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Writing Creative Nonfiction

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February 2010

What is creative nonfiction? It involves writing about personal experience, real people, or events. It is writing about fact, rather than fiction. The writer can write about anything, such as a personal experience, current events, or issues in the public eye. The writer can also inject personal thoughts, feelings, or opinions into the writing. Often, the writer uses the first person “I.” Popular types of creative nonfiction include the personal essay, memoir, autobiography, literary journalistic essay, travel writing, and food writing. Creative nonfiction is also known as “Literary Journalism.”

This article identifies the techniques of creative nonfiction, defines the various types of creative nonfiction, provides some guidelines, and lists several popular books and several resources to help the aspiring writing learn the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction.


How to Write Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer produces a  personal essay, memoir, travel piece, and so forth, with  a variety of  techniques, writing tools, and  methods. He/she is required to use the elements of nonfiction, literary devices of fiction, and what Lee Gutkind called “the 5 Rs of Creative nonfiction.”  The following is a brief explanation of each:

Elements of Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer often incorporates several elements of nonfiction when writing a memoir, personal essay, travel writing, and so on. The following is a brief explanation of the most common elements of nonfiction:

  • Fact. The writing must be based on fact, rather than fiction. It cannot be made up.
  • Extensive research. The piece of writing is based on primary research, such as an interview or personal experience, and often secondary research, such as gathering information from books, magazines, and newspapers.
  • Reportage/reporting. The writer must be able to document events or  personal experiences.
  • Personal experience and personal opinion. Often, the writer includes personal experience, feelings, thoughts, and opinions. For instance, when writing a personal essay or memoir.
  • Explanation/Exposition. The writer is required to explain the personal experience or topic to the reader.
  • Essay format. Creative nonfiction is often written in essay format. Example: Personal Essay, Literary Journalistic essay, brief essay.

Literary Elements

Creative nonfiction is the literature of fact. Yet, the creative nonfiction writer utilizes many of the literary devices of fiction writing.  The following is a list of the most common literary devices that writers incorporate into their nonfiction writing:

  • Storytelling/narration. The writer needs to be able to tell his/her story. A good story includes an inciting incident, a goal, challenges and obstacles, a turning point, and resolution of the story.
  • Character. The nonfiction piece often requires a main character. Example: If a writer is creating his/her memoir, then the writer is the central character.
  • Setting and scene. The writer creates scenes that are action-oriented; include dialogue; and contain vivid descriptions.
  • Plot and plot structure. These are the main events that make up the story. In a personal essay, there might be only one event. In a memoir, there are often several significant events.
  • Figurative language. The writer often uses simile and metaphor to create an interesting piece of creative nonfiction.
  • Imagery. The writer constructs “word pictures” using sensory language. Imagery can be figurative or literal.
  • Point of view. Often the writer uses the first person “I.”
  • Dialogue. These are the conversations spoken between people. It is an important component of creative nonfiction.
  • Theme. There is a central idea that is weaved through the essay or work. Often, the theme reveals a universal truth.

The 5’Rs of Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind, who is a writer, professor, and expert on creative nonfiction, wrote an essay called “The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction.” In this essay, he identified five essential elements of creative nonfiction. These include:

  1. Creative nonfiction has a “real life” aspect. The writer constructs a personal essay, memoir, and so forth, that is based on personal experience.  He also writes about real people and true events.
  2. Creative nonfiction is based on the writer engaging in personal “reflection” about what he/she is writing about. After gathering information, the writer needs to analyze and assess what he/she has collected. He then must evaluate it and expression his thoughts, views, opinions. Personal opinion is permissible and encouraged.
  3. Creative nonfiction requires that the writer complete research. The writer needs to conduct research to learn about the topic. The writer also needs to complete research to discover what has been written about the topic. Even if a writer is crafting a personal essay, he will need to complete secondary research, such as reviewing a personal journal, or primary research, such as interviewing a friend or family member, to ensure that the information is truthful and factual.
  4. The fourth aspect of creative nonfiction is reading. Reading while conducting research is not sufficient. The writer must read the work of the masters of his profession.
  5. The final element of creative nonfiction is writing. Writing creative nonfiction is both an art and craft. The art of creative nonfiction requires that the writer uses his talents, instincts, creative abilities, and imagination to write memorable creative nonfiction. The craft of creative nonfiction requires that the writer learn and deploy the style and techniques of creative nonfiction in his/her work.

Types of Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is about fact and truth.  The truth can be about a personal experience, event, or issue in the public eye. There are many categories or genres to choose from, such as the personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.  The following is a list of the most popular types of creative nonfiction:

  • Personal Essay. The writer crafts and essay that is based on personal experience or a single event, which results in significant personal meaning or a lesson learned. The writer uses the first person “I.”
  • Memoir. The writer constructs a true story about a time or period in his/life, one that had significant personal meaning and a universal truth. The writer composes the story using the first person “I.”
  • Literary journalism essay. The writer crafts an essay about an issue or topic using literary devices, such as the elements of fiction and figurative language.
  • Autobiography. The writer composes his/her life story, from birth to the present, using the first person “I.”
  • Travel Writing. The writer crafts articles or essays about travel using literary devices.
  • Food writing. The writer crafts stories about food and cuisine using literary devices.
  • Profiles. The writer constructs biographies or essays on real people using literary devices.

Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Not only must the aspiring writer of creative nonfiction learn the techniques, but he/she also requires a good understanding of the guidelines. The following are 12 guidelines for writing any type of creative nonfiction:

  1. Research the topic. Both primary (interview, personal experience, or participant observation) and secondary research (books, magazines, newspaper, Web)
  2. Never invent or change facts.  An invented story is fiction.
  3. Provide accurate information. Write honestly and truthfully. Information should be verifiable.
  4. Provide concrete evidence. Use facts, examples, and quotations.
  5. Use humour to make an important point.
  6. Show the reader what happened, don’t tell them what happened. To do this, dramatize the story.
  7. Narrate the story. A story has an inciting incident, goal, conflict, challenges, obstacles, climax, and resolution.
  8. Write about the interesting and extraordinary. Write about personal experiences, interesting people,  extraordinary events, or provide a unique perspective on everyday life.
  9. Organize the information. Two common techniques are chronological or logical order.
  10. Use literary devices to tell the story. Choose language that stimulates and entertains the reader, such as simile, metaphor, imagery.
  11. Introduce the essay or other work with a hook. Its purpose is to grab the readers’ attention and compel them to reader further. Popular hooks include a quotation, question, or thought-provoking fact.
  12. End the creative nonfiction piece with a final, important point. Otherwise the reader will think, “So what!” “What was the point? It was an interesting story, but how does it apply to me or my life?”

Reading List

There have been many creative nonfiction books written about a wide variety of topics, such as divorce, abuse, and happiness. To help the aspiring writer learn the art and craft of creative nonfiction, he/she ought read creative nonfiction books by the best writers. By doing this, the writer acquires an appreciation for good writing and  learns how creative nonfiction is written. Some of the most popular creative nonfiction books include:

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
  • Paper Lion by George Plimpton
  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolf

As well, there are several good books that are currently on many bestseller lists:

  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The White Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi
  • Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  • Nigh by Elie Wiesel


There are also many popular magazines that publish all types of creative nonfiction, including:


Resources for the Aspiring Writer

To write creative nonfiction, the aspiring writer must learn the craft.  He/she can do this by taking a course or through self-study. Both involve reading text books. The following books will help the aspiring writer learn how to write creative nonfiction:

  • Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality by Gary Talese
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore
  • Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth edited by Bill Roorbach
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition): The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers.

Next, I will explain how to write a lead and ending.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blogs.


  1. Miriam Evers says:

    Hi Dave, I am writing a memoir and found this a very helpful article. Thank you very much. I’m currently studying “Eat Pray Love.”

  2. Nadia Angela Nanus says:

    I’m a first year student at thee international university of management pursuing a marketing degree, want to improve my writing skills at the same time thinking of pursuing writing, this was xtremly helpful. thanks

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