Creative nonfiction sounds like an oxymoron, along the lines of jumbo shrimp or old news. But it isn’t. Creative nonfiction is a genre unto itself where the author incorporates techniques and styles from creative writing to tell a truthful story. Often, these techniques and styles focus on story, tone, and emotion than on the “just the facts” style of journalistic, academic, or prescriptive nonfiction writing.
Lots of memoirs have earmarks of creative nonfiction, but it’s not limited to just that kind of storytelling. If you have a true story to tell, today’s article will help you know whether or not creative nonfiction is the best way to tell it, and how to write it the right way.
Without further ado, consider these ten commandments of writing creative nonfiction.
1. Everything Must Be True
The “creative” part in creative nonfiction doesn’t mean you get to play fast and loose with the facts. This is not a chance to rewrite history to better suit your moods. Instead, you get creative with the voice, structure, and style of how you tell the truth. Everything you say must be factually accurate.
Some writers of creative nonfiction will keep the broad strokes true but take liberties with small details. For example, when describing a key conversation they might not look up what the participants were wearing and fill in the details of small talk. This is common, and most readers will forgive that kind of license. Don’t go too far with it, though, and never make up or omit important details.
2. Retain Your Objectivity
Readers of nonfiction must be able to trust their narrators to really connect with the material. You don’t have to be “just the facts, ma’am” objective if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography, but you should also avoid any overt bias.
Look at the negative reviews for biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs and you’ll find a lot of dings for cherry-picking data or skewing the writing to cast somebody in an unfairly good or bad light. Avoid this by maintaining your objectivity, even if it means telling the truth about a mistake you made, or putting forward a viewpoint that doesn’t match your own.
3. Use Storytelling Techniques
How you tell your story is what makes the difference between creative nonfiction, straight nonfiction, and journalism. This is where you get to have fun. An incomplete list of techniques you can incorporate into your creative nonfiction includes:
- Metaphors and extended metaphors
- Creative imagery
Creative nonfiction is a unique opportunity to play with how you present the facts. Have fun in this literary playground.
4. Include a Disclaimer
If you want to get more creative with your nonfiction, you can include a disclaimer in your introduction. This can be as simple as the classic movie “based on a true story”, or a detailed description of what you changed and why.
Nonfiction readers want facts, but they are also patient. If they know where to expect some creativity, they will usually accept it. Just be completely honest with yourself and your readers.
5. Think About Innocent Bystanders
One of the risks with writing nonfiction is you’re dealing with real things, real situations, and real people. If your creative nonfiction project includes anybody who’s still alive, you need to consider how the book will impact them.
You’re usually protected from libel and slander suits if you can prove what you said is true. Beyond that, though, it’s important to consider what level of privacy or publicity any given subject wants. Consider how telling this story in a particular way will impact the people involved. This might mean leaving some things out, or changing how you narrate them, so you don’t damage any undeserving individuals.
6. Know Your Audience
You can make a surprising amount of money writing creative nonfiction, but you still need to know your audience. Take this into account both while writing your project and while selling it.
When choosing and writing your project, write for a specific audience. For example, WWII stories can be compelling but the market is full of them. It’s hard to find a general audience for yet another tale of the Pacific War. But most stories have a unique hook: the stories of three brothers in different places during the war, how a gay soldier managed to become accepted, how your grandfather’s fluent German impacted his part in liberating France…find the unique story-in-the-story to identify your audience.
While selling your story, audience identification and engagement are a must. This is no different than doing so for any other genre, which we write about in articles like this one on building reader personas, and this one about tropes and publishing trends (and this live training here).
7. Follow the Emotions
One of the biggest, most important differences between straight nonfiction and creative nonfiction is how large a role emotion plays. Most readers expect a more facts-oriented presentation with straight nonfiction, or at least reporting where emotions and opinion are called out as such and easy to differentiate.
Creative nonfiction often starts with emotion, and writes the story from that foundation. This gives you an opportunity to connect more deeply with your readers, and in turn lets them connect more deeply with the material. It’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.
8. Play With Point of View
If you are writing about something close to you emotionally, it can help to write from the third-person point of view. This helps you keep your close connection from overriding the story with bias and perspective, and can help you write through the parts that are heavy emotional lifting.
Likewise, if you are writing about something you’re personally distant from, assuming a first-person point of view can create a connection your writing might otherwise lack. It forces you to view the material from the perspective of a participant, and brings readers along for the ride.
9. Go Deep on Location
Location can be very powerful in creative nonfiction for three different reasons.
First, it provides context for the nonfiction. By telling not just what happened, but when and where, you can’t help but tell a more vibrant story about this topic that fascinates you.
Second, it allows you to approach things from a wider perspective. This can especially help if the material is close to you, or even traumatic. Writing about how something impacted Boston is easier than dealing with how it impacted you.
Third, it gives you more to write about. You can research the impact of your story on the city, the region, the country, or however wide you want it to go. This gives the material more importance and helps you understand its scope better as you write.
10. Reflection is Key
Before and during your writing, reflect about your experience with the topic and your place in the story. This is vital in creative nonfiction because there’s more temptation to let your personal perspective run free.
Since this is nonfiction, it’s your responsibility to keep things more factual and less opinion-based. The only way to accomplish this is to spend time in your own head. Know how you feel about things, so you can accommodate for that inherent bias as you write. Even more important, know how your readers might feel so you can aptly capture that emotion and imagination with your prose.
Build it Before They Come
Another thing to keep in mind with creative nonfiction is how to market the book prior to publication. This means going deep in online communities that celebrate the main topic of your creative nonfiction project. Often, this will be easier and more direct than doing the same for a fiction book, because people interested in a topic tend to be more clearly labeled than fans of a genre or subgenre.
Incorporate your marketing and publicity plan into your work on the book, so that when the book is ready the audience is, too.