16 nonfiction forms and how to write them
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 (IRL).
The above diagram is intended to be a kind of visual take on how this applies to typical forms of nonfiction. Below are notes and further explanations on different forms, along with tips on how to write them.
Advice columns range in truthfulness from extremely close to fact (such as most sex writing, which we’ll get to later) to the kinds of financial, lifestyle, parenting, gaming, social media, and other advice articles and blogs that seem to have, at best, only tangential relationships with the writer’s actual experience IRL. These are the articles where titles implore you to do things like “Dress Up That Turkey Sandwich!” while, on the same homepage, also promise to explain “Why You’re Not Losing Weight.”
Tips: The key is volume. Use the Google Keyword Tool to create article ideas around keywords searched by the biggest potential audience, but with the fewest websites targeting those same keywords (i.e. low “competition”). Factor in your approximate knowledge of the subject vs. how long it would take you to copy / paste and then remix text from a similar article. Avoid subjects in which you’re emotionally invested. Employ a “detached but friendly” 2nd person POV (example: “Or if you’re feeling a little south of the border, top it off with some cilantro and roasted red pepper,”) which allows you to effectively obfuscate your own reality, such as writing an article on “healthy relationships” while in the middle of an affair / divorce / custody battle over children. Submit to: About.com, your own websites.
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 POV. Study what motivates people to buy shit, and how this consumption expresses their personal brands. Submit to: your professor, the creative team for whatever marketing company you work for.
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 CN 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.” CN work also tends to focus on transformational events in the narrator’s or central character’s life. CN 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.
CN 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 “closeup” 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 / cliched 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. Submit to: Creative Nonfiction, Best American Essays.
“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, 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 the writer’s experience and subconsciousness (check Blake Butler’s series “I am drinking gin & wrote about 7 songs as they came up on random in my itunes while they played“), 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.
Tips:[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. Submit to: your twitter. [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.” If a travel piece, create sense of expertise / authenticity via cultural references or phrases in other languages that 95% of you readers won’t understand. Go for a “sense of time passing” feel. Submit to: Brevity. [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 judgements 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. Submit to: HTMLGIANT.
This term was invented, as far as I know, by Daniel Britt, while traveling overland from Iraq through Iran and into Afghanistan on a German motorcycle with a leaky carburetor and living hand to mouth filing reports and selling photos to various media companies about the US Armed Forces’ withdrawal from Iraq (and deployment in Afghanistan), along with various fucked up juxtapositions of local people, contractors, soldiers, kids, dogs, and just the day to day life in a place where there’s generalized death and mayhem. At one point we had a skype chat from the US Army base in Shah Joy Afghanistan that went:
[2:23:27 PM] daniel c. britt: hey were getting mortared
[2:23:47 PM] daniel c. britt: just one
[2:23:55 PM] daniel c. britt: pussies
[2:30:12 PM] david miller: damn
[2:30:21 PM] david miller: like the base is getting mortared?
[2:30:23 PM] david miller: wtf?
[2:30:53 PM] daniel c. britt: one shell
[2:31:04 PM] daniel c. britt: just inside the hescos
[2:31:19 PM] daniel c. britt: dood we didnt even loose internet
[2:31:26 PM] david miller: hell yeah
[2:31:48 PM] david miller: dude did you get hooked up with body armor?
[2:33:30 PM] daniel c. britt: yeah we found a dealer in kabul , totally ripped us off, its US interceptor gear though so itll stop a .762 round, supposedly point black. anyway tomorrow im going to start looking for ieds or possibly go on a mission to clear a weapons cache
[2:34:22 PM] daniel c. britt: which ever i get illl stick with it for the next five days
[2:34:29 PM] daniel c. britt: and that will be my story
Feral journalism follows from the same gonzo paradigm established by Hunter S. Thompson, only in a modern global context where you’re dealing with potentially getting kidnapped / beheaded / blown up by an IED. As the impact of a feral journalism piece often relies on the level of concrete detail and sense of the narrator’s authenticity, this type of nonfiction is typically very close to actual fact / experience.
Tips: Cultivate your narrator’s persona as having low bodyfat (though not via exercise, but heavy smoking / drugs, while, paradoxically, still retaining a high fitness level in terms of 100-yard dashes or other evasive parkour-like skills), and a zealous commitment not to some greater recognizable “cause,” but to documenting ground level struggles of local people in spots 87% of Americans could never identify on a map. Align yourself with other “crackpot” indie photographers and filmmakers. Submit work to: Matador, Guernica.
Raw, unedited field notes often contain the most veracious writing, only to have the images / intensity mollified when the work is prepared “for publication.”
Tips: Focus less on how to write your notes, and instead learn how to draw so you can share art + notes together. Submit: myMoleskine.
Along with sex, food writing should theoretically be the most veracious of all nonfiction forms. And it usually is. What acts reveal more about us than how we eat and how (and who) we fuck? Fans of Jason Sheehan or Jim Harrison would know this. Food writing diminishes in truthfulness, however, to the degree it becomes about the writer playing the role of a critic.
Tips: Remember that, as Wendell Berry said, eating is essentially an “agricultural act.” Create metaphorical vectors between, say, Malbec grapes grown in the Andes, Colorado grass-fed beef, and the need for a palliative meal post breakup with your girlfriend. Submit to: your local alt. weekly.
People still do live person to person interviews a la Truman Capote-style (ex: San Quentin), 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. Gchats often seem realer in that they’re live and you can see how much time goes by before each person responds. Not sure.
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. Submit to: The Nervous Breakdown.
Although wikipedia’s list of contemporary nature writers includes authors (Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Linda Hogan, John McPhee, and Gary Snyder) that have been important to me at different times of my life, I feel like as a genre, most nature writing seems to follow a tradition set forward by Thoreau where everything, even moments of the apparent suffering, are rendered in pastoral language (or something), which pushes it farther from fact than say, Big Boi rhyming about collard greens.
Tips: Isolate yourself in a wilderness area with field guides for all relevant flora and fauna as well as natural histories and any first hand accounts of indigenous people who once lived there. Either (a) leave out any mention of descendants of those native peoples or other people who might still exist in the area (such as in nearby trailer parks), and the truth of whose day to day existence might undermine your portrait of “place,” or (b) objectify / romanticize their “condition.” Have epiphanies. Submit to: Orion.
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. Submit to: your section editor / Huffington Post.
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. Submit to: Thought Catalog.
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.
Sex Writing (ex: Dan Savage ) is among the truest of all nonfiction forms when the writer essentially removes or frees him/herself from any sense of holding back information / emotions due to cultural taboos. Conversely, this level of truth seems to diminish when the work seems deliberately about manipulating these taboos to “shock.”
Tips: Not sure, except for allowing people to ask questions anonymously.
As a form it seems like the more popular the travel blog, the more it reflects not truth, but a writer’s effectiveness at reducing complex, nuanced elements of culture and place and packaging them in “travel-sized” bits. I can’t ever read “popular” travel blogs without a sense that the writer is withholding 95% of what actually happened or how s/he felt about it because it would alienate his / her followers.
Tips: Create a personal brand with some variation of “Wandering” / “Nomad” as a central element. Present experiences based on recognizable place names / landmarks / cultural groups, but without specific details so that regardless of where you are, culture / place all seem interchangeable in a way that makes the entire “world” (and all culture / people visited therein) reduce to this kind of backdrop for you to appear in front of, and for the reader to vicariously experience via your sense of “I’m having the time of my life.” Submit to: your blog.
* For more tips on different story forms and how to write them, check out the travel journalism curricula at MatadorU.
* This post was originally published on August 17, 2011.