Here at Writing Forward, we talk about three types of creative writing: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
With poetry and fiction, there are techniques we can use to invigorate our writing, but there aren’t many rules beyond the standards of grammar and good writing in general. We can let our imaginations run wild; everything from nonsense to outrageous fantasy is fair game for bringing our ideas to life when we’re writing fiction and poetry.
However, when writing creative nonfiction, there are some guidelines that we have to follow. These guidelines aren’t set in stone, and there aren’t any nonfiction police patrolling bookstores, waiting to arrest you if you stray from the guidelines. These guidelines might be considered best practices, except if you violate them, you might find yourself in hot water with your readers.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What sets creative nonfiction apart from fiction or poetry?
For starters, creative nonfiction is factual. A memoir is not just any story; it’s a true story. A biography is the real account of someone’s life. There is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts.
So what makes creative nonfiction writing different from something like textbook writing or technical writing? What makes it creative?
Nonfiction writing that isn’t considered creative usually has business or academic purposes. Such writing isn’t designed to entertain or even be enjoyable. It’s sole purpose is to convey information, usually in a dry, straightforward manner.
Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, pays credence to the craft of writing, often through literary techniques, which make the prose aesthetically pleasing and bring layers of meaning to the context. It is similar to fiction in that it usually uses a story structure and is written in prose.
There are many different genres within creative nonfiction: memoir, biography, autobiography, and personal essays, just to name a few.
Writing Creative Nonfiction
Here are six simple guidelines to follow when writing creative nonfiction:
- Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberty with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be ridiculed and scrutinized. You’ll lose credibility. If you can’t help yourself from lying, then think about writing fiction instead.
- Issue a disclaimer. Most nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
- Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction. Some people are extremely private and don’t want any details of their lives published. Others might request that you leave certain things out, which they feel are personal. Otherwise, make sure you’ve weighed the repercussions of revealing other people’s lives to the world. Relationships have been both strengthened and destroyed as a result of authors publishing the details of other people’s lives.
- Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with heavy criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
- Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
- Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.
Do You Write Creative Nonfiction?
I know most of the readers here write fiction and poetry, but I suspect there are quite a few who either write creative nonfiction or want to try their hands at it. If you are writing creative nonfiction, do you have any guidelines to add to this list? Are there any situations in which it would be acceptable to ignore these guidelines? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Creative writing includes more than just fiction and poetry. Creative nonfiction is a wide category of creative writing, which includes several genres.
Creative nonfiction is a relatively new field; only in recent years have works of creative nonfiction received the kind of attention from critics and readers that fiction and traditional nonfiction have enjoyed for decades.
It’s likely that creative nonfiction genres will continue to gain strength as a dominant force in the world of writing. The world wide web is growing at an astounding rate, and much of the content on the Internet is considered creative nonfiction. Take blogs, for example; many would be considered creative nonfiction.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
How can you tell the difference between a literary novel and any other kind of novel?
A work is usually considered literary because of the way it’s written. A literary novel is more than simple storytelling. The writer pays special attention to language, word choice, rhythm, and voice. Creative nonfiction is factually accurate writing that does the same thing; it pays attention to the craft of writing.
According to Wikipedia:
Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing truth which uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.
Unlike fiction and poetry, nonfiction genres depend heavily on research, facts, and credibility. While opinions may be interjected and often the work depends on the author’s own memories, the material must be verifiable and accurately researched and reported.
Due to the factual nature of creative nonfiction, ethics come into play. In recent years, some memoir authors have been criticized for straying from the truth. There may be some wiggle room here. Since a memoir is not considered journalism, a writer may decide to take creative liberties with the facts; however, this may cause an uproar among critics and may even lead to a controversial reception of the work.
Creative Nonfiction Genres and Sub-Genres
These are just a few of the genres that qualify as creative nonfiction:
- Memoir and biography
- Food and travel writing
- Personal essays
- Literary journalism
If you think of more creative nonfiction genres, feel free to share them in the comments.
Creative nonfiction genres continues to grow and become more widely accepted and recognized as valid forms of nonfiction literature.
Have you written creative nonfiction? How strictly do you feel a memoir or other work of creative nonfiction should stick to the facts? Do you feel that nonfiction genres should focus on content and not creativity? Share your thoughts in the comments.
In fiction writing, we’re often inspired with a what-if question: What if an innocent citizen is convicted of murder? What if humanity finds itself facing total extinction? What if that rabbit hole leads to a fantastical wonderland? Fiction is driven by imagination.
Ideas for writing creative nonfiction often arise from experience and interest rather than imagination. Instead of asking a what-if question, creative nonfiction writers set out to share their experiences, knowledge, ideas, and curiosities.
Young and new writers often wonder what they should write about. Where should they focus their efforts? Creative nonfiction is a vast genre and can be quite lucrative. Readers are always looking for advice and information. People love reading real-life accounts by writers with firsthand experience. Whether you write a memoir about a personal experience you’ve had or launch a blog related to your field of expertise, creative nonfiction offers a world of possibilities.
Creative Nonfiction: Ideas for Writing
Writers who are on a quest for inspiration can look inward to find a wealth of ideas for writing creative nonfiction.
1. Start with yourself. Writing an autobiography involves telling your life story. You get to share your experiences, successes, and failures. The ideas for such a project come directly from your own memories. The trouble with autobiographies is that readers are rarely interested in reading biographical information about total strangers. Unless you’re a public figure, there might be little interest in your project. The good news is that you can fictionalize your life story, turn it into a novel, and pursue fiction readers. Or you can narrow your focus and write a memoir.
2. What is a memoir? A memoir is not a life story; it’s a personal account of a particular experience. For example, if you’ve survived an illness, disaster, or trauma, that experience might provide the foundation for a memoir. Writing of this nature is more appealing to readers because it speaks to a specific audience. Young parents whose children are struggling with autism, for example, will be highly interested in reading a memoir by a parent who raised a child with autism. What makes memoirs so popular is the promise that through personal experience, the writer has obtained expertise and is now sharing it with the world.
3. Are you an expert? Creative nonfiction does not have to come from personal experience. If you’re an expert on any subject, you can write about it. It might be the subject you studied in school, the work you’ve done throughout your career, or a hobby that you’ve enjoyed and mastered. Many writers avoid this type of writing, assuming that there is already enough information out there. But new works are being published every day on a wide range of topics. What makes them succeed is not necessarily the information that is imparted, but the manner in which it is presented. A unique voice, a new take on the subject, and a fresh way to organize the information are all viable strategies.
4. What’s your passion? You can take your personal experience and acquired expertise on anything in the world and turn it into a writing project. These days, writers share their thoughts and insights on everything from their favorite TV shows and video games to the meals they eat and books they read. You can write about the philosophy of Star Trek. You could share tips and strategies for playing (and winning) popular video games. If you love coffee and have a penchant for taking pictures, set out to make a coffee table book about coffee. If you spend your mornings gardening and your evenings creating delicious home-cooked meals, you can launch a blog packed with tips and ideas for gardening, cooking, or healthy eating. You don’t have to be an expert or a professional to talk about your passion.
5. Set out on an adventure or run an experiment. Elizabeth Gilbert set out on a year of adventure and then wrote about it and became a best selling author. A.J. Jacobs has built a life and a career around experimental adventures. He read all thirty-two volumes of the Enclycopedia Britannica and then wrote about it. He spent a year living biblically and then wrote about it. He also experimented with outsourcing his entire life, and then wrote about it. If you’ve ever wanted to embark on a grand adventure or found yourself concocting experimental lifestyles, you may find ideas for writing creative nonfiction within your own curiosity.
Where Do You Get Ideas for Writing Projects?
Ideas for writing books, blogs, and articles are all around you. These ideas also exist inside you. Your questions, curiosities, experiences, and interests all have the potential to launch your next writing project.
Where do you get most of your ideas?
Please welcome guest author Alana Saltz with a heartwarming article on writing memoirs.
As a genre, memoir has been growing exponentially each and every year. More and more people are finding the strength, courage, and determination to write about their experiences in a compelling and literary way. The success of memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors, which were both adapted as feature films and released in theaters worldwide, help demonstrate that the world is slowly beginning to embrace the genre.
I’ve been a fan and advocate of memoir ever since I first learned what a memoir was. At only twelve years old, I already had an interest in someday sharing stories from my life with the world. I felt like I had something to say, and as much as I enjoyed making up stories either from scratch or based on things I’d been through, having the ability to tell my own story was very appealing to me.
As an adolescent, I struggled with severe anxiety disorder and depression. Knowing that I could write about the difficult, frightening, and remarkable events that occurred helped me get through some very tough times. I was comforted by the thought that eventually, I would make what happened to me and what I went through matter. I could help other people suffering from mental illness by sharing my story, the way I found comfort in reading the stories of others. I’ve carried that hope and goal with me for many years, finally leading me to pursue an MFA in writing to help me write about my life in the most powerful and readable way possible.
That urge and desire to write about my life has been part of me for a long time. It feels natural and right. But many people have been swayed away from the idea of writing a memoir for a number of reasons, many of which are inaccurate or unfair.
First, people might not think they’ve been through anything meaningful or important enough to write about. I’m of the belief that any story can be meaningful and important if it’s told in an engaging and relatable way. What really matters is the heart of who you are as a person and what universal themes and messages you can extract from what you’ve experienced. Memoirs aren’t just personal stories – they’re personal stories that illuminate larger issues that many face and experience.
Others might worry that memoir writing is an act of narcissism or navel gazing. On the contrary, I think memoir is a natural, authentic, and altruistic form of writing. To openly and honestly share your experiences, stories, and vulnerabilities with the world in the hopes of reaching and connecting with others is one of the least narcissistic endeavors I can imagine. It’s something to be admired, not condemned.
Finally, I know a lot of folks who are concerned with the personal ramifications of writing a memoir. My own family and friends have asked me why I couldn’t just write my story as fiction or use a pseudonym. I tried to explain to them that I wanted to stand by my story and what I went through. I wanted to put my name on it. To me, it was worth any potential issues to be able to say that what happened was true, to connect on a genuine and real level with my readers.
I did worry about what a certain family member, my father, would think when he saw what I had written about him. I tried my best to be fair in my portrayal of our relationship and allowed him to see the manuscript when it was finished to correct any misrepresentations I might have made. To my surprise, his response was positive. Despite writing critically about what happened between us, he wasn’t angry with me. In fact, my memoir actually opened the door to an important conversation that I’d needed to begin with him for a long time.
I have nothing against the desire to write fiction based on life experiences. I love fiction and write fiction too. Novels can capture the realities of life, the world, and humanity in very authentic and moving ways. However, there is a special power and awareness that comes when one reads a work of memoir. The knowledge that the story you’re reading is a recreation of actual events that someone has gone through connects and resonates in a different way.
So, if you’ve got a story to tell, consider writing it as a memoir. There are certainly pros and cons, but if you think your experiences might be enhanced or deepened by presenting them as fact, not fiction, it’s certainly worth considering. It will take a lot of strength, courage, and determination to write about your own life in a way that will resonate with others, but in the end, it really is worth it.
About the Author: Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in Role Reboot, The Urban Dater, HelloGiggles, and more. She has an MFA in writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently completed a memoir about her struggle to overcome anxiety disorder and depression. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.
Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises. It’s packed with writing exercises to help you explore all forms of creative writing: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The book is designed to inspire you while imparting useful writing techniques that are fun and practical.
This exercise comes from “Chapter Two: It’s Personal.” The writing exercises in this chapter focus on writing of a personal nature: memoir, journal writing, and personal essays.
I chose this exercise because it’s challenging and fun. It asks you to look at your own life from a fresh perspective and make yourself the subject of a news report.
Give it a try! Then come back and tell us what you learned and how this exercise worked for you.
Is your life newsworthy? Have you ever witnessed, committed, or been the victim of a crime? Have you ever participated in a protest or a performance? Have you ever had an odd or unusual (paranormal or supernatural) experience?
Traditional and professional journalism is concise and factual. It adheres to a set of journalistic ethics, focusing on the facts and details of the story and presenting those facts thoroughly and honestly. True journalism is objective. The ethical journalist does not inject his or her feelings or opinions.
But journalists are human. The news media in general is increasingly accused of using a variety of creative tactics to spin the news in favor of their own religious, political, or philosophical beliefs. For example, in a report, a journalist should not badmouth a suspected criminal, but that journalist can include a quote from a witness who has badmouthed the criminal while intentionally not including a positive quote from some other witness.
Journalists can pick and choose quotes, facts, and even which stories to report.
When you think about the fact that journalists and reporters are responsible for feeding us information about what’s going on in the world and then consider that they are mere human beings, flawed, emotional, and opinionated just like the rest of us, you can only begin to imagine and wonder just how spun all the news actually is.
Your challenge is to revisit your past and write a news report about something you experienced firsthand.
The rules are simple: straight journalism. What does that mean? True journalists are not allowed to include personal emotion or opinion in their writing. Be as objective as possible. Don’t take sides!
Write about the event or incident as if you are a journalist looking in on your own story from the outside. Make sure you include a headline that will attract readers’ attention.
Tips: To get a feeling for how journalism is written (its tone and style), visit a reputable news site and read a few articles.
Variations: Instead of reporting on a story, write a paparazzi piece. Were you spotted while out on a hot date? If you’re at a loss for subject matter, get creative and write a fictional news story; make up something or change something from your past or better yet, write a news story from your future (maybe you win the Pulitzer Prize in ten years).
Applications: The most obvious application is that you could, someday, become a journalist. Journalism in general is an objective style of writing (at least, it’s supposed to be), and this is a style that is difficult to achieve. This exercise encourages you to write about something you care about but to refrain from including your feelings or personal views.
101 Creative Writing Exercises takes writers on an adventure through the world of creative writing.
The book is packed with writing exercises that are fun and practical. Not only will these exercises inspire you, they’ll impart helpful writing techniques and offer valuable writing practice.
Try your hand at fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, including freewriting, journaling, memoir, and article writing.
Today, I’d like to share an exercise from 101 Creative Writing Exercises. From “Chapter Ten: Article and Blog Writing,” this creative writing exercise is called “Titles and Headlines.”
Titles and Headlines
A title or headline is the first point of contact that a reader will have with your writing. It’s your introduction, a chance to entice and intrigue readers so they want to buy your book or read your article. An effective title piques a reader’s curiosity and provides some idea of what the piece is about.
Some authors use titles as part of their brand. Sue Grafton is working her way through the alphabet with her Kinsey Millhone series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.). Many romance novelists use words like kiss, love, or dance in their titles. In the sci-fi realm, anything associated with space is fair game: galaxy, universe, Mars, and stars. And a well placed mythological term, such as dragon or wizard clearly marks a fantasy novel.
In addition to book titles, many authors have a separate title for a series. This allows the author to use two different titles on a single piece of work. New readers will be drawn in by the book title while existing fans will gravitate toward the series title.
In poetry, titles can be more abstract. A poem’s title may seem irrelevant to the poem. Many poets take a word or phrase from the poem and use it as a title. Others will use a title that functions as part of the poem. The best poem titles evoke an image and give the reader an indication of what the poem will feel like.
Magazines use headlines prominently displayed on the front cover to entice customers. Newspapers use them to draw readers into a story, and bloggers, as many of you know, use headlines to generate buzz, links, and tweets.
Choose one of your writing projects or ideas and make a list of possible titles. Don’t run off a quick list. Take some time to contemplate each title and consider how it will resonate with readers and impact your project’s success. Make sure the titles and headlines you write represent the piece accurately. Avoid labels, words, and phrases that are misleading.
Tips: Look to some successful works by authors you admire to get ideas for titles. Peruse magazines, newspapers, and blogs for headline ideas.
Variations: If you don’t have any writing projects that need titles, then make a list of alternative titles for some of your favorite books, magazines, movies, TV shows, articles, and poems.
Applications: Every piece of writing has to be titled, and a title or headline is essential in selling the piece to its audience. Developing catchy, intriguing titles is an essential writing skill.
Writing provides a way to express one’s thoughts, feelings, or ideas. It’s a communication tool.
But writing can also be a tool for self-discovery and critical thinking.
Many authors have stated that they write stories so they can find out what happens to the characters they’ve created. Essayists explain that writing helps them organize their thoughts and ideas, and as a result they gain understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Today’s writing prompts encourage you to dig deeper into yourself and discover what you think about the big, unanswered questions. Even if you’ve already contemplated questions like these, writing out your answers may help you uncover ideas and beliefs you never knew you had.
What is Philosophy?
There are three branches of philosophy: natural, moral, and metaphysical. The term philosophy can refer to the study, analysis, and exploration of any of these branches.
Philosophy largely involves asking questions to which there are no known, absolute answers. Investigating these questions rationally helps us develop principles of existence, knowledge, and ethics or acceptable behavior. Belief systems, including spiritual paths, political systems, and religious organizations, are built on philosophical ideas and conclusions.
These philosophy-inspired writing prompts are designed to promote the exploration of philosophical questions from a personal perspective.
Philosophical Writing Prompts
You can use these writing prompts in any number of ways. You can simply sit down and start writing out your answers to these questions in essay format, which is the best way to truly explore your thoughts. If you write fiction, then try answering these questions from the perspectives of your characters. This will help you better understand your characters’ motivations. You can also use these writing prompts to inspire a poem, story, or freewriting session.
- Humankind has been searching for the meaning of life for millennia. Is there any meaning or purpose to life? Why are we here?
- They say two things are certain: death and taxes. I disagree. Plenty of people live and die without ever paying taxes (for a number of different reasons). But everybody dies. Why? Is eternal life possible? Is there life after death?
- Have you ever had déjà vu, the strange sense that you’ve experienced something before? Have you ever felt like you were meant for something, that some event or moment in your life was fated? Do you think there is always a choice? In other words: do you believe in destiny or free will?
- Do you believe in a higher power or deity? Can the existence of a higher power ever be proven or disproved?
- Where does it all come from–the earth, the stars, the universe, us?
- Do good and evil truly exist? What determines an action or person as good or evil? Who gets to decide who or what is good or evil?
Did you find these writing prompts interesting? Which did you choose? Did you learn anything from your writing session? Leave a comment, and keep writing!