Six Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

writing creative nonfiction

Guidelines for writing creative nonfiction.

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 to arrest authors who 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:

  1. 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 liberties 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 harsh 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.
  5. Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
  6. 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’re 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.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


7 Responses to “Six Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction”

  1. Abbs says:

    Shouldn’t ALL non-fiction be creative to some extent? I am a former business journalist, and won awards for the imaginative approach I took to writing about even the driest of business topics: pensions, venture capital, tax, employment law and other potentially dusty subjects.
    The drier and more complicated the topic, the more creative the approach must be, otherwise no-one with anything else to do will bother to wade through it. [to be honest, taking the fictional approach to these ghastly tortuous topics was the only way I could face writing about them.]
    I used all the techniques that fiction writers have to play with, and used some poetic techniques, too, to make the prose more readable. What won the first award was a little serial about two businesses run and owned by a large family at war with itself. Every episode centred on one or two common and crucial business issues, wrapped up in a comedy-drama, and it won a lot of fans (happily for me) because it was so much easier to read and understand than the dry technical writing they were used to. Life’s too short for dusty writing!

    • I believe most journalism is creative and would therefore fall under creative nonfiction. However, there is a lot of legal, technical, medical, science, and textbook writing in which there is no room for creativity (or creativity has not made its way into these genres yet). With some forms, it makes sense. I don’t think it would be appropriate for legal briefings to use story or literary devices just to add a little flair. On the other hand, it would be a good thing if textbooks were a little more readable.

      • I think Abbs is right – even in academic papers, an example or story helps the reader visualize the problem or explanation more easily. I scan business books to see if there are stories or examples, if not, then I don’t pick up the book. That’s where the creativity comes in – how to create examples, what to conflate, what to emphasis as we create our fictional people to illustrate important, real points.

  2. Thanks for the post. Very helpful. I’d never thought about writing creative nonfiction before.

  3. Steve007 says:

    Hi Melissa!

    Love your website. You always give a fun and frank assessment of all things pertaining to writing. It is a pleasure to read. I have even bought several of the reference and writing books you recommended. Keep up the great work.


    Top 10 Reasons Why Creative Nonfiction Is A Questionable Category

    10. When you look up “Creative Nonfiction” in the dictionary it reads: See Fiction

    9. The first creative nonfiction example was a Schwinn Bicycle Assembly Guide that had printed in its instructions: Can easily be assembled by one person with a Phillips head screw driver, Allen keys, adjustable wrench and cable cutters in less than an hour.

    8. Creative Nonfiction; Based on actual events; Suggested by a true event; Based on a true story. It’s a slippery slope.

    7. The Creative Nonfiction Quarterly is only read by eleven people. Five have the same last name.

    6. Creative Nonfiction settings may only include: hospitals, concentration camps, prisons and cemeteries. Exceptions may be made for asylums, rehab centers and Capitol Hill.

    5. The writers who create Sterile Nonfiction or Unimaginative Nonfiction now want their category recognized.

    4. Creative; Poetic License; Embellishment; Puffery. See where this is leading?

    3. Creative Nonfiction is to Nonfiction as Reality TV is to Documentaries.

    2. My attorney has advised that I exercise my 5th Amendment Rights or that I be allowed to give written testimony in a creative nonfiction way.

    1. People believe it is a film with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Queen Latifa.