What is creative nonfiction? 

Creative nonfiction is “true stories, told well,” according to Creative Nonfiction magazine, a pioneer in publishing this genre since 1993. “True stories” covers a multitude of types of stories from biographies to accounts of scientific discoveries, from personal memoirs to travel journals. The “told well” distinction refers to the quality of the writing. Good creative nonfiction narratives engage the reader with compelling characters, interesting events, detailed settings, and even the writer’s own emotions. Creative nonfiction combines the appeal and enjoyment of a good “can’t-put-it-down” novel with the facts of a true account.

In the long history of book writing and publishing, “creative nonfiction” is a very new classification label, only going back some 40 years or so. However, well-written accounts of true events and real people were around long before the appearance of the novel. 

Creative nonfiction trends

Right now, in the publishing world, nonfiction – including creative nonfiction – is hot, hot, hot! Book buyers’ hunger for the genre has literally turned publishing upside down in the United States. According to a Penguin-Random House study, annual sales for adult trade fiction and nonfiction were almost balanced for the first time in history in 2014, with nonfiction at $4.97 billion and fiction at $4.9 billion. However, in just three years adult nonfiction soared to $6.18 billion with adult fiction dropping its share of the book market to $4.38 – and the growth trend continues. 

While how-to and self-help books, along with reference works, represent a big chunk of nonfiction, creative nonfiction sales have grown dramatically and dominated bestseller lists. A growing number of self-published authors write creative nonfiction. These writers go beyond the basic facts to share interesting stories that are also a pleasure to read.  

Popular types of creative nonfiction

  1. Life stories are very popular for readers. Third-person biographies and first-person autobiographies typically cover a whole lifespan. Memoirs are first-person narratives that typically cover a particular time in one’s life or focus on a theme, such as memories from growing up in the 1950s or a personal sports memoir. 
  2. Historical accounts describe events and eras with strong stories about the people and the places. Details and background information bring history alive. 
  3. Travel journals may provide some information found in guidebooks, but creative nonfiction travel books also tell fascinating stories about the people and places.
  4. Literary journalism books dig deeper into a topic or area of study, such as a true crime story, an account of a natural phenomenon, or an overview of a social movement. The author tells the story through real characters, dialogue and behind-the-scenes details that move forward the story. His or her own perspectives and commentary add depth.

Creative nonfiction do’s and don’ts

  • Do tell the truth. If you embellish facts, make up characters, or change a story, then you are writing fiction. If you want to write with that kind of creativity, write a novel instead.
  • Do focus on bringing your people to life for your readers. Help them see your main characters as real individuals with background about what makes them tick. 
  • Do use the elements of good storytelling. When appropriate, build a sense of suspense.  Look for conflicts and obstacles for characters that can be resolved or overcome.
  • Don’t get too technical in conveying information or bogged down with dates, facts, and overexplaining. This is not a report, but a story that can hold a reader’s attention.
  • Don’t hesitate to include your own reactions and perspectives to enrich the narrative, but be sure to differentiate between your opinions and the facts. 
  • Don’t wait for some “right moment” to start your writing project, such as waiting until all your research is done. Just begin writing: a book grows by one page at a time. 

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