Six 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:
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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’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.