So, you’ve decided to become a writer.
Alright, let’s get our character sheet up, let’s build exciting fictional worlds and create mind-bending plot twists, let’s…
But hold on. Fiction writers aren’t the only kind there is. In fact, adult nonfiction reportedly generates the most revenue in the US market and constitutes almost half of the total book sales.
From travel guides and academic papers to journalism and self-help books, nonfiction writing plays a major role in the book market, and becoming a nonfiction author is a route as viable as any.
First Things First: What Is Nonfiction?
Nonfiction is any type of writing that is not fictional. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to tell a story; many nonfiction books do precisely that, especially when it comes to the memoir or self-help genres.
However, your story should be anchored in reality and should offer:
- Personal opinions & experiences
- True descriptions
- A mix of all three
4 Major Types of Nonfiction
There are dozens of nonfiction genres, and each comes with its own specific requirements – if you’re writing an academic article, you will naturally assume a different style than you would in a cookbook.
Luckily, most nonfiction works can be sorted into four categories:
- Narrative writing
- Persuasive writing
- Expository writing
- Descriptive writing
#1 Narrative Nonfiction & Examples
This type of nonfiction writing resembles fiction the most as it uses storytelling to draw the reader in and take them on a journey.
Narrative nonfiction comprises mostly memoirs, biographies & autobiographies, and narrative journalism (articles that use storytelling to give an account of real events).
However, all types of nonfiction can draw on narrative principles, such as when a self-help author uses personal experiences to illustrate a point or when a history author combines historical facts into a true and fascinating story.
Some characteristics of narrative writing are:
- Using a story arc to convey real-life events in an engaging way (exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution)
- Writing in a distinct voice and style
- Applying colourful descriptions and a show-don’t-tell technique
“My mother is floating into view, her green dress billowing like a gossamer wing; her long, gold hair throwing light like a tungsten filament; her all-American, Hollywood face alive with expectation. At her side is my Peruvian father – black-haired, handsome, smiling and shouting Spanish over his shoulder, waving a bottle in his fist as if he were a carnival banker on opening day.” – Marie Arana, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood
#2 Persuasive Nonfiction & Examples
As the title suggests, persuasive nonfiction is all about presenting your arguments in a convincing, research-backed way. The goal is to change your reader’s perspective on a certain topic or contribute extra value to their established worldview.
Persuasive nonfiction includes academic papers, book reviews, editorials, or self-help books (self-help can also be related to specific fields, such as entrepreneurship).
Some characteristics of persuasive writing are:
- Presenting a central idea and arranging facts around it to create convincing arguments
- Addressing potential counterarguments
- Prioritizing facts over an appeal to emotions (the latter can, however, create a bond with the reader, so don’t completely count it out, especially in self-help nonfiction)
Example (Philosophical Article):
“Part of the problem, though, is surely in the popular conception of happiness. For most of us, it seems it is just what I indicated above: an emotion, an experience, a feeling – and worse, a feeling that comes primarily in response to situations beyond our control. However, even the mention of ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence should, if we think about it, alert us to a certain incoherence in that conception. For if happiness is a feeling, then how can it be promised us as a right?” – Stephen Anderson, Hap & Happiness in Philosophy Now, Issue 155: April/May 2023
#3 Expository Nonfiction & Examples
Expository nonfiction is less about persuasion or storytelling and more about the sharing of information. If you enjoy researching a certain topic in-depth and are keen on spreading your knowledge, this type of nonfiction writing is perfect for you.
This category is very broad, including genres such as cookbooks, history books, textbooks, how-to manuals, children’s nonfiction, encyclopedias, or language-learning materials.
Some characteristics of expository writing are:
- Clear and organized structure
- Sharing information that is supported by strong evidence and is factually correct
- Concise and cut-to-the-point writing style
Example (Crochet Manual):
“You’ll start Round 2 by working into the chain-2 space that was formed by the ch 2 you made at the beginning of Round 1. You’ll finish the round in the same way, working into the chain-2 space you made at the end of Round 2.” – Sarah Stearns at SarahMaker (2023)
#4 Descriptive Nonfiction & Examples
Descriptive writing relies on vivid imagery and detail-infused depictions to relay information to the reader.
Descriptive nonfiction authors are excellent at transmitting the atmosphere of a place into the minds of readers, creating a rich emotional experience.
An excellent example is a travel guide, as well as advertisements for specific destinations and products.
Some characteristics of descriptive writing are:
- High focus on sensory experience
- Creating vivid images in the reader’s mind
- Prioritizing description over action
Example (Travel Article):
“This is a quintessential slow-train experience. Gaze down at bright green-blue mountain rivers right next to you, marvel at the tiny single-track tunnels hewn into the sides of the mountains by railway workers in the early 1900s, relax as you enjoy the sights of seasonal forests and rice fields…” – John Walton at Lonely Planet (2023)
RELATED READ: How to Structure Your Memoir with Kristin McTiernan
4 Tips for Writing Nonfiction
While both fiction and nonfiction writing rely on your talent with words and structure, the similarities pretty much end there.
Nonfiction abides by some specific rules that you ought to keep in mind when drafting your work:
Plan your outline chapter by chapter. Whilst fiction can freely take you places (writers who don’t outline beforehand are called “pantsers”), nonfiction is grounded in facts and concise arguments that need to be thoroughly organized before you set out to write.
Remember that even nonfiction ought to resonate with the reader and draw them in. The best way to do this is by leveraging some elements of narrative writing, speaking of personal experiences, and using an emotive language where appropriate. Careful, though – genre is very important when it comes to your writing style. For instance, manuals or maths textbooks call for simple and objective language.
Structure your work in an interesting way that keeps the reader engaged. For example, a parenting manual can have chapters structured like a house – the ground floor covers the basics, the attic goes over secret tips, and so on. You can also use flashbacks, a mosaic structure, or a simple three-act structure. If you’re engaging in narrative writing, it’s recommended to begin in medias res – “in the middle of things.” This hooks the reader straight away.
Learn how to research effectively and find a nonfiction editor who will bring your work to the next level. Both make it so that your work is the highest quality it can be.
Now that you know all about the four major nonfiction categories and how to ensure your work grips your readers’ hearts, it’s time to set to work!
Experiment, dip your toes in various genres, and most of all, read widely. Reading books in your target genre is the best way to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Good luck, and have fun writing!