fit in the metaphysical category. Creative nonfiction is not a genre; it’s a broader category or description. Basically, all literature is either fiction or nonfiction (poetry would be separate from these). Describing nonfiction as creative only indicates that it’s not something like a user guide. I think you were heading in the right direction with the metaphysical classification.

The goal of marketing and labeling books with genres is to find a readership that will be interested in the work. This is an agent’s area of expertise, so assuming you’re speaking with a competent agent, I’d suggest taking their advice in this matter. It indicates that the audience perusing the literary nonfiction aisles is simply not a match for this book.


  • Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 03-11-2021 | The Author Chronicles - […] If your interests leans toward nonfiction, Melissa Donovan presents a guide to writing creative nonfiction. […]

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A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

4-minute read

  • 21st August 2022

Creative nonfiction is a genre that uses literary elements usually associated with fiction writing (e.g., narrative arc, character development) to tell true stories. Sometimes referred to as narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction can range from tweet-sized stories to book-length memoirs.

Creative Nonfiction , a magazine dedicated to the genre, defines it succinctly as “true stories, well told.” In today’s post, we offer our advice to anyone setting out to write a piece of creative nonfiction:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Use literary devices.
  • Record your sources.
  • Include your own thoughts and opinions.
  • Check your work for errors.

If you’re inspired to write a literary journalistic article , personal essay, biography , or any other piece of creative nonfiction, read on to learn more about these points:

1. Don’t Make Anything Up

Everything you say in creative nonfiction must be true (the clue’s in the name). You must, therefore, be diligent in recording only verifiable events that you have thoroughly researched or that you personally remember.

It can be especially hard to do this if you’re writing your own story. It’s tempting to leave out or alter details that cast you in a bad light. However, the creative nonfiction genre demands honesty and accuracy.

Sometimes, of course, information will be unavailable, or you’ll have conflicting accounts of an event or conversation. The golden rule is to never contradict what you know to be true. If there are different versions of an incident, present both (or all) of them and let the reader decide which is the most convincing.

2. Use the Tools of a Fiction Writer

Creative nonfiction is different than a textbook or news article. Rather than simply reporting a series of facts, writers of creative nonfiction present those facts in narrative form. To do this, you have all the tools of fiction writing at your disposal.

Rather than telling your story chronologically, you could employ in medias res . In other words, start things off by plunging the reader straight into the action. You can reveal the events that led up to this dramatic moment by jumping back to an earlier time, or referring to it in flashbacks and conversations.

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Draw readers into your story by using vibrant, descriptive language that brings to life the setting and characters. You can also enrich your writing by using foreshadowing, metaphors, symbolism, dramatic irony, and all manner of other literary devices.

3. Keep Track of Your Information Sources

To tell your story accurately, you’ll have to do a lot of research. Even if you’re writing about your own experience, you’ll want to draw on other people’s memories of events rather than simply rely on your own.

Additionally, you could gain relevant information from books, old newspapers, and the internet, or by visiting places that are significant to your story.

It’s vital to keep a record of where all your information comes from. Even if you don’t refer to your sources in your book or article, you might be called on to verify something you’ve written. Moreover, if you want to go back over something to check the finer details, it can be hard to remember where to look if you haven’t written it down.

4. Let Your Own Voice Be Heard

One of the things that sets creative nonfiction apart from traditional journalism is that the writer’s voice is a key element of creative nonfiction. While you must relate events truthfully, you are free to share your own opinions and feelings and allow them to influence the way you write.

5. Remember to Proofread

While it’s up to you to faithfully depict the events, characters, and setting of your creative nonfiction piece, we can help you eliminate writing errors like typos and grammatical mistakes.

Our proofreading service includes tweaking sentences that don’t flow smoothly and suggesting corrections for anything unclear. Our team is available around the clock and will return your document error-free within 24 hours. Find out more today with a free trial .

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The New Outliers: How Creative Nonfiction Became a Legitimate, Serious Genre

Lee gutkind on the birth and surprising history of a different type of narrative form.

Many of my students, and even some younger colleagues, think—assume—that creative nonfiction is just part of the literary ecosystem; it’s always been around, like fiction or poetry. In many ways, of course, they are right: the kind of writing that is now considered to be under the creative nonfiction umbrella has a long and rich history. Many, of course, look to Michel de Montaigne as the father of the modern essay, but, to my mind, the more authentic roots of creative nonfiction are in the eighteenth century: Daniel Defoe’s historical narratives, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, and Samuel Johnson’s essays built a foundation for later writers such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

That is to say, even if the line between fact and fiction was perhaps a little fuzzy in the early days, it’s not hard to find rich nonfiction narratives that predate the use of the word “nonfiction” (1867, according to the Oxford English Dictionary ) and were around long before the first recorded use of the phrase “creative nonfiction” (1943, according to research William Bradley did for Creative Nonfiction some years ago).

But in a lot of important ways, creative nonfiction is still very new, at least as a form of literature with its own identity. Unfortunately, it took a long time—longer than it should have, if you ask me—for the genre to be acknowledged in that ecosystem. And, of course, you’ll still encounter people who are unfamiliar with the term or want to make that dumb joke, “Creative nonfiction: isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Be that as it may, there’s no real doubt at this point that creative nonfiction is a serious genre, a real thing. You probably won’t find a “creative nonfiction” bookshelf at your local bookstore, and maybe it’s not on the menu at Amazon the way “fiction” is, but nonfiction narratives are everywhere. Newspapers, formerly the realm of straight journalism, with its inverted-pyramid, who-what-where-when-why requirements, have welcomed personal essays not only on their op-ed pages but in many different sections. Memoir, labeled a “craze” in the 1990s, is a mainstay of the publishing industry. Twenty or so years ago, almost no one was publishing essay collections, and even the word “essay” was the kiss of death if you wanted a trade publisher to consider your work, but now essay collections are routinely on best-seller lists. And, increasingly, even non-narrative creative nonfiction like lyric essays and hybrid forms have gained legitimacy and commercial viability.

So, you might ask, what happened? How did we get to this era of acceptance and legitimacy? The genre’s success, I believe, a gradual process over almost a half-century, emerged in many important ways from an unlikely and dominant source. I am not at all sure I would be writing this today, or that you would be reading this in an almost thirty-year-old magazine devoted exclusively to creative nonfiction, if not for the academy, and specifically departments of English.

Now, if you’ve been following my writing over the past thirty or so years, you may be surprised to hear me say this. After all, I’ve written a great deal about the power struggles that went on in the early 1970s, when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and to a lesser degree at other universities and trying to expand the curriculum to include what was then called, mostly because of Tom Wolfe, “new journalism.”

I find that many of my students today aren’t very familiar with the New Journalists—Wolfe, Gay Talese, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin, Barbara Goldsmith, and Jane Kramer, among others—and it’s probably also true that some of the work from that time hasn’t aged terribly well. Sure, sometimes some of these writers went a little overboard, like Tom Wolfe, for example, interrupting his sentences with varoom-varooms and other stylistic flourishes. He was being playful and maybe a bit silly and arrogant, or it might seem so today, but he was also trying to loosen things up, to not be as predictable and sometimes downright boring as journalists then could be, and in that regard, he was quite successful.

You have to realize that the New Journalists were doing some very exciting stuff, seemingly groundbreaking. They were writing in scenes, recreating dialogue, manipulating timelines, and including themselves—their voices and ideas—in the stories they were writing. Stuff we pretty much take for granted now, but back then, with journalists especially hampered and handcuffed by rules and guidelines, so liberating.

Remember this was all happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rule breaking, change, and defying the establishment were in the air everywhere, and the idea of the “new” in journalism captured the tone and spirit of the times. But I am not just talking here about journalism. Other writers, recognized for their literary achievements, were also taking chances, pushing boundaries. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , his “nonfiction novel,” stunned and obsessed the literary world when it was published first in the New Yorker in 1965 and then, the following year, as a book. In 1969, another novelist, Norman Mailer, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters for The Armies of the Night , about the Washington, DC, peace demonstrations . Mailer was awarded a second Pulitzer in 1980 for his intense, thousand-plus-page deep-dive into murder, obsession, and punishment, The Executioner’s Song , which became a centerpiece of a national conversation about the death penalty. Mailer’s award for his self-described “true-life novel” was for fiction, but all three books, if published today, would be considered creative nonfiction.

I couldn’t see why this kind of work—which was as exciting to students as it was to me—didn’t belong in the classroom. In an English department. Not just as a one-off work, to be taught once in a while, but as part of the curriculum. Why wasn’t there a category for writing that wasn’t poetry or fiction or essay or journalism but that could bring the various literary and journalistic techniques used in all of those forms together into one unique work of art and craft? Why didn’t this amalgam of literary and journalistic richness belong . . . somewhere?

Thinking back, I didn’t really belong either. I had pushed my way into the English department first as a part-time lecturer and then as tenure-track faculty by campaigning for this new or different way of writing nonfiction. And to be honest, I think I began to succeed, to make inroads, because, for one thing, most faculty at the time did not want to teach this stuff—nonfiction—especially if it was called or related to journalism. It’s also true I was a bit of an interloper—I was a published author in what might be described as a more commercial vein (books about motorcycles, baseball, backwoods America, targeted to general audiences), a rarity in English departments. And worse, I was a lowly BA. No advanced degrees.

But in many ways, I was also fortunate; during this time, with student protests confronting the old guard on campuses, I got by as a token of change, tolerated but not yet completely accepted. I felt like a misbehaving adolescent, rough around the edges and not yet ready to grow up, learn the rules, and pay my dues. I didn’t even know how to pay my dues. There were few options. Creative-writing programs, ubiquitous today, were rare and in many ways faced resistance in English departments.

Of course, part of the resistance to creative-writing courses, generally, was just the kind of turf defending that goes on in any academic department, where resources can be unfortunately scarce. Giving a tenure slot to a novelist or a poet, after all, can mean losing a tenure slot and resources for research and travel for a literature PhD.

But I think the resistance to creative nonfiction as being part of creative writing went even deeper and had something to do with how we define literature. I remember one particularly contentious debate back in the early 1970s, after one of my students had made a presentation arguing for an entire course devoted to new journalism. (I’d been incorporating pieces into my classes, but there was no entire course devoted to the stuff.) One of the English professors slammed a pile of books—classics—down on the table; his argument, I think, was that my student should have to prove he’d read those works before he was remotely qualified to weigh in on the curriculum. Anyway, perhaps predictably, it turned into a heated debate about which particular works were classics, a debate the department chair ended by observing, “After all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here—not writing .”

(Were there women in the room? Of course there were.)

Now, what was going on here? Why didn’t these professors think of this writing as literary? And I mean not just contemporary works like In Cold Blood but the work that came before it, too—the nonfiction written by H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain, James Baldwin and Jack London, not to forget the father of English journalism, Daniel Defoe. And what about pioneering narrative journalists like Nellie Bly and Ida Tarbell? I guess I have a few theories.

First, the lack of a unifying name—what to call it—was definitely a complicating factor. “New journalism” wasn’t great because (the argument went, in English departments, at least) journalism was a trade, not a literary pursuit. There were other names floated—“the literature of fact,” “literary nonfiction,” “belles lettres” (which is what the National Endowment for the Arts was using at that time). But using the word “literary” to describe contemporary writing, meaning that a person would have to say “I write literary nonfiction” … well, that felt sort of presumptuous, didn’t it? “Creative” sort of had the same problem; who was to say what that meant, and it also sort of implied that other kinds of writing weren’t creative, and that didn’t feel good, especially to the scholars. And to the journalists, “creative” sounded like it meant you were making stuff up. As for “belles lettres,” well . . . it just sounded pretentious.

Even more than that, I think there was something about the writing itself—and the writers—that felt threatening. Not just because of the rule breaking. So much of this new nonfiction was about real people and events and was often quite revelatory. We were really a no-holds-barred crew. Wherever there was a story we were there, boots on the ground, bringing it to life—and often revealing the darkest side of things, of war, of poverty, of inherent societal racism. And revealing our own foibles and flaws along the way. And it wasn’t just Mailer and Capote and Baldwin who were writing this stuff, but real people capturing their own lives and struggles in dramatic detail. The “new” whatever you wanted to call it was truly an awakening.

Students, undergrads mostly, at first, especially recognized and were energized by the appeal. Suddenly the doors were open to other options far more interesting than the inverted pyramid or the five-paragraph essay, and considering these new possibilities for what to write about and, more important, how to write their stories was liberating, challenging, and downright enjoyable. Student interest and subsequent demand invariably led to more courses, and more courses led to more writers and scholars who would agree to teaching what had once seemed so controversial.

I should also point out that as the dialogue and debate about nonfiction began to grow, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was traveling widely. I got invitations from not just universities, but also book clubs and local conferences, from Wyoming to Birmingham to Boston, and met not only with students but also with many of these “real” people who wanted to write. Some were professionals—doctors, teachers, scientists—but there were also firefighters, ambulance drivers, and what we then called homemakers, all with stories to write. They, too, saw the appeal of this nonfiction form that let you tell stories and incorporate your experiences along with other information and ideas and personal opinions.

These folks cared much less than the academics did about what it was called. But—after the dust had settled to a certain extent in academia; after the English department at Pitt had agreed, first, to a course called “The New Nonfiction” and then, nearly two decades later, to a whole master’s program concentrating on creative nonfiction writing (the first in the country, I believe), which later became an MFA program; and after the NEA, in 1989 or so, also adopted the term “creative nonfiction,” a tipping point for sure—well, it mattered tremendously to those folks that it had a name, this kind of writing they wanted to do. It brought a validation to their work, to know that there was a place or a category where their work belonged. The writing itself wasn’t necessarily anything new—people had been doing it forever, if you knew where to look for it—but now people were paying attention to it, and they had something to call it.

And then, a little later, when this journal (now, this magazine) started publishing, in 1993, that added another form of legitimacy. And, in fact, work from many of those writers I met during those years on the road was published in the first few issues of Creative Nonfiction . In the early issues of the journal, we attracted all kinds of writers who were, perhaps, tired of being locked in or limited. We published journalists and essayists and poets, all of them exploring and reaching.

All of this did not happen overnight. English departments did not jump right in and embrace nonfiction; it was, as I have said, a much more gradual and often reluctant acceptance, but clearly an inevitable—and eventually gracious—one, maybe mostly for practical reasons. Creative writing programs were becoming quite profitable, especially at a time when literature and liberal arts majors were waning. Adding nonfiction brought in an entirely new breed of students, not just literary types, but those interested in science and economics or those students who were just interested in finding a job after graduation. Learning to write true stories in a compelling way could only enhance future opportunities.

It may well be that English departments resisted change for various reasons at the beginning, but they also opened the doors and provided a place—a destination—for all of us creative nonfictionists to come together, dialogue and share our work, and earn a certain legitimacy that had been denied to us at the very beginning. I had no idea at the time I started teaching that creative nonfiction would become such a mainstay, not just in the academy, but as a force and influence in literature and in publishing. That was not my intent, and I was certainly not the only “warrior” who took up the fight. But I don’t think this fight could have taken place anywhere else but in the academy, where intellectual discourse and opportunities for new ideas can so richly flourish and be recognized. I have no idea whether an outsider like me, beating the bushes for support of a genre or an idea that did not seem to exist, could survive in an English department or anywhere else in the academy today; the atmosphere, the politics, the financial pressures, the tone of the times is so very different.

Even then, it was very much a minor miracle that I, uncredentialled and tainted, as some thought, by commercialism, was accorded such an opportunity. And that all of my campaigning and annoying persistence were tolerated. It would have been easy to eliminate me. But as much of an interloper as I was, I was rarely shut down; I could always speak my mind. And even though many of my colleagues were pretty damn unhappy about the new journalism and, later, creative nonfiction, they eventually came to recognize the popularity and potential of this new genre and, I think, to respect and appreciate the dedication and excitement displayed by our nonfiction students.

As the program grew and other universities followed suit, we outliers not only began to fit in, but also began to thrive. We added depth and substance not just to writing programs, but to the entire department. And as our students published, won awards, became popular teachers in their own right, we added more than a little bit of prestige.

What happened at Pitt and later at other English departments isn’t so very different than what happened as our genre evolved. Fifty years ago, we were hardly a blip on the radar, an add-on or an afterthought, a necessary annoyance at best. Today, we are not just a part of the literary ecosystem, we are its most active and impactful contributors—leaders and change makers and motivators where we once did not belong.


Creative Nonfiction Issue 76

This essay originally appeared in Issue #76 of  Creative Nonfiction under the title “ I’d Like to Thank the Academy .”

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind

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University writing center, university writing center blog, on writing creative nonfiction, part 1: what is creative nonfiction.

By: Nathan M.

From our marvelous consultant Nathan, here is the first of three installments on writing creative nonfiction!

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When I first started writing creative nonfiction, I had the same anxieties that all my classmates seemed to: I didn’t think that my life was interesting enough that anyone would want to hear about it. I was a sophomore in college the first time I took a creative nonfiction class, and knew just enough about the world to understand how much I didn’t know. How could I possibly write essays about my life? The man who invented the word “essay,” one of the founding minds of the genre, Michel de Montaigne, shared similar misgivings ; in 1580, he said “I am myself the matter of my book…You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” So why did I feel so drawn to write in this genre?

One of my creative writing professors told me to “stick the finger into the wound” and write whatever what came out. I wrote like this for a while, but eventually concluded that if picking open old wounds is what made me interesting, then I’d much rather be boring. At the same time though, I was at a loss: if not the things that have happened to me, what was possibly interesting enough to write an essay about?

The more creative nonfiction I read, the more I understood that “creative nonfiction” is not just a fancy term for “memoir.” Memoir is a type of creative nonfiction, certainly, but Montaigne’s assessment of the form was somewhat reductive. Creative nonfiction encompasses everything that fiction isn’t ; anything that’s true about the world, structured in any form. It can lean so heavily into lyricism that it’s rubbing shoulders with poetry, as James Agee Knoxville’s “Summer of 1915” does, or it can tell the intimate details of someone’s life in a largely narrative form—and there’s a seemingly endless expanse between these two extremes to explore.

The thing that really set me free in the creative nonfiction world, however, was understanding that creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be about me; it merely has to be true. For example, Roxanne Gay’s acclaimed essay collection Bad Feminist is framed by her experiences, but it’s more broadly about what it means to be a feminist than it is about her as an individual. David Sedaris’s humorous essays are notable because of the perspective he brings to everyday events rather than because of the events themselves. Even Montaigne, whose reductive definition of creative nonfiction had at first terrified me, wrote essays that reached far outside the self. His famous essay “Of Cannibals”  is a grappling with morality and social norms; it’s about society, about humanity, and not at all about Montaigne’s life.  

Even works of creative nonfiction that fall into the memoir category don’t have to stick to one linear style of storytelling. Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 collection In The Dream House is a series of essays in different styles that all point back to her abusive relationship with her ex in different ways. She incorporates aspects of literary criticism and poetry. She writes about Dr. Who and queer villains in movies and a number of other things, and she combines it flawlessly with personal narrative. Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border tells the story of his time as a border patrol agent and what compelled him to leave, but it also works in surreal lyrical segments about his nightmares.

Creative nonfiction is just as much about how the story is told as it is about what the story is. It can be as much or as little about yourself as you want it to be. I’ve come to understand this genre not as another box to fit into but rather as the open space between poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and every other kind of writing I can think of. Anyone, regardless of what kind of life they’ve lived or what kind of writing they prefer, can make a space for themselves in creative nonfiction. The only restriction to the genre is that it has to have some foundation in truth—if not in lived experience, at least in things that are real, that have happened.

Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll talk more specifically about determining what “truth” means in creative nonfiction!

Catch Nathan’s next installment on creative nonfiction, coming February 25th!

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Humanities LibreTexts

2.1: What is Creative Nonfiction?

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  • Page ID 40373

  • Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap
  • City College of San Francisco via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative

Frederick Douglass (1879) by George Kendall Warren (from the National Archives and Records Administration)

"Frederick Douglass" by Frank W. Legg (c. 1879) is in the public domain

Frederick Douglass' creative nonfiction account of the horrors of slavery and his escape from it was so powerfully written that it is largely credited, along with Douglass' speeches, as helping end slavery and empower African-American citizens ( Ceasar ).

“I shut my ears, averted my eyes, turning instead to what I thought at the time was pain's antidote: silence. I was wrong... Silence feeds pain, allows it to fester and thrive. What starves pain, what forces it to release its grip, is speech, the voice upon which rides the story, this is what happened; this is what I have refused to let claim me.” ― Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light

This textbook begins with creative nonfiction because most students find it the most accessible. Why? Because students encounter nonfiction every day. News stories, some Facebook posts, and documentaries are all examples of nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the literary arm of nonfiction.

What is creative nonfiction? Currently, it is currently the most popular literary genre, with such titles as The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls having more than 5 million copies in circulation (Cadden). Indeed, "Creative nonfiction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonfiction titles more vigorously than literary fiction and poetry" (Gutkind). While generations past defined literature as poetry, drama, and fiction, Creative Nonfiction has increasingly gained popularity and recognition in the literary world. According to the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction , this fast-growing and increasingly popular genre is defined as: "true stories, well told" (Gutkind). That is, creative nonfiction stories depict real-life events, places, people, and experiences, but do so in a way that is immersive, so readers feel emotionally invested in the writing in a way they probably are not as invested in, say, a textbook or a more formal autobiography. While "nonfiction" (without the creative designation) tells true stories as well, there is less emphasis upon and space for creativity. If regular nonfiction were a person, it might say "just the facts, ma'am." Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, might ask "and what color were her eyes as the moonlight reflected off the ocean into them, and what childhood memories did that moment dredge up?"

The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic -- or literary -- way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. It can be more lyric and personal, like Annie Dillard's nature essays , or representing important moments in history, like abolitionist Frederick Douglass' The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) or Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter." They also might be more objective and scholarly, like many pieces of investigative journalism. Indeed, as long as humans have existed on this planet, we have been telling stories about our lives, and to make sense of our world.

To summarize the defining characteristics of this genre:

  • True stories
  • Prose (usually, though sometimes poetry)
  • Uses literary devices/is more creative and artistically-oriented than "regular" nonfiction
  • Often told in first person
  • The narrator is often the author or a persona of the author, but not always

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. It is worthwhile, then, to pay attention to the literary devices and other artistic choices the narrator makes. Readers should consider: what choices were made here about what to include and what to omit? Are there repeating images or themes? How might the historical context influence this work?

Works Cited

Cadden, Mary. "Book Buzz: Memoir 'The Glass Castle' cracks No. 1 ceiling." USA Today , 16 August 2017.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2017/08/16/book-buzz-memoir-the-glass-castle-cracks-no-1-ceiling/569422001/ Accessed 5 Oct. 2019.

Caesar, Rebecca. "Letters." University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project , 2005. Web.

https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4071 Accessed 14 Aug. 2019

Gutkind, Lee. "What is Creative Nonfiction?" Creative Nonfiction , 2012. Web.

https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/what-creative-nonfiction . Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Legg, Frank W. "Frederick Douglass." The National Archives, 1879. Web.

https://catalog.archives.gov/id/558770 . Accessed 14 Aug. 2019.

Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.

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  3. CREATIVE NONFICTION: Lesson 10: Revising the Draft Based on Desirable Qualities Q2/Week 10

  4. How to Write a Nonfiction Essay

  5. Drafting a Short Piece of Nonfiction || Creative Non-Fiction || Quarter 1 Week 7

  6. CREATIVE NONFICTION: LESSON 8: Writing a Mini Critique/ Q2 Week 8


  1. Creative Nonfiction: An Overview

    Writer Richard Terrill, in comparing the two forms, writes that the voice in creative nonfiction aims "to engage the empathy" of the reader; that, much like a poet, the writer uses "personal candor" to draw the reader in. Creative Nonfiction encompasses many different forms of prose. As an emerging form, CNF is closely entwined with ...

  2. Creative Nonfiction: What It Is and How to Write It

    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. ... Learn by reading: The best way to learn to write ...

  3. What Is Creative Nonfiction? Definitions, Examples, and Guidelines

    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 ...

  4. A Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

    A Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction. Written by MasterClass. Last updated: Sep 29, 2021 • 5 min read. Creative nonfiction uses various literary techniques to tell true stories. Writing creative nonfiction requires special attention to perspective and accuracy. Creative nonfiction uses various literary techniques to tell true stories.

  5. What Is Creative Nonfiction?

    On its very baseline creative nonfiction is a literary genre. Some people call it the fourth genre, along with poetry, fiction and drama. And it's an umbrella term for the many different ways one can write what is called creative nonfiction. Memoir, for example, personal essay, biography, narrative history and long form narrative reportage ...

  6. What Is Creative Nonfiction? Learn How to Write Creative Nonfiction

    Creative nonfiction is regarded by some readers as a more engaging form of nonfiction. Here are some of the defining characteristics of creative nonfiction: Emphasis on building a narrative. Readers respond to stories, not lists of facts. Avoidance of overly technical terms. You don't need to master nomenclature to understand a topic on a ...

  7. Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction

    Step 2: Personal Response. The first step in writing a literary comparison essay is to choose your base text-in this case an essay from the Creative Non-fiction Anthology in the next chapter. Once you've chosen an essay, read it carefully using the tips in this chapter and write a personal response.

  8. Creative Nonfiction: How to Spin Facts into Narrative Gold

    Creative nonfiction is not limited to novel-length writing, of course. Popular radio shows and podcasts like WBEZ's This American Life or Sarah Koenig's Serial also explore audio essays and documentary with a narrative approach, while personal essays like Nora Ephron's A Few Words About Breasts and Mariama Lockington's What A Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew also ...

  9. FROM THE EDITOR: The Creative Nonfiction Approach

    According to McPhee, "The Conching Rooms" is one of his favorite "Talk" pieces. When told that Creative Nonfiction planned to unveil this rare "hidden McPhee," he was delighted. He told a story about how the highly refined taste buds of the principal character in the essay, Bill Wagner, who alone determined that the chocolate being ...

  10. A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

    8. Creative Nonfiction; Based on actual events; Suggested by a true event; Based on a true story. It's a slippery slope. 7. The Creative Nonfiction Quarterly is only read by eleven people. Five have the same last name. 6. Creative Nonfiction settings may only include: hospitals, concentration camps, prisons and cemeteries.

  11. What Is Creative Nonfiction in Writing?

    The point, as Gutkind shares above, is that creative nonfiction is often residing at the intersection of "the truth" and "a well-told story." If you have those elements, you're well on your way to writing creative nonfiction. *****. Personal essays are appealing first-person stories found in magazines, newspapers, anthologies, and collections.

  12. A Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

    If you're inspired to write a literary journalistic article, personal essay, biography, or any other piece of creative nonfiction, read on to learn more about these points: 1. Don't Make Anything Up. Everything you say in creative nonfiction must be true (the clue's in the name).

  13. FROM THE EDITOR: The "Truth and Consequences" of Creative Nonfiction

    Lee Gutkind. Editor. Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can't Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction-from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many ...

  14. 2.1: What is Creative Nonfiction?

    The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic -- or literary -- way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in ...

  15. The New Outliers: How Creative Nonfiction Became a Legitimate, Serious

    December 13, 2021. Many of my students, and even some younger colleagues, think—assume—that creative nonfiction is just part of the literary ecosystem; it's always been around, like fiction or poetry. In many ways, of course, they are right: the kind of writing that is now considered to be under the creative nonfiction umbrella has a long ...

  16. On Writing Creative Nonfiction, Part 1: What Is Creative Nonfiction

    Creative nonfiction encompasses everything that fiction isn't; anything that's true about the world, structured in any form. It can lean so heavily into lyricism that it's rubbing shoulders with poetry, as James Agee Knoxville's "Summer of 1915" does, or it can tell the intimate details of someone's life in a largely narrative ...

  17. 2: Creative Nonfiction

    By the end of this chapter, students will be able to: define Creative Nonfiction and understand the basic features of the genre. identify basic literary elements (such as setting, plot, character, descriptive imagery, and figurative language) perform basic literary analysis. craft a personal narrative essay using the elements of Creative ...

  18. Putting the "Creative" in Nonfiction

    We eventually learned—thanks to Chris Doody's research—that, in fact, the term creative non-fiction was introduced and adopted as a prize category at the January 16, 1943, meeting of the CAA. Later, Bruce Hutchison won the inaugural Governor General's Award for Creative Non-fiction for his autobiography The Unknown Country.

  19. 7.1: Creative Nonfiction as a Genre

    Creative nonfiction seems to have existed for as long as poetry, fiction, and drama have, but only in the last forty years or so has the term become common as a label for creative, factual prose. The length is not a factor in characterizing this genre: Such prose can take the form of an essay or a book. For this chapter's discussion, we will ...

  20. 2.1: What is Creative Nonfiction?

    The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic -- or literary -- way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in ...

  21. The Building Blocks of Personal Essay

    Week 1: Detail and Description. This week we will put a handful of classic personal essays under our critical lens to discuss the DNA of creative nonfiction—concrete details. We will also discuss some strategies for developing evocative descriptions. Students will be asked to complete a 500-word optional writing assignment that puts these ...

  22. Most Read in 2021

    In that spirit, we've compiled the most-read pieces published on our website in 2021, as well as the most-read work from our archives. And for good measure, we've pulled together a few pieces worth an honorable mention; our favorite Sunday Short Reads; CNF content that was republished elsewhere; and the best advice, inspiration, and think ...