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elements of creative nonfiction writing

Creative Nonfiction: An Overview

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This resource provides an introduction to creative nonfiction, including an overview of the genre and an explanation of major sub-genres.

The Creative Nonfiction (CNF) genre can be rather elusive. It is focused on story, meaning it has a narrative plot with an inciting moment, rising action, climax and denoument, just like fiction. However, nonfiction only works if the story is based in truth, an accurate retelling of the author’s life experiences. The pieces can vary greatly in length, just as fiction can; anything from a book-length autobiography to a 500-word food blog post can fall within the genre.

Additionally, the genre borrows some aspects, in terms of voice, from poetry; poets generally look for truth and write about the realities they see. While there are many exceptions to this, such as the persona poem, the nonfiction genre depends on the writer’s ability to render their voice in a realistic fashion, just as poetry so often does. Writer Richard Terrill, in comparing the two forms, writes that the voice in creative nonfiction aims “to engage the empathy” of the reader; that, much like a poet, the writer uses “personal candor” to draw the reader in.

Creative Nonfiction encompasses many different forms of prose. As an emerging form, CNF is closely entwined with fiction. Many fiction writers make the cross-over to nonfiction occasionally, if only to write essays on the craft of fiction. This can be done fairly easily, since the ability to write good prose—beautiful description, realistic characters, musical sentences—is required in both genres.

So what, then, makes the literary nonfiction genre unique?

The first key element of nonfiction—perhaps the most crucial thing— is that the genre relies on the author’s ability to retell events that actually happened. The talented CNF writer will certainly use imagination and craft to relay what has happened and tell a story, but the story must be true. You may have heard the idiom that “truth is stranger than fiction;” this is an essential part of the genre. Events—coincidences, love stories, stories of loss—that may be expected or feel clichéd in fiction can be respected when they occur in real life .

A writer of Creative Nonfiction should always be on the lookout for material that can yield an essay; the world at-large is their subject matter. Additionally, because Creative Nonfiction is focused on reality, it relies on research to render events as accurately as possible. While it’s certainly true that fiction writers also research their subjects (especially in the case of historical fiction), CNF writers must be scrupulous in their attention to detail. Their work is somewhat akin to that of a journalist, and in fact, some journalism can fall under the umbrella of CNF as well. Writer Christopher Cokinos claims, “done correctly, lived well, delivered elegantly, such research uncovers not only facts of the world, but reveals and shapes the world of the writer” (93). In addition to traditional research methods, such as interviewing subjects or conducting database searches, he relays Kate Bernheimer’s claim that “A lifetime of reading is research:” any lived experience, even one that is read, can become material for the writer.

The other key element, the thing present in all successful nonfiction, is reflection. A person could have lived the most interesting life and had experiences completely unique to them, but without context—without reflection on how this life of experiences affected the writer—the reader is left with the feeling that the writer hasn’t learned anything, that the writer hasn’t grown. We need to see how the writer has grown because a large part of nonfiction’s appeal is the lessons it offers us, the models for ways of living: that the writer can survive a difficult or strange experience and learn from it. Sean Ironman writes that while “[r]eflection, or the second ‘I,’ is taught in every nonfiction course” (43), writers often find it incredibly hard to actually include reflection in their work. He expresses his frustration that “Students are stuck on the idea—an idea that’s not entirely wrong—that readers need to think” (43), that reflecting in their work would over-explain the ideas to the reader. Not so. Instead, reflection offers “the crucial scene of the writer writing the memoir” (44), of the present-day writer who is looking back on and retelling the past. In a moment of reflection, the author steps out of the story to show a different kind of scene, in which they are sitting at their computer or with their notebook in some quiet place, looking at where they are now, versus where they were then; thinking critically about what they’ve learned. This should ideally happen in small moments, maybe single sentences, interspersed throughout the piece. Without reflection, you have a collection of scenes open for interpretation—though they might add up to nothing.

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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Definition, Subgenres, and Key Elements

Creative nonfiction is a popular genre that encompasses many kinds of books, including bestsellers such as Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. To get started writing creative nonfiction, first examine the definition, subgenres, and key elements of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction definition

Creative nonfiction is a genre known by many other names, including literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, nonfiction novel, documentary novel, and new journalism. So what exactly is the definition of creative nonfiction (or whatever you'd like to call it)?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines a nonfiction novel as a "story of actual people and actual events told with the dramatic techniques of a novel." And new journalism combines "journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real-life events."

Author and founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, Lee Gutkind , defines the genre simply as "true stories, well told." He says, "The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy."

Chip Scanlan , award-winning journalist and affiliate of The Poynter Institute, describes creative nonfiction as "the union of storytelling and journalism."

The creative nonfiction definition is described in different ways, but there are two things about the genre that identifies it: it's true (it's nonfiction), and it is written like a work of fiction using literary techniques.

Creative nonfiction subgenres

Creative nonfiction spans many diverse subgenres. Here are some of the creative nonfiction subgenres:


Narrative or literary journalism

Travel writing

Personal essay


Elements of creative nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is a diverse genre, but the successful works in this genre share some common elements. Here are the key elements of creative nonfiction:

Scenes: Use scenes to build your story. Scenes allow you to show your readers the story, instead of just telling them what happened.

Dialogue: Strong dialogue is key to any work of creative nonfiction. It's okay to use quotes, even though you may not know what was really said.

Character development: Just like in fiction, you need a well-developed central character to carry your story.

Story arc: A good story has a calculated beginning, middle, and end. Even though it's nonfiction, think about where the story should start, and where to stop for a satisfying ending.

Point of view: Often in creative nonfiction, the author's presence is felt in the story. While you may not actually be in the narrative, you can be part of the story through your unique writing voice or notes to the reader.

Authenticity: Although you employ literary devices used in fiction to craft a great piece of creative nonfiction, remember that it's nonfiction—you must tell the truth. Check your facts and never exaggerate to improve the story.

Writing creative nonfiction

Now that you understand the definition of creative nonfiction, its subgenres, and key elements, you may want to start a piece of your own. One of the fun things about the genre is that it exists in so many different forms, from a book to a poem to an essay. So go ahead—get started writing creative nonfiction and you'll have readers turning page after page of your riveting, true story.


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What is creative nonfiction?  It involves writing about personal experience, real people, or events. It is writing about fact, rather than fiction. The writer can write about anything, such as a personal experience, current events, or issues in the public eye. The writer can also inject personal thoughts, feelings, or opinions into the writing. Often, the writer uses the first person “I.” Popular types of creative nonfiction include the personal essay, memoir, autobiography, literary journalistic essay, travel writing, and food writing. Creative nonfiction is also known as “Literary Journalism.”

This article identifies the techniques of creative nonfiction, defines the various types of creative nonfiction, provides some guidelines, and lists several popular books and several resources to help the aspiring writing learn the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction.

How to Write Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer produces a  personal essay, memoir, travel piece, and so forth, with  a variety of  techniques, writing tools, and  methods. He/she is required to use the elements of nonfiction, literary devices of fiction, and what Lee Gutkind called “the 5 Rs of Creative nonfiction.”  The following is a brief explanation of each:

Elements of Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer often incorporates several elements of nonfiction when writing a memoir, personal essay, travel writing, and so on. The following is a brief explanation of the most common elements of nonfiction:

Literary Elements

Creative nonfiction is the literature of fact. Yet, the creative nonfiction writer utilizes many of the literary devices of fiction writing.  The following is a list of the most common literary devices that writers incorporate into their nonfiction writing:

The 5’Rs of Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind, who is a writer, professor, and expert on creative nonfiction, wrote an essay called “The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction.” In this essay, he identified five essential elements of creative nonfiction. These include:

Types of Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is about fact and truth.  The truth can be about a personal experience, event, or issue in the public eye. There are many categories or genres to choose from, such as the personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.  The following is a list of the most popular types of creative nonfiction:

Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Not only must the aspiring writer of creative nonfiction learn the techniques, but he/she also requires a good understanding of the guidelines. The following are 12 guidelines for writing any type of creative nonfiction:

Reading List

There have been many creative nonfiction books written about a wide variety of topics, such as divorce, abuse, and happiness. To help the aspiring writer learn the art and craft of creative nonfiction, he/she ought read creative nonfiction books by the best writers. By doing this, the writer acquires an appreciation for good writing and  learns how creative nonfiction is written. Some of the most popular creative nonfiction books include:

As well, there are several good books that are currently on many bestseller lists:

There are also many popular magazines that publish all types of creative nonfiction, including:

Resources for the Aspiring Writer

To write creative nonfiction, the aspiring writer must learn the craft.  He/she can do this by taking a course or through self-study. Both involve reading text books. The following books will help the aspiring writer learn how to write creative nonfiction:

Next, I will explain how to write a lead and ending.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blogs.

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Tags: Creative Nonfiction , Creative Writing , definition , elements of creative nonfiction , Elements of Fiction , Guidelines , literary devices , Literary Journalism , memoir , Personal Essay , Resources , Techniques

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Hi Dave, I am writing a memoir and found this a very helpful article. Thank you very much. I’m currently studying “Eat Pray Love.”

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I’m a first year student at thee international university of management pursuing a marketing degree, want to improve my writing skills at the same time thinking of pursuing writing, this was xtremly helpful. thanks

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by Kaelyn Barron | 5 comments

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It turns out, there are many ways to present real facts and events besides boring reports and charts. In fact, the best journalists and writers are often the ones who can present accurate information while also telling a riveting story.

Creative nonfiction combines 100% factual information with literary elements to tell real stories that resonate with readers and provide insight to actual events.

This is what your favorite memoirists, travel writers, and journalists do every day, and you can, too. Even if you don’t intend on publishing your work, learning to be an effective storyteller can enrich both your writing and communication skills.

What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses elements of creative writing to present a factual, true story. Literary techniques that are usually reserved for writing fiction can be used in creative nonfiction, such as dialogue, scene-setting, and narrative arcs.

However, a work can only be considered creative nonfiction if the author can attest that 100% of the content is true and factual. (In other words, even if just a few details from one scene are imagined, the story could not be considered creative nonfiction.)

The label “creative nonfiction” can be applied to a number of nonfiction genres, including:

What Is the Difference Between Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction?

The primary difference between nonfiction and creative nonfiction is that regular nonfiction informs or instructs by sticking to the facts.

Creative nonfiction also informs readers, but it does so by building a narrative around the facts by introducing the scene and building the characters of real people so readers can better relate to them.

What Are the Elements of Creative Nonfiction?

Because creative nonfiction is still nonfiction , there are important criteria that a piece of writing must meet in order to be considered part of this genre.

The writing must include:

In order to build a narrative around a set of facts, creative nonfiction uses a set of elements that we usually associate with fiction.

These can include, but are not limited to:

When Did Creative Nonfiction Start?

According to a Poets & Writers article published in 2009, Lee Gutkind is often credited with coining the term “creative nonfiction” as early as 1973, when he also taught a course at the University of Pittsburgh with those same words in its title.

However, Gutkind himself has admitted that this wasn’t really the case, and that he had heard the term before, but couldn’t remember where or from who.

Indeed, there is earlier written evidence of the term, as it appeared in a 1969 review by David Madden of Frank Conroy’s  Stop-Time .

Madden mentioned in the review, “In  Making It , Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor of  Commentary , who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence.”

In that same review, Madden called for a “redefinition” of nonfiction writing in the wake of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Jean Stafford, all writers whose style reflects the characteristics of what we defined earlier as “creative nonfiction.”

Examples of Creative Nonfiction

To gain a better understanding of this genre, let’s take a look at several examples of real books that can be considered creative nonfiction.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while he was still working on this book. At just 36 years old and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

With a wife and a young child, Kalanithi became “possessed…by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life.”

Through his narrative, Kalanithi documents the struggles, both internal and external, that he and his young family endured, but also offers inspiration to all of us for how life should be lived.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

On a lighter note, journalist Bianca Bosker brings us Cork Dork , her firsthand account of the fascinating world of wine, sommeliers, scientists, and producers.

Follow her dive into underground tastings, exclusive restaurants, and mass-market factories as Bosker seeks an answer to the question many of us wonder about: What’s the big deal about wine?

With her insightful reporting and delightful storytelling, you may just find yourself becoming a “cork dork,” too.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer unfolds the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man who gave $25,000 in savings to charity and abandoned most of his possessions before walking alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

McCandless’s decomposing body was found four months later by a moose hunter. In this book, which also became a feature film, Krakauer explores how this young man came to die, and what led him on such a journey in the first place.

Through remarkable storytelling, Krakauer brings this pilgrimage out of the shadows and shines a light on McCandless’s motives with a rare understanding.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara, true crime journalist and creator of the site TrueCrimeDiary.com, became obsessed with finding the violent psychopath known as the “Golden State Killer,” a serial rapist and murderer.

McNamara studied police records, interviewed victims, and joined the online communities of people who were as obsessed as she was with this case.

This book offers a chilling account of a criminal mastermind, while also providing a portrait of Michelle’s obsession and pursuit of the truth.

Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

If you want to try your hand at writing creative nonfiction, it’s important that you know how to take great notes and practice your observation skills.

After all, your first responsibility is to present people and events accurately, so keeping a notebook or journal handy is important for scribbling down all those important details that you won’t want to forget.

You can also try out some of our creative writing prompts , which includes a section for writing memoirs and nonfiction to inspire you.

Do you have any favorite examples of creative nonfiction? Share them with us in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:

Kaelyn Barron

As a blog writer for TCK Publishing, Kaelyn loves crafting fun and helpful content for writers, readers, and creative minds alike. She has a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Italian Studies, but her true passion has always been writing. Working remotely allows her to do even more of the things she loves, like traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.

Dr Veda P

CREATIVE NONFICTION explained very well. Helpful for beginners.


Thanks for this. It really helps me a lot!

Kaelyn Barron

You’re very welcome, Rowena! Glad we could help :)

Bonnie Samuel

Creative Nonfiction …. Kaelyn Barron’s concise description of this genre brings clarity. Certainly fits what I am writing, where others pronounced it as memoir or biography…could have been my description? Barron’s article here on the subject, now has me enthusiastically headed in the proper direction!!

Thanks Bonnie, I’m so happy to hear you found my article helpful! Best of luck with your book :)

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The 5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction

What's the Story #06

“The Essayist at Work” is our first special issue. The cover is different, and although it is our habit to center each issue around a general theme, the essays and profiles in “The Essayist at Work” are narrower in scope. In the future, we intend to publish special issues on a variety of topics, but this one is especially important, not only because it is our first, but also because it helps to launch the first Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference with the Goucher College Center for Graduate and Continuing Studies in Baltimore, Md., a supportive and enthusiastic summer partner. Many writers featured in “The Essayist at Work” will also be participating at the conference – an event we hope to continue to co-sponsor with Goucher for years to come.

The writers in this issue represent the incredible range of the newly emerging genre of creative nonfiction, from the struggle and success stories of Darcy Frey (“The Last Shot”) and William Least Heat-Moon (“Blue Highways”) to the master of the profession, John McPhee. From the roots of traditional journalism to poetry and fiction, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Steinbach, poet Diane Ackerman and novelists Phillip Lopate and Paul West, have helped expand the boundaries of form and tradition. Jane Bernstein, Steven Harvey, Mary Paumier Jones, Wendy Lesser and Natalia Rachel Singer ponder the spirit of the essay (and e-mail!), while I continue to reflect on and define the creative nonfiction form.

From the beginning, it has been our mission to probe the depths and intricacies of nonfiction by publishing the best prose by new and established writers. Creative Nonfiction provides a forum for writers, editors and readers interested in pushing the envelope of creativity and discussing and defining the parameters of accuracy, validity and truth. My essay below, “The 5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction,” is dedicated to that mission. It will appear in “More than the Truth: Teaching Nonfiction Writing Through Journalism,” which will be published in the fall of 1996 by Heineman.

It is 3 a.m., and I am standing on a stool in the operating room at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in scrubs, mask, cap and paper booties, peering over the hunched shoulders of four surgeons and a scrub nurse as a dying woman’s heart and lungs are being removed from her chest. This is a scene I have observed frequently since starting my work on a book about the world of organ transplantation, but it never fails to amaze and startle me: to look down into a gaping hole in a human being’s chest, which has been cracked open and emptied of all of its contents, watching the monitor and listening to the rhythmic sighing sounds of the ventilator, knowing that this woman is on the fragile cusp of life and death and that I am observing what might well be the final moments of her life.

Now the telephone rings; a nurse answers, listens for a moment and then hangs up. “On the roof,” she announces, meaning that the helicopter has set down on the hospital helipad and that a healthy set of organs, a heart and two lungs, en bloc, will soon be available to implant into this woman, whose immediate fate will be decided within the next few hours.

With a brisk nod, the lead surgeon, Bartley Griffith, a young man who pioneered heart-lung transplantation and who at this point has lost more patients with the procedure than he had saved, looks up, glances around and finally rests his eyes on me: “Lee,” he says, “would you do me a great favor?”

I was surprised. Over the past three years I had observed Bart Griffith in the operating room a number of times, and although a great deal of conversation takes place between doctors and nurses during the long and intense surgical ordeal, he had only infrequently addressed me in such a direct and spontaneous manner.

Our personal distance is a by-product of my own technique as an immersion journalist – my “fly-on-the wall” or “living room sofa” concept of “immersion”: Writers should be regular and silent observers, so much so that they are virtually unnoticed. Like walking through your living room dozens of times, but only paying attention to the sofa when suddenly you realize that it is missing. Researching a book about transplantation, “Many Sleepless Nights” (W.W. Norton), I had been accorded great access to the O.R., the transplant wards, ethics debates and the most intimate conversations between patients, family members and medical staff. I had jetted through the night on organ donor runs. I had witnessed great drama – at a personal distance.

But on that important early morning, Bartley Griffith took note of my presence and requested that I perform a service for him. He explained that this was going to be a crucial time in the heart-lung procedure, which had been going on for about five hours, but that he felt obligated to make contact with this woman’s husband who had traveled here from Kansas City, Mo. “I can’t take the time to talk to the man myself, but I am wondering if you would brief him as to what has happened so far. Tell him that the organs have arrived, but that even if all goes well, the procedure will take at least another five hours and maybe longer.” Griffith didn’t need to mention that the most challenging aspect of the surgery – the implantation – was upcoming; the danger to the woman was at a heightened state.

A few minutes later, on my way to the ICU waiting area where I would find Dave Fulk, the woman’s husband, I stopped in the surgeon’s lounge for a quick cup of coffee and a moment to think about how I might approach this man, undoubtedly nervous – perhaps even hysterical – waiting for news of his wife. I also felt kind of relieved, truthfully, to be out of the O.R,, where the atmosphere is so intense.

Although I had been totally caught-up in the drama of organ transplantation during my research, I had recently been losing my passion and curiosity; I was slipping into a life and death overload in which all of the sad stories from people all across the world seemed to be congealing into the same muddled dream. From experience, I recognized this feeling – a clear signal that it was time to abandon the research phase of this book and sit down and start to write. Yet, as a writer, I was confronting a serious and frightening problem: Overwhelmed with facts and statistics, tragic and triumphant stories, I felt confused. I knew, basically, what I wanted to say about what I learned, but I didn’t know how to structure my message or where to begin.

And so, instead of walking away from this research experience and sitting down and starting to write my book, I continued to return to the scene of my transplant adventures waiting for lightning to strike . . . inspiration for when the very special way to start my book would make itself known. In retrospect, I believe that Bart Griffith’s rare request triggered that magic moment of clarity I had long been awaiting.

Defining the Discussion

Before I tell you what happened, however, let me explain what kind of work I do as an immersion journalist/creative nonfiction writer, and explain what I am doing, from a writer’s point-of-view, in this essay.

But first some definitions: “Immersion journalists” immerse or involve themselves in the lives of the people about whom they are writing in ways that will provide readers with a rare and special intimacy.

The other phrase to define, a much broader term, creative nonfiction, is a concept that offers great flexibility and freedom, while adhering to the basic tenets of nonfiction writing and/or reporting. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize fictional (literary) techniques in their prose – from scene to dialogue to description to point-of-view – and be cinematic at the same time. Creative nonfiction writers write about themselves and/or capture real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows, but encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self-discovery, flexibility and freedom.

When I refer to creative nonfiction, I include memoir (autobiography), and documentary drama, a term more often used in relation to film, as in “Hoop Dreams,” which captures the lives of two inner-city high school basketball players over a six-year period. Much of what is generically referred to as “literary journalism” or in the past, “new journalism,” can be classified as creative nonfiction. Although it is the current vogue in the world of writing today, the combination of creative nonfiction as a form of writing and immersion as a method of research has a long history. George Orwell’s famous essay, “Shooting an Elephant” combines personal experience and high quality literary writing techniques. The Daniel DeFoe classic, “Robinson Crusoe,” is based upon a true story of a physician who was marooned on a desert island. Ernest Hemingway’s paean to bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” comes under the creative nonfiction umbrella, as does Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff,” which was made into an award-winning film. Other well-known creative nonfiction writers, who may utilize immersion techniques include John McPhee (“Coming Into the Country”), Tracy Kidder (“House”), Diane Ackerman (“A Natural History of the Senses”) and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard (“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”), to name only a few of the many authors who have contributed to this burgeoning genre.

Currently, many of our best magazines – The New Yorker, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Esquire – publish more creative nonfiction than fiction and poetry combined. Universities offer Master of Fine Arts degrees in creative nonfiction. Newspapers are publishing an increasing amount of creative nonfiction, not only as features, but in the news and op-ed pages, as well.

Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmitic – the 3Rs – was the way in which basic public school education was once described. The “5 Rs” is an easy way to remember the basic tenets of creative nonfiction/immersion journalism.

The first “R” has already been explained and discussed: the “immersion” or “real life” aspect of the writing experience. As a writing teacher, I design assignments that have a real-life aspect: I force my students out into their communities for an hour, a day, or even a week so that they see and understand that the foundation of good writing emerges from personal experience. Some writers (and students) may utilize their own personal experience rather than immersing themselves in the experiences of others. In a recent introductory class I taught, one young man working his way through school as a sales person wrote about selling shoes, while another student, who served as a volunteer in a hospice, captured a dramatic moment of death, grief and family relief. I’ve sent my students to police stations, bagel shops, golf courses; together, my classes have gone on excursions and participated in public service projects – all in an attempt to experience or re-create from personal experience real life.

In contrast to the term “reportage,” the word “essay” usually connotes a more personal message from writer to reader. “An essay is when I write what I think about something,” students will often say to me. Which is true, to a certain extent – and also the source of the meaning of the second “R” for “reflection.” A writer’s feelings and responses about a subject are permitted and encouraged, as long as what they think is written to embrace the reader in a variety of ways. As editor of Creative Nonfiction, I receive approximately 150 unsolicited essays, book excerpts and profiles a month for possible publication. Of the many reasons the vast majority of these submissions are rejected, two are most prevalent, the first being an overwhelming egocentrism; in other words, writers write too much about themselves without seeking a universal focus or umbrella so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of the personal essayist is to make the reader tune in – not out.

The second reason Creative Nonfiction and most other journals and magazines reject essays is a lack of attention to the mission of the genre, which is to gather and present information, to teach readers about a person, place, idea or situation combining the creativity of the artistic experience with the essential third “R” in the formula: “Research.”

Even the most personal essay is usually full of substantive detail about a subject that affects or concerns a writer and the people about whom he or she is writing. Read the books and essays of the most renowned nonfiction writers in this century and you will read about a writer engaged in a quest for information and discovery. From George Orwell to Ernest Hemingway to John McPhee, books and essays written by these writers are invariably about a subject other than themselves, although the narrator will be intimately included in the story. Personal experience and spontaneous intellectual discourse – an airing and exploration of ideas – are equally vital. In her first book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and in her other books and essays, Annie Dillard repeatedly overwhelms her readers with factual information, minutely detailed descriptions of insects, botany and biology, history, anthropology, blended with her own feelings about life.

One of my favorite Dillard essays, “Schedules,” focuses upon the importance of writers working on a regular schedule rather than writing only intermittently. In “Schedules,” she discusses, among many other subjects, Hasidism, chess, baseball, warblers, pine trees, june bugs, writers’ studios and potted plants – not to mention her own schedule and writing habits and that of Wallace Stevens and Jack London.

What I am saying is that the genre of creative nonfiction, although anchored in factual information, is open to anyone with a curious mind and a sense of self. The research phase actually launches and anchors the creative effort. Whether it is a book or essay I am planning, I always begin my quest in the library – for three reasons. First, I need to familiarize myself with the subject. If it is something about which I do not know, I want to make myself knowledgeable enough to ask intelligent questions. If I can’t display at least a minimal understanding of the subject about which I am writing, I will lose the confidence and the support of the people who must provide access to the experience.

Secondly, I will want to assess my competition. What other essays, books and articles have been written about this subject? Who are the experts, the pioneers, the most controversial figures? I want to find a new angle – not write a story similar to one that has already been written. And finally, how can I reflect and evaluate a person, subject or place unless I know all of the contrasting points-of-view? Reflection may permit a certain amount of speculation, but only when based upon a solid foundation of knowledge.

So far in this essay I have named a number of well-respected creative nonfiction writers and discussed their work, which means I have satisfied the fourth “R” in our “5R” formula: “Reading.” Not only must writers read the research material unearthed in the library, but they also must read the work of the masters of their profession. I have heard some very fine writers claim that they don’t read too much anymore – or that they don’t read for long periods, especially during the time they are laboring on a lengthy writing project. But almost all writers have read the best writers in their field and are able to converse in great detail about the stylistic approach and intellectual content. An artist who has never studied Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, even Warhol, is an artist who will quite possibly never succeed.

So far we have mostly discussed the nonfiction or journalistic aspects of the immersion journalism/creative nonfiction genre. The 5th “R” the “riting” part is the most artistic and romantic aspect of the total experience. After all of the preparatory (nonfiction) work is complete, writers will often “create” in two phases. Usually, there is an inspirational explosion, a time when writers allow instinct and feeling to guide their fingers as they create paragraphs, pages, and even entire chapters of books or complete essays. This is what art of any form is all about – the passion of the moment and the magic of the muse. I am not saying that this always happens; it doesn’t. Writing is a difficult labor, in which a regular schedule, a daily grind of struggle, is inevitable. But this first part of the experience for most writers is rather loose and spontaneous and therefore more “creative” and fun. The second part of the writing experience – the “craft” part, which comes into play after your basic essay is written – is equally important – and a hundred times more difficult.

Writing in Scenes

Vignettes, episodes, slices of reality are the building blocks of creative nonfiction – the primary distinguishing factor between traditional reportage/journalism and “literary” and/or creative nonfiction and between good, evocative writing and ordinary prose. The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place or personality in action. Before we discuss the actual content or construction of a scene, let me suggest that you perform what I like to call the “yellow test.”

Take a yellow “Hi-Liter” or Magic Marker and leaf through your favorite magazines – Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker or Creative Nonfiction. Or return to favorite chapters in previously mentioned books by Dillard, Ackerman, etc. Yellow-in the scenes, just the scenes, large and small. Then return to the beginning and review your handiwork. Chances are, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of each essay, short story, novel selected will be yellow. Plays are obviously constructed with scenes, as are films. Most poems are very scenic.

Jeanne Marie Laskas, the talented columnist for the Washington Post Magazine, once told me: “I only have one rule from start to finish. I write in scenes. It doesn’t matter to me in which order the scenes are written; I write whichever scene inspires me at any given time, and I worry about the plot or frame or narrative later. The scene – a scene – any scene – is always first.”

The Elements of a Scene

First and foremost, a scene contains action. Something happens. I jump on my motorcycle and go helter-skelter around the country; suddenly, in the middle of July in Yellowstone National Park I am confronted with 20 inches of snow. Action needn’t be wild, sexy and death-defying, however. There’s also action in the classroom. A student asks a question, which requires an answer, which necessitates a dialogue, which is a marvelously effective tool to trigger or record action. Dialogue represents people saying things to one another, expressing themselves. It is a valuable scenic building block. Discovering dialogue is one of the reasons to immerse ourselves at a police station, bagel shop or at a zoo. To discover what people have to say spontaneously – and not in response to a reporter’s prepared questions.

Another vehicle or technique of the creative nonfiction experience may be described as “intimate and specific detail.” Through use of intimate detail, we can hear and see how the people about whom we are writing say what is on their minds; we may note the inflections in their voices, their elaborate hand movements and any other eccentricities. “Intimate” is a key distinction in the use of detail when crafting good scenes. Intimate means recording and noting detail that the reader might not know or even imagine without your particular inside insight. Sometimes intimate detail can be so specific and special that it becomes unforgettable in the reader’s mind. A very famous “intimate” detail appears in a classic creative nonfiction profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” written by Gay Talese in 1962 and published in Esquire Magazine.

In this profile, Talese leads readers on a whirlwind cross country tour, revealing Sinatra and his entourage interacting with one another and with the rest of the world and demonstrating how the Sinatra world and the world inhabited by everyone else will often collide. These scenes are action-oriented; they contain dialogue and evocative description with great specificity and intimacy such as the gray-haired lady spotted in the shadows of the Sinatra entourage – the guardian of Sinatra’s collection of toupees. This tiny detail – Sinatra’s wig lady – loomed so large in my mind when I first read the essay that even now, 35 years later, anytime I see Sinatra on TV or spot his photo in a magazine, I find myself unconsciously searching the background for the gray-haired lady with the hatbox.

The Narrative – or Frame

The frame represents a way of ordering or controlling a writer’s narrative so that the elements of his book, article or essay are presented in an interesting and orderly fashion with an interlaced integrity from beginning to end.

Some frames are very complicated, as in the movie, “Pulp Fiction”; Quentin Tarantino skillfully tangles and manipulates time. But the most basic frame is a simple beginning-to-end chronology. “Hoop Dreams,” for example, the dramatic documentary (which is also classic creative nonfiction) begins with two African-American teen-age basketball stars living in a ghetto and sharing a dream of stardom in the NBA and dramatically tracks both of their careers over the next six years.

As demonstrated in “Pulp Fiction,” writers don’t always frame in a strictly chronological sequence. My book, “One Children’s Place,” begins in the operating room at a children’s hospital. It introduces a surgeon, whose name is Marc Rowe, his severely handicapped patient, Danielle, and her mother, Debbie, who has dedicated her every waking moment to Danielle. Two years of her life have been spent inside the walls of this building with parents and children from all across the world whose lives are too endangered to leave the confines of the hospital. As Danielle’s surgery goes forward, the reader tours the hospital in a very intimate way, observing in the emergency room, participating in helicopter rescue missions as part of the emergency trauma team, attending ethics meetings, well-baby clinics, child abuse examinations – every conceivable activity at a typical high-acuity children’s hospital so that readers will learn from the inside out how such an institution and the people it services and supports function on an hour-by-hour basis. We even learn about Marc Rowe’s guilty conscience about how he has slighted his own wife and children over the years so that he can care for other families.

The book ends when Danielle is released from the hospital. It took two years to research and write this book, returning day and night to the hospital in order to understand the hospital and the people who made it special, but the story in which it is framed begins and ends in a few months.

Back to the Beginning – That Rare and Wonderful Moment of Clarity

Now let’s think about this essay as a piece of creative nonfiction writing, especially in relation to the concept of framing. It begins with a scene. We are in an operating room at the University of Pittsburgh, the world’s largest organ transplant center, in the middle of a rare and delicate surgery that will decide a dying woman’s fate. Her heart and both lungs have been emptied out of her chest and she is maintained on a heart-bypass system. The telephone alerts the surgical team that a fresh and potentially lifesaving set of organs has arrived at the hospital via helicopter. Suddenly the lead surgeon looks up and asks an observer (me) to make contact with the woman’s husband. I agree, leave the operating room and then stop for a coffee in the surgeon’s lounge.

Then, instead of moving the story forward, fulfilling my promise to Dr. Griffith and resolving my own writing dilemma, I change directions, move backwards (flashback) in time and sequence and begin to discuss this genre – immersion journalism/creative nonfiction. I provide a mountain of information – definitions, descriptions, examples, explanations. Basically, I am attempting to satisfy the nonfiction part of my responsibility to my readers and my editors while hoping that the suspense created in the first few pages will provide an added inducement for readers to remain focused and interested in this Introduction from the beginning to the end where, (the reader assumes) the two stories introduced in the first few pages will be completed.

In fact, my meeting with Dave Fulk in the ICU waiting room that dark morning was exactly the experience I had been waiting for, leading to that precious and magic moment of clarity for which I was searching and hoping. When I arrived, Mr. Fulk was talking with an elderly man and woman from Sacramento, Calif., who happened to be the parents of a 21-year-old U.S. Army private named Rebecca Treat who, I soon discovered, was the recipient of the liver from the same donor who gave Dave’s wife (Winkle Fulk) a heart and lungs. Rebecca Treat, “life-flighted” to Pittsburgh from California, had been in a coma for 10 days by the time she arrived in Pittsburgh; the transplanted liver was her only hope of ever emerging from that coma and seeing the light of day.

Over the next half-hour of conversation, I learned that Winkle Fulk had been slowly dying for four years, had been bedbound for three of those years, as Dave and their children watched her life dwindle away, as fluid filled her lungs and began to destroy her heart. Rebecca’s fate had been much more sudden; having contracted hepatitis in the army, she crashed almost immediately. To make matters worse, Rebecca and her new husband had separated. As I sat in the darkened waiting area with Dave Fulk and Rebecca’s parents, I suddenly realized what it was I was looking for, what my frame or narrative element could be. I wanted to tell about the organ transplant experience – and what organ transplantation can mean from a universal perspective – medically, scientifically, personally for patients, families and surgeons. Rebecca’s parents and the Fulk family, once strangers, would now be permanently and intimately connected by still another stranger – the donor – the person whose tragic death provided hope and perhaps salvation to two dying people. In fact, my last quest in the research phase of the transplant book experience was to discover the identity of this mysterious donor and literally connect the principal characters. In so doing, the frame or narrative drive of the story emerged.

“Many Sleepless Nights” begins when 15-year-old Richie Becker, a healthy and handsome teen-ager from Charlotte, N.C., discovers that his father is going to sell the sports car that he had hoped would one day be his. In a spontaneous and thoughtless gesture of defiance, Richie, who had never been behind the wheel, secretly takes his father’s sports car on a joy ride. Three blocks from his home, he wraps the car around a tree and is subsequently declared brain dead at the local hospital. Devastated by the experience, but hoping for some positive outcome to such a senseless tragedy, Richie’s father, Dick, donates his son’s organs for transplantation.

Then the story flashes back a half century, detailing surgeons’ first attempts at transplantation and all of the experimentation and controversy leading up to the development and acceptance of transplant techniques. I introduce Winkle Fulk and Pvt. Rebecca Treat. Richie Becker’s liver is transplanted into Rebecca, while his heart and lungs are sewn into Mrs. Fulk by Dr. Bartley Griffith. The last scene of the book 370 pages later is dramatic and telling and finishes the frame three years later when Winkle Fulk travels to Charlotte, N.C., a reunion I arranged to allow the folks to personally thank Richie’s father for his son’s gift of life.

At the end of the evening, just as we were about to say goodbye and return to the motel, Dick Becker stood up in the center of the living room of his house, paused, and then walked slowly and hesitantly over toward Winkle Fulk, who had once stood alone at the precipice of death. He eased himself down on his knees, took Winkle Fulk by the shoulder and simultaneously drew her closer, as he leaned forward and placed his ear gently but firmly between her breasts and then at her back.

Everyone in that room was suddenly and silently breathless, watching as Dick Becker listened for the last time to the absolutely astounding miracle of organ transplantation: the heart and the lungs of his dead son Richie, beating faithfully and unceasingly inside this stranger’s warm and loving chest.

Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.

49 Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction

Dr. Karen Palmer

Introduction to Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction has existed for as long as poetry, fiction, and drama have, but only in the last forty years or so has the term become common as a label for creative, factual prose. The length is not  a factor in characterizing this genre: Such prose can take the form of an essay or a book. For this chapter’s discussion, we will focus on the essay , since not only will this shorter version of the form allow us to examine multiple examples for a better understanding of the genre, but also, you may have written creative nonfiction essays yourself. Looking carefully at the strategies exhibited by some successful essay writers will give us new ideas for achieving goals in our own writing.

Currently, creative non-fiction is the most popular literary genre. While generations past defined literature as poetry, drama, and fiction, creative nonfiction has increasingly gained popularity and recognition in the literary world.

Creative nonfiction stories depict real-life events, places, people, and experiences, but do so in a way that is immersive, so readers feel emotionally invested in the writing in a way they probably are not as invested in, say, a textbook or a more formal autobiography. While “nonfiction” (without the creative designation) tells true stories as well, there is less emphasis upon and space for creativity. If regular nonfiction were a person, it might say “just the facts, ma’am.” Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, might ask “and what color were her eyes as the moonlight reflected off the ocean into them, and what childhood memories did that moment dredge up?”

The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic — or literary — way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. It can be lyric and personal or representing important moments in history. They also might be more objective and scholarly, like many pieces of investigative journalism.

Key Takeaways

Creative Nonfiction Characteristics

When reading a work of creative nonfiction, it is important to remember the story is true. This means the author does not have as much artistic freedom as a fiction writer or poet might, because they cannot invent events which did not happen. It is worthwhile, then, to pay attention to the literary devices and other artistic choices the narrator makes. Readers should consider: what choices were made here about what to include and what to omit? Are there repeating images or themes? How might the historical context influence this work?

First, let’s do what we can to more clearly define the creative nonfiction essay. What is the difference between this kind of essay and an academic essay? Although written in prose form ( prose is writing not visually broken into distinct lines as poetry is), the creative nonfiction essay often strives for a poetic effect , employing a kind of compressed, distilled language so that most words carry more meaning than their simple denotation (or literal meaning). Generally, this kind of essay is not heavy with researched information or formal argument; its priority, instead, is to generate a powerful emotional and aesthetic effect ( aesthetic referring to artistic and/or beautiful qualities).

In this video, Evan Puschak discusses the evolution of the essay with the advent of technology and gives some really interesting insight into the importance of essays.

How YouTube Changed The Essay | Evan Puschak | TEDxLafayetteCollege

Four Types of Essay

A narrative essay recounts a sequence of related events.  Narrative essays are usually autobiographical. Events are chosen because they suggest or illustrate some universal truth or insight about life. In other words, the author has discovered in his/her own experiences evidence for generalizations about themselves or society.


An argumentative essay strives to persuade readers. It usually deals with controversial ideas, creating arguments and gathering evidence to support a particular point of view. The author anticipates and answers opposing arguments in order to persuade the reader to adopt the author’s perspective.

In this video, the instructor gives an overview of the narrative and argumentative essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.


A descriptive essay depicts sensory observations in words. They evoke reader’s imagination and address complex issues by appealing to the senses instead of the intellect. While a narrative essay will certainly employ description, the primary difference between the two is that a descriptive essay focuses only on appealing to the senses, whereas a narrative essay uses description to tell a story.


An expository essay attempt to explain a topic, making it clear to readers. In an expository essay, the author organizes and provides information. Examples of this type of essay include the definition essay and the process analysis (how-to).

In this videos, the instructor gives an overview of the descriptive and expository essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.

Choosing a Topic & Reading the Essay: Steps 1 & 2

Your first step in writing a paper about an essay is to choose an essay and read it carefully. Essays confront readers directly with an idea, a problem, an illuminating experience, an important definition, or some flaw/virtue in the social system. Usually short, an essay embodies the writer’s personal viewpoint and speaks with the voice of a real person about the real word. Essays might also explore & clarify ideas by arguing for or against a position.

When reading an essay, ask yourself, “what is the central argument or idea?” Does the essay attack or justify something, or remind readers of something about their inner lives?

In this video, I do a close reading of the essay “ The Grapes of Mrs. Wrath .” As in any type of literature, you want to read first for enjoyment and understanding. Then, go back and do a close reading with a pen in hand, jotting down notes and looking for the ways in which the author gets his/her point across to the reader.

Virginia Woolf’s 1942 “The Death of the Moth” is an illuminating example of an argumentative essay. While the essay does not present a stated argument and proceed to offer evidence in the same way conventional academic argument would, it does strive to persuade . Consider this piece carefully and see if you can detect the theme that Woolf is developing.

“The Death of the Moth”

Here are some important items to consider when reading an essay.

1. The Thesis:

What is the point of the piece of writing? This should be your central concern. Once you know what the author’s main idea is, you can look at what techniques the author uses to get that point across successfully.

The title of Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” offers us, from the start, the knowledge of the work’s theme of death. What impression does the essay, as a whole, convey? The writer acknowledges that watching even such a small creature as the moth struggle against death, she sympathizes with the moth and not with the “power of such magnitude” that carries on outside the window—that of time and inevitable change, for this power is ultimately her own “enemy” as well. In her last line, “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am,” what lesson has she internalized regarding herself , a human being who at first observed the autumn day with no immediate sense of her own mortality?

2. Structure & detail:

While this piece is not a poem, what aspects of it are poetic ? Consider the imagery employed to suggest the season of death, for all of nature. The writer describes her experience sitting at her desk next to the window, observing the signs of autumn: the plow “scoring the field” where the crop (or “share”) has already been harvested. Although the scene begins in morning—characterized by energetic exertions of nature, including the rooks, rising and settling into the trees again and again with a great deal of noise, “as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience”—the day shifts, as the essay progresses, to afternoon, the birds having left the trees of this field for some other place. Like the moth, the day and the year are waning. The energy that each began with is now diminishing, as is the case for all living things.

The writer is impressed with the moth’s valiant struggle against its impending death because she is also aware of its inevitable doom: “[T] here was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him.” As is common in poetry, Woolf’s diction not only suggests her attitude toward the subject, but also exhibits a lyrical quality that enhances the work’s  effect: She introduces words whose meanings are associated with youth and energy, as well as sounding strong with the “vigorous” consonants of “g,” “c,” “z,” and “t”—words such as “vigour,” “clamour,” and “zest.” Yet, the author counters this positive tone with other words that suggest, both in meaning and in their softer sounds, the vulnerability of living things: “thin,” “frail,” “diminutive,” and “futile.” In a third category of diction, with words of compliment—”extraordinary” and “uncomplainingly”—

Woolf acknowledges the moth’s admirable fight. In addition to indicating the moth’s heroism, the very length of these words seems to model the moth’s attempts to drag out its last moments of life.

3. Style and Tone

Woolf’s choice of tone for an essay on this topic is, perhaps, what distinguishes it from the many other literary works on the subject. The attitude is not one of tragedy, horror, or indignation, as we might expect. Rather, through imagery and diction, Woolf generates a tone of wistfulness . By carefully crafting the reader’s experience of the moth’s death, through the author’s own first person point of view, she reminds us of our own human struggle against death, which is both heroic and inevitable.

Step 2: Personal Response

For Further Reading

Believe it or not, people actually add essays to their reading lists! Here are a few folks talking about their favorite essay collections. 🙂


The Worry Free Writer by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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