What Is Literary Nonfiction (Guide for Writers)

Posted on Aug 2, 2022

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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If you’re a nonfiction writer, chances are you’re interested in literary nonfiction. Whether you’ve written nonfiction for your entire writing career, or you’re just starting out, literary nonfiction can help take your writing to the next level. 

Literary nonfiction employs creative techniques that will likely hook your readers quickly. While the term itself may seem a bit overwhelming and ambiguous, we will break it down so you have a better understanding of exactly what it is and why to use it.

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In this guide to literary nonfiction we discuss: 

Feel free to grab a piece of paper or open the notes on your phone so you can directly apply the lessons from this article to your specific writing. 

Now if you’re ready, let’s jump in!

What Is Literary Nonfiction?

Literary nonfiction is simply a synonym for creative nonfiction. If you know what the term creative nonfiction is, then you know what the term literary nonfiction is. 

According to Senjuti Patra on the Book Riot, literary nonfiction is, “An umbrella term that includes all writing that is based in reality and has been written with specific attention to the craft of writing, using literary techniques to talk about subjects that are not made up.”

Writers are often taught to employ the creative writing techniques they learn to their nonfiction. Just as fiction must have great characters, a compelling plot, and a worthy villain, nonfiction must be just as compelling. 

A great way to ensure this happens is by writing in a way that uses creative techniques. For instance, if you are writing your memoir, consider you yourself as the protagonist. The plot is the story of your life. 

Employing creative writing techniques to your nonfiction writing will help engage readers and keep them turning pages. 

Literary nonfiction is simply a way to present nonfiction in a creative, engaging way. Regardless of genre, there is a crossover in writing techniques between both fiction and nonfiction. 

(Note: Academic writing is one of the main exceptions to this.)

There is an important topic to discuss before jumping into writing literary nonfiction: Employing creative writing techniques to nonfiction must not negate the truth of your writing. When plotting a fictional book, there is an understanding between you, the writer, and your readers that not everything in your book will be fact. That is the fun of fiction writing. You get to create whatever you want and you get to determine the rules of your storyworld. 

However, when you apply fiction writing techniques to nonfiction, this mutual understanding does not apply. In nonfiction, there is a mutual understanding between you and your readers that what you write is fact. While you can employ fiction techniques to your writing ( tips for creating a standout protagonist, story structure, or using the five senses to draw your reader into the moment) what you write must be truthful.

The difference between creative fiction writing and literary nonfiction writing is that fiction does not need to be all fact, while literary nonfiction must.

If you want to maintain your credibility as a writer and honor your readers’ investment in your story, your literary nonfiction must hold up to factual scrutiny.

This leads into the question…

What Are Examples Of Literary Nonfiction?

One example of literary nonfiction is a personal essay. An essay is nonfiction, but writing it from your point of view allows you to use creative writing techniques. However, just as there are types of fiction, there are types of literary nonfiction. Other examples include lyrical memoir, narrative journalism, and narrative history.

An example of lyrical memoir is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. In a review, James Baldwin says, “…Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.” Lyrical memoir crafts prose much like poetry, while still employing nonfiction to communicate a larger theme. For more info on memoirs, check out this article.

An example of narrative journalism is Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer and The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. Both stories cover factual events as a journalist would, but add in narrative that creates a more engaging read.

An example of narrative history is 12 Years a Slave: A Slave Narrative, by Solomon Northup. Northup’s memoir provides a detailed account of his experience being born free in New York, kidnapped in 1841, and rescued from a cotton plantation in 1853. Goodreads says, “He provided details of slave markets in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, as well as describing at length cotton and sugar cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.” This book is a prime example of narrative history. 

Is Literary Nonfiction Informational?

At its core, literary nonfiction is informational as its present facts in a way that draws readers in. Some may argue that literary nonfiction has even more power to present information because of the engaging way in which it is portrayed. 

If we consider the three methods of persuasion, ethos, pathos, and logos, nonfiction often focuses on ethos and logos, while literally nonfiction employs pathos.  

Rather than simply stating facts, literary nonfiction presents facts in a way that focuses on the true emotion of the moment. 

When presenting information, at times, credibility and logic can hold more sway, but sometimes reaching for the heart is the most effective way to communicate a theme. iterary nonfiction uses pathos to do so.

How Is Literary Nonfiction Different From Fiction?

Literary nonfiction differs from fiction in that it is by nature, fact.

For example, let’s consider the Great Depression. Kristin Hannah’s, The Four Winds, is the fictional account of her protagonist, set during the Dust Bowl. It follows her protagonist’s journey and includes facts from this time period.

However, while her protagonist’s journey reflect the facts of the time period, the story is simply that, a story.  The reader opens the first page with the understanding that there will be plot points and situations presented that are not at all factual. While the author likely did quite a bit of research to make sure her book accurately reflected the time period, the characters read about were not real people.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan, is, as it’s subtitle states, a true story. The people written about in this story truly lived during the Dust Bowl. The Worst Hard Time shares their real stories and is understood to be fact. 

The difference between The Four Winds and The Worst Hard Time is that The Four Winds is the fictional account of a created character. The Worst Hard Time is the factual, true, researched story of real people. 

How To Start Writing Literary Nonfiction

If you want to start writing literary nonfiction, it is crucial to start learning creative writing techniques.

Because there are a variety of techniques you can learn, it may feel overwhelming when you begin your journey. Rather than plunge you into the deep end, below is a list of techniques to focus on as you begin. This is not an exhaustive list, but it can help get you started in your pursuit of literary nonfiction.

First, show, don’t tell: Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it is important to show your reader what you are presenting rather than simply tell facts. Of course, some nonfiction demands telling, but overall, regardless of genre, it is beneficial to show.

There is a difference between showing versus telling.

Telling would look like this, “The Dust Bowl was an extremely difficult time. People had to breathe through wet clothes when storms came, and some people developed serious side effects.”

Showing would look like this, “He dampened a cloth with their scarce supply of water and quickly wrapped it around his nose and mouth. The storm would worsen before it got better. Huddled beneath the table, silt falling around him, he thought of his dad at the hospital. Hopefully he will make it.” 

Next, the five senses: Employing the five senses can drastically change the power of your story. Think of it as describing a scene versus sensing a scene. 

Describing: Fall came cold that year. She had to wear layers to combat the wind and rain. 

Sensing: She was glad she’d put on an extra sweater, but wind still found its way between the buttons. The dampness of walking through too many puddles made her shiver. That second pair of socks wasn’t helping as much as she’d hoped.

Next up is research: No matter what you write, research is important. For literary nonfiction, research is absolutely crucial. When you write fiction, it’s important to get small details correct. If you’re writing fantasy, you may want to look up ancient cultural norms or maps of previous civilizations to add the ring of truth to your writing. When it comes to writing literary nonfiction, research is arguably twice as important. Not only do you need to get the literary techniques correct, but that ring of truth must be there. Take the time you need, and make sure you layer in your research rather than simply dumping it all at the beginning. An information dump will bore your reader.

Story structure: Story structure for literary nonfiction is just as important as it is for fiction. As you write your story, consider how you can use story structure to emphasize the importance of your facts. If we stick with our example of the Dust Bowl, structuring your story chronologically to follow a person’s life may hold more weight when you get to their struggles (not bringing in a crop, losing their farm, going west, whatever it is for your nonfiction story). The reader feels they have essentially grown up with the protagonist. 

On the other hand, you could structure your story using literary techniques that do not follow chronological order. Maybe you’re writing an as-told-to story and want to start in present day, then jump back to childhood. Whatever you choose, do what is best for the story. 

Parting Advice…

As you begin writing literary nonfiction, don’t get too overwhelmed with the process. Keep careful notes so that as you review and edit, you can fact check as necessary. You may also want to consider hiring a beta reader who is educated on the specific time period you are writing about. They may be able to catch inconsistencies you might miss.

Whatever type of literary nonfiction you choose to write, combine truth with literary techniques and take it one word, one sentence, and one page at a time.

Writing is accomplished with persistence. Do your research, learn the techniques, and enjoy the process!

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