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Forms of Nonfiction and how to write them

It is true that besides teaching our students to write, we, as teachers use writing as a constant form of communication, especially nowadays through blogs, social networks, articles and comments.

Therefore, we need to be aware of several nonfiction forms of writing that will be really useful for us and our students for an effective everyday communication and not only.

NONFICTION describes communicative work (typically written, but also including diagrams and photos) understood to be fact. Implicit in this, however, are the varying degrees to which the writer’s subjective interpretation of facts, and/or selective presentation (i.e., withholding, distorting) of facts end up making a “factual” work less true.

Given this, an interesting way to delineate nonfiction forms is to look at them in terms of how accurately they reflect the writer’s experience, beliefs, and emotions in real life.

Below are notes and further explanations on different forms, along with tips on how to write them.


Copywriting / “Advertorial” / Ad copy

Copywriting is nonfiction that uses rhetoric to persuade readers to consume products / ideas / viewpoints. It’s often factual in only a nominal sense, and uses a variety of linguistic and psychological tactics to effectively remove the entire context of “true vs. false,” creating a kind of vacuum around the subject, a universe unto itself where no other time or space or culture or even logic seems to exist except for that which is suggested to and potentially “consummated” by the reader. Examples: signs advertising real estate saying “if you lived here you’d be home already,” or like “Cedar Ridge: Mountain Clusterhomes from the low 250s,” or comings attractions for kids’ movies that begin “From the magic within our hearts, to the adventure beyond the horizon, there is only one: Disney.”

Tips: Devise ways to suggest things that seem to come from an omniscient as opposed to personal point of view. Study what motivates people to buy certain products and how this consumption expresses their personal brands.


Creative Nonfiction

The label “creative nonfiction” can apply to various categories of writing, including food, travel, memoir, personal essay, and other hybridized forms. The defining characteristic of creative nonfiction is the use of literary techniques to create a sense of artfulness in the language, character development, and story, all of which tends to drive the narrative “inward.” Creative nonfiction work also tends to focus on transformational events in the narrator’s or central character’s life. Creative nonfiction generally seems closer to the truth of the narrator’s experience than other forms of nonfiction, as revealing the narrator’s experience / emotional consequence of the experience often seems the implicit “goal” of the work.

Creative nonfiction sometimes ends up sounding “crafted” or “poetic,” however (example: “In an instant, the city was back to its normal self, yawning in the dawn haze,”), to the point where it can be difficult not to question whether a work really reflects what the writer actually felt / experienced or if he/she is more just attempting to showcase a certain brand of writing skills.

Tips: Write about events to which you have strong emotional connections. Write in present tense “I’m on a bus in Tel Aviv,” even though you’re actually at the library. Avoid any usage of your own common vernacular / slang / accent in your writing voice. Construct “close-up” scenes around images of ordinary household items – a fork, a shoe, a hanger – to give dark subtextual cues which eventually give rise to emotionally shattering conclusions. Compensate for lack of ground-level knowledge of terrain / vegetation / architecture by using poetic terminology (“canted ridges’). Use codified / clichéd expressions for physical features (“unruly” or “a shock of” or “luxuriant” hair), movement (“braving a potholed road”), and weather patterns (clouds “scudding”) as these are commonly used by masters of the genre.


Experimental Nonfiction

“Experimental” isn’t so much a form but a label often applied to various works not recognized as traditional nonfiction forms. This can include things like fragmented or nonlinear narratives, “flash” nonfiction (e.g. twitter updates), prose poems, work incorporating graphic or multimedia elements, and even, possibly, work that’s traditionally structured but which examines something to a degree or in a way not actualized by mainstream writers.

In other experimental works, the condition of the writer during the work’s composition is itself a central element, and can be deliberately manipulated via things like sleep deprivation, ingesting drugs and/or alcohol, etc. Depending on how much the work is a catalog of the writer’s inner world vs. a narrative of events IRL, this type of work sometimes falls into the old-school category of “navel-gazing.”

Much experimental work seems about creating an immediacy / proximity to the writer’s experience and that the form uniquely expresses. In some way this can make for the truest of all nonfiction writing; however, there often seems to be an element of “performing” inherent in much experimental work that makes it come off feeling less true a reflection of the narrator’s experience, almost in the opposite way of creative nonfiction’s being overly crafted. It’s as if there’s still just as much editing and crafting behind the scenes to make experimental work appear unadulterated and raw. Maybe in the future we’ll have new forms (Google Wave had established this technology, actually) where you can see a “recording” of a work as it’s created in real time.


[For "flash" nonfiction]: Recreate scenarios where thoughts or realizations arose seemingly independent of external stimuli, while juxtaposing descriptions of the stimuli in a way that creates rich metaphorical possibilities and meaning for the reader. Isolate the thought / stimuli juxtaposition from any memories or sense of one’s connection to place / culture / family, as well as any personal interpretations of the “meaning,” so that the work seems to exist like its own self-contained universe, almost a kind of advertisement for this particular moment in your consciousness.

[For fragmented or nonlinear essays]: Overwhelm the reader with descriptions of external stimuli presented in short, rapid sentences so the overall effect is disorientation. Don’t be afraid of using sentence fragments. Add quotes and bits of dialogue without attributing them to “s/he said.”


[For "altered states" work]: Catalog / narrate an event so seemingly superficial (ex: watching 80s-era Bones Brigade skate videos on YouTube), that it provokes the reader, instigating preconceptions and judgments re your writing or brand, only to then undermine / leverage those preconceptions with a demonstration of perspicacity, self-awareness, sensitivity, and philosophical, logical, and etymological references in an all out assault so complex and divergent and yet so coherent that you’re actually getting off on the writing, contextualizing the whole process as an act of self-affirmation. Points for using hip hop vernacular as if you grew up speaking that way.



People still do live person to person interviews a la Truman Capote-style, which have traditionally been about revealing candid moments (although this in and of itself doesn’t make an interview factual). It seems, however, that the “interview” as a form is becoming just a way for one writer (or artist / musician / whatever) to align his or her brand with another’s and/or create easy content via email conversations. Google Talk / Skype chats often seem realer in that they’re live and you can see how much time goes by before each person responds.

Tips: Ask questions about what the subject will be doing after the interview, or has just finished doing, focusing on quotidian things whose answers reveal the subject’s life as existing in a continuum, not just as a chain of projects / goals / accomplishments orbiting the internet.


News reports

News reports are among the least factual of all nonfiction forms. Particularly with mainstream media companies, news reports are often team projects – each team tasked with creating news “packages” around current events. These packages often rely on old / recycled stories whose research and fact-checking may or may not be accurate. What seems to matter is that the delivery is on brand, professional, and “timely.”

Tips: Practice your skills at personification, so that famines are described as “stalking” the Horn of Africa, or torrential rains are “sweeping” / tornadoes “ripping.” Use “BREAKING” in all caps to your advantage. Type fast.


Op-ed / Social Commentary

Whereas social commentary and op-ed traditionally used rhetoric to promote change, in a modern (or more accurately, post-modern) context, social commentary tends to be truthful to the degree in which it reveals the narrator’s experience and emotions without necessarily suggesting any kind of change.

Tips: Subvert traditional forms such as “how to’s” or “top 5″ articles by using hyperpersonal information and narrative that’s theoretically impossible to “follow,” and yet is still presented as advice. Remember that it’s always easier to sound smart when you’re criticizing something.


Round-ups / Top 10 lists / “Best of” Lists

As demonstrated by David Letteman, ESPN, and now what seems like 68% of all websites, roundups draw attention by creating a sense of anticipation in the reader or viewer. Along with news reports, roundups are the least veracious of all nonfiction forms.


Tips: Identify potentially divisive content areas, that “pit” one person’s opinion against another, for example, “Barbecue Sauce,” then collect barbecue sauce information via internet, rounding up and ranking info either arbitrarily or according to SEO / keyword traffic, crafting the title (“Top 5 Barbecue Sauces in America”) so that people within the relevant geographic / subject area wonder if their preferences are either being (a) validated, (b) rejected, or (c) ignored, and thus compelling them to read / comment.


The list of nonfiction forms of writing is really endless. The thing is that it’s there, it’s modern and at the end of the day… it’s all about writing!