Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What is Literary Nonfiction?

Written material can be divided into two basic categories: fiction, which is writing that reflects the author’s inventions, and nonfiction, which is writing rooted in fact and real events. The field of nonfiction can be further broken down into two categories, informational and literary. Informational nonfiction is written to convey facts to readers, such as textbooks and instructional brochures. What is literary nonfiction? The literary nonfiction definition encompasses writing that is structured using literary styles and techniques while being rooted in reality, such as actual events, people, and facts. Creative nonfiction is another term that describes literary nonfiction.

Features of Literary Nonfiction

The literary nonfiction definition suggests that writing tactics more commonly associated with fictional storytelling are applied to true texts. The following table captures some features and story elements common to literary nonfiction.

Feature Explanation
Plot The term plot refers to the shape of the story. A common plot structure is an introduction, conflict, rising action, climax, and falling action. Much literary nonfiction follows a classic plot structure.
Setting The setting is where and when the story takes place. Literary nonfiction includes information and descriptions of the text’s setting.
Characters In literary nonfiction, characters play an important part in conveying the factual information and giving the text personality and relatability.
Descriptive Imagery Descriptive imagery is used to paint a picture with words. Authors often rely on words that appeal to the five senses to create vivid word images. Descriptive imagery often adds depth and immediacy to literary nonfiction.
Figurative Language Figurative language is any language that is not strictly literal, such as metaphor and symbolism. These techniques add flair and interest to literary nonfiction.
Tone Rather than the factual, no-nonsense tone of informational nonfiction, literary nonfiction may employ a tone that is more creative or personal.

The use of these writing features in literary nonfiction can make the text more appealing to a broader reader base.

Literary Nonfiction Examples

Literary nonfiction examples represent a wide variety of titles. Here are just a few texts that fit the literary nonfiction category.

  • The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present by Phillip Lopate: This collection contains essays on a variety of topics from famous American figures. The essay format presents personal opinions and values.
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah: In this memoir, the author recounts his personal experience as a child soldier. A memoir is a real event written in story format.
  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: This text takes a scientific topic, the human body, and explores factual information in a narrative format.
  • Robin Williams: The Life of a Comedian, a Biography by Justin Kirby: In this biography, the author tells the life story of a well-known actor and comedian.

These examples represent the fields of memoir, biography, science writing, and essay, four branches of the literary nonfiction genre.

Types of Literary Nonfiction

There are several general types of literary nonfiction: Nonfiction essays, personal narratives, science writing, narrative journalism, and narrative history. Examples of these types can be found in both adult and children’s literature.

Nonfiction Essay

A nonfiction essay is a short text dealing with a single topic. A classic essay format includes:

  1. An introductory paragraph, ending in a statement of thesis (that is, the purpose of the essay).
  2. Body paragraphs that provide proof, details, and development for the thesis.
  3. A conclusion paragraph that wraps up the essay’s information and restates the thesis.

Nonfiction essays serve three basic purposes:

  • Expository essays provide an explanation, such as of an idea or process. Expository essays are generally formal in tone and structure.
  • Personal essays are used to give the author’s viewpoint and feelings, and may tell personal stories or experiences. Personal essays may be informal and have a flexible structure.
  • Persuasive essays argue a point with the intent to persuade the audience to adopt a position or action.

Because these essays deal with factual content, they are considered nonfiction. The inclusion of elements such as plot, figurative language, and descriptive imagery puts these essays into the category of literary nonfiction.

Literary nonfiction examples include expository, personal, and persuasive essays.

Literary nonfiction examples include expository, personal, and persuasive essays.

Personal Narrative Nonfiction

A large sub-genre of literary nonfiction is that of personal narrative. Personal narratives relate true experiences and thoughts of the author or subject. Included in personal narrative nonfiction are:

  • Autobiographies: In an autobiography, the author relates the story of their own life in narrative format. Autobiographies are generally meant to cover a large portion of a person’s life. One example is Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela by Nelson Mandela.
  • Memoirs: A memoir is the author’s recount of an important event or segment of their life. Memoirs differ from autobiographies in that the focus is on a theme or message and the life story is not comprehensive. A memoir example is Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon.
  • Diaries: Diaries are daily personal records of thoughts and feelings. Often not meant to be shared with the public, diaries represent snapshots of the author’s personal impressions rather than a focused attempt to convey a message to an audience. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is an example of a diary that was found and published.
  • Journals: Personal journals are daily accounts of a person’s activities, experiences, and observations. Personal journals may be published to inform readers about an event, mission, experiment, or journey. Journals may also be kept for only an individual or a few friends or colleagues. A published journal example is My Arctic Journal: A Year among Ice-Fields and Eskimos by Josephine Peary.
  • Letters: Letters are a personal narrative written by one person to another. Letters reflect the thoughts, opinions, or needs of the author, but are usually not intended to be shared broadly. Sometimes letters are recovered and used in historical research, and a few may be published for a wider audience. An example of published letters is Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children collected by Dorie McCullough Lawson.

Each of these personal narrative examples are autobiographical in style; that is, the author is telling their own story, opinions, or experiences. Biography, the story of someone’s life told by another author, is also included under the general umbrella of personal narrative nonfiction. For example, George Washington: A Biography written by Washington Irving.

What is literary nonfiction? It includes personal narrative nonfiction such as journals, diaries, letters, and autobiographies.

What is literary nonfiction? It includes personal narrative nonfiction such as journals, diaries, letters, and autobiographies.

Science Writing

Imaginative science writing is crafted to convey scientific principles and knowledge through creative, relatable writing with an emphasis on non-technical language. The target audience for science writing is not trained scientists, but people with an average education who may or may not have a prior interest in the topic of the text. For example, in The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, author Siddhartha Mukherjee relays the history of cancer using both scientific fact and detail and storytelling tactics, such as compelling characters.

Children’s literature produces a variety of science writing in a creative style. In The Magic Schoolbus series, a teacher and her class take their school bus on unlikely field trips to learn factual science in a child-friendly fashion. Judy Allen’s series of bug books, such as Are You a Spider?, contain true facts about insects presented in a conversational narrative format with bright illustrations on every page. These are just two of many examples available.

Narrative Journalism

Narrative journalism is the reporting of news and other current events using well-researched data and narrative techniques (such as plot, characterization, setting, etc.). Narrative journalism generally requires the reporter to use a less formal or less omniscient tone. Popular topics for narrative journalism include travel, food, and sports; however, narrative journalism can be used for other events as well.

Narrative History

In narrative history the author relates historical facts without invention, but in a story-telling style. Narrative history differs in style from analytical history writing, which seeks to determine the causes of and relationships between events. Narrative history also differs from expositional history writing, which adopts a more formal and factual tone.

Lesson Summary

Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is writing rooted in fact but adopting writing tactics commonly associated with fiction such as plot, setting, characters, descriptive imagery, figurative language, and tone. Types of literary nonfiction include:

  • Nonfiction essays: includes expository (explaining a topic), personal (sharing experiences or feelings), and persuasive (convincing the reader of a point); usually a brief text addressing a single topic
  • Personal narrative nonfiction: written about an author’s experiences; includes autobiographies (the author’s life story), memoirs (highlights one theme/era/experience), diaries (daily record of personal thoughts/feelings not intended for publication), journals (daily record of experiences), letters (messages to a specific person), biographies (the only personal narrative written by a third party)
  • Science writing: conveying scientific facts and principles through creative narrative writing
  • Narrative journalism: factual data on current events, travel, sports, or food written using informal tone and narrative techniques
  • Narrative history: factual historical events presented in story-telling style.

Literary nonfiction examples are found in both adult’s and children’s literature.

Join the conversation