People browsing books usually scan the cover for the title, author, and whoever wrote the foreword. Then they glance at the back cover.
If intrigued, they’ll turn to the first chapter.
Your first paragraph—from the first sentence—must compel your reader to continue.
The power of creative nonfiction comes from using a technique common in fiction—rendering a visual to trigger the theater of the readers’ minds.
Certain stories should be told exactly as they happened. Take it from a novelist who also writes nonfiction: You don’t have to resort to fiction to captivate readers. Creative nonfiction is often the best way to go.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
Also referred to as literary or narrative nonfiction (and sometimes literary journalism), the term can be confusing. “Creative” is usually associated with make-believe. So can nonfiction be creative?
It not only can, but should be to gain the attention of an agent or publisher—and ultimately your readership.
Unlike academic and technical writing (and even objective journalism), creative nonfiction uses many of the techniques and devices employed in fiction to tell a compelling true story. The goal is the same as in fiction: a story well told.
Some nonfiction narratives carry a literary flair every bit as beautiful as classic novels.
My very favorite book ever, Rick Bragg’s memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, won rave reviews all over the country. Bragg’s haunting, poetic prose was a byproduct of the point of his book, not the reason for it.
The Best Creative Nonfiction Writers Are…
1. Avid readers.
Writers are readers. Good writers are good readers. Great writers are great readers.
Read everything you can find in your genre before trying to write in it.
You’ll quickly learn the conventions and expectations, what works and what doesn’t.
2. Focused on the heart, but not preachy.
Creative nonfiction consists of an emotionally powerful message that moves readers, potentially changing their lives. But don’t preach. True art gives your reader credit for getting the point.
Readers love to be educated and entertained, but move them emotionally and they’ll never forget it.
Employing fictional literary tools doesn’t mean being loose with the facts. Become an avid researcher.
Your story should be:
Are you being objective or spinning your own angle?
Your research should contribute to real stories well told.
Remember to use your research to season your main course—the point of your book. Resist the urge to show off all you learned with an information dump.
4. Rule followers.
Writing a story is like building a house—if the foundation’s not solid, even the most beautiful structure won’t stand.
Experts agree that these 7 elements must exist in a story (follow the links to study further).
5. Not afraid to get personal.
Include your unique voice and perspective, even if the book or story is not about you.
6. Creative (pun intended).
Readers bore quickly, so don’t just review a Chinese restaurant—explain how they get that fortune inside the cookie without getting it soggy.
Don’t just write a standard business piece on a store. Profile one of its most loyal customers.
Autobiography: First We Have Coffee by Margaret Jensen, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Biography: A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Huffman Rockness, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, John Adams by David McCullough, Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
Memoir: All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, Cultivate by Lara Casey, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
How-to: Reconcilable Differences by Jim Talley, the …For Dummies guides, The Magical Power of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris
Motivational: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, The Seven Decisions by Andy Andrews, Intentional Living by John Maxwell
Christian Living: Chasing God by Angie Smith, The Search for Significance by Robert McGee, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman, Boundaries by John Townsend, Love Does by Bob Goff
Children’s Books: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak
Inspirational: Joni by Joni Eareckson Tada with Joe Musser, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, Undone: A Story of Making Peace with an Unexpected Life by Michele Cushatt, You’ve Gotta Keep Dancin’ by Tim Hansel
Expository: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Desiring God by John Piper, Breaker Boys: How a Photograph Helped End Child Labor by Michael Burgan, Who Was First? Discovering the Americas by Russell Freedman, The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
Time to Get to Work
Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story. The stories we tell can live for years in the hearts of readers.
Do you have an idea, an insight, a challenge, or an experience you long to share?
Don’t let it rest just because of all the work it takes. If it was easy, anybody could do it.
Master the best practices I’ve shared above so you can do justice to the important stories you have to tell.
For additional help writing creative nonfiction:
- How to Write Your Memoir: A 5-Step Guide and How to Start Writing Your Memoir
- How to Write an Anecdote and Why Stories Bring Your Nonfiction to Life
- How to Write a Devotional: The Definitive Guide
- How to Edit a Book: 7 Steps for Becoming a Ferocious Self Editor