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Nonfiction Writing Tips: How to Tell a True Story in a Creative Way
by Tim McConnehey ( @izzardink )
Successful nonfiction writing calls for more than just conveying information to your reader. Not only do you need to know how to deliver that information, but your writing should also be clear and easy to read. And just because you’re writing nonfiction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage your reader with a gripping story and impactful language. These nonfiction writing tips will help you steer clear of some of the most common mistakes made by nonfiction authors, who may think that all they have to do is present the facts.
Nonfiction Writing Tips
Ask yourself "why are you writing who are you writing for".
- Remember that you still need to tell a story
Draw in your readers
Use emotional, impactful language, start with an outline, learn from your favorite fiction.
If you only follow one nonfiction writing tip, it should probably be this one. According to The Creative Penn, the single most common mistake among nonfiction authors is failing to identify the reason they’re writing the book in the first place. Besides wanting to write a profitable bestselling book , why are you choosing to write about your topic? What is it you want to say, and perhaps most importantly, who is the audience you’re hoping to reach? Imagine the ideal reader for your book, and exactly what you hope they will get out of reading it.
Choosing too wide of an audience can make it harder to cater to their interests with your writing, but choosing too narrow an audience can, of course, make it hard to find readers for your book. You’ll want to have this figured out before you start writing, but it’s also information you’ll use to market your book later on. So take the time to figure out your mission in writing your nonfiction book, and keep your target audience in mind as you write.
Remember you still need to tell a story
Many nonfiction authors may believe that narrative structure isn’t necessary for a nonfiction book. Instead of simply listing a series of facts or events, successful nonfiction tells a story. In its most basic form, this can mean a three-part structure, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.
It can include characters , and character development. You can even utilize dialogue. For example, if you’re writing a book about a certain period of history, you’ll probably want to identify a core set of characters that drove the events in question. A book about the American Revolution will be much more interesting if it takes the time to paint a portrait of Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, than if it simply describes a series of events and battles.
In fact, telling the story through their eyes is a great way to get the reader absorbed in your narrative, and add a humanizing element to the facts , while also giving you an opportunity to describe the events or information.
You might assume every reader that picks up your book has already decided to spend money and time to learn about the topic you’re writing about. In some cases, this might be true. But your opening is your chance not only to convince them your topic is worth reading about, but that you’re the best author from whom to learn about it. Once again, this is a cue that nonfiction writers can take from the most successful fiction writing.
This can mean starting with an anecdote, a surprising fact, or posing a question for your audience to consider. The idea is to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read more.
Aspiring nonfiction authors might believe that drama and emotion are best left to fiction writers. They might also simply believe they don’t need to think much about word choice. But the right language can bring drama, suspense, and tension to whatever story you’re trying to tell, whether it’s fiction or not.
Successful nonfiction books don’t read like an academic paper or a textbook. They use simple, impactful language that the average reader can understand and appreciate. It’s the difference between saying “the situation worsened after collapse of stock prices in 1929” and saying “life for Americans turned desperate after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.”
By laying out this outline or a table of contents first, you can make sure the structure of the book and the sequence of information holds up well. Sorting this out first will allow you to be sure of the order before you start working on transitioning between chapters and how your ideas connect.
If there’s a pattern in these nonfiction writing tips, it’s that nonfiction writers can learn a lot from great fiction writing. Most tips for fiction writing can and should be used in nonfiction writing. Like fiction writers, nonfiction writers will appeal to readers by paying close attention to word choice, narrative structure, and characters.
Knowing your goals and your audience and telling your story on a human-level, using captivating language and character development, will build the best foundation for an engaging story that will both educate and entertain readers while establishing you as a reliable authority on your subject.
As Mark Twain said:
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”
Tim McConnehey is the founder and owner of Izzard Ink Publishing where “self-publishing does not mean publishing by yourself.” As a collaborative publisher, Tim and the Izzard Ink team have helped authors sell hundreds of thousands of books around the world, including partnering with local publishers on four continents.
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The Reading Room
13 June 2022
How to Write Amazing Narrative Non-Fiction
Narrative non-fiction brings to life true stories like historic events and personal experiences. It uses the techniques usually associated with fiction writing, such as plot, character, and detailed scene-setting.
This very popular genre informs the reader with facts and detailed accounts of real-life events, but is written in an engaging and dramatic way designed to grip the reader’s attention and make the reading experience enjoyable. Narrative non-fiction is sometimes referred to as literary non-fiction or creative non-fiction.
Why should you write narrative non-fiction?
What is interesting and exciting about narrative non-fiction is that it can cover just about any topic. You might see it shelved in almost any section of physical and online bookstores. For example, narrative non-fiction can explore an unknown perspective on a historical event based on research that’s only just been discovered. It can tell the story of an individual or a company’s dramatic demise or it can paint an eye-opening picture of a particular political or social current affair.
What makes good narrative non-fiction?
Often written by investigative journalists, historians, and sometimes biographers, works of narrative non-fiction are informative but they are also entertaining to read because the storytelling element is so important.
Conducting original and thorough research is a cornerstone of good narrative non-fiction writing. When researching their subjects, writers will often conduct interviews with key people, obtain access to private diaries, read old newspaper articles, and search historical records in order to get the most accurate information about a series of events.
Another cornerstone of great narrative non-fiction is the quality of the writing. Just like in fiction books, writers use dialogue and characterization to reveal character relationships and story development. Choosing to tell the story through specific scenes instead of simply summarizing the events that took place is what separates this form of writing from other types of non-fiction like history, reports, news stories, and biographies.
The structure a writer chooses to tell the story in goes a long way to creating drama and suspense for readers. While straight histories or news reporting tend to tell events in chronological order, with narrative non-fiction you can be more playful. You can switch perspectives and timelines meaning that the story can be told in a more exciting and intriguing way.
For example, a lot of books open with a scene set in the present day to show the reader where the story is now, and then they will go back in time to show where the story began. Other books may start with a scene in the middle of all the action and then go back in time to tell the story from the beginning, catching up with the events the opening started with before going beyond them to finish the story.
The right balance between fact and fiction
As this form of writing uses literary styles and techniques, writers sometimes use creative license to drive their story forward and make it more interesting. It’s hard to create a completely accurate representation of something that happened a long time ago unless you have ample records of the event, like a recorded conversation or eye-witness account. Often, writers might elaborate on some details, using conjecture to fill in the blanks in the narrative.
Finding the right balance between accuracy and creative license is important – you want to create a book that has integrity and is true to real life, but you also want to help the reader paint a picture of how something might have happened in the absence of concrete information. This should happen in an informed and subtle way, always noting where you’re using conjecture, rather than writing it as truth.
A defined author presence
When using conjecture to drive the narrative, the perspective of the writer becomes an important element. In narrative non-fiction writing, there isn’t always a strong authorial voice driving the narrative, but it is still present.
The authorial presence and voice is especially important when there has been a lot of original research and witness interviews. Investigative reporters will often comment on characters who they have tried to speak with, who they might even be writing about, and will often have a personal connection to the story. As an example, they might explain how they received an anonymous tip from someone and will therefore include their own involvement in the story. They become part of the narrative.
Publication and audience
Narrative non-fiction is a very popular genre. Walk into most bookshops and you’ll see it represented on shelves and on feature tables. Typically this space has been dominated by male writers but it’s promising to see there are more and more female writers emerging in this space.
Narrative non-fiction tends to be published in a Hardback format because of its literary qualities and often very topical subjects. It’s a genre that is often very well reviewed in traditional media outlets like national papers. A year after the Hardback publication a Paperback format will typically be released. This new format will aim to reach more mass-market readers. Audio editions of narrative non-fiction tend to sell very strongly too, as readers who are interested in these kinds of narratives are usually big podcast listeners.
Tips for writing narrative non-fiction
If you’re developing a book proposal that classifies as narrative non-fiction, it’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the best way to structure my book so that the story is dramatic and interesting?
- Am I describing scenes, events, and people in enough detail? If your reader didn’t know this story was true, might they almost mistake it for fiction? (It would be a good sign if they did – often the highest praise for narrative non-fiction is ‘reads like a thriller’ or ‘a page turner I couldn’t put down’)
- Have you done enough research on the subject? How unique is your research? Is there more you could find out about the events of your subject from archival documents, contemporary diaries, or by interviewing characters or their families?
- How can I prove that I am qualified to write this book? If you’re not an investigative journalist, historian, or professional writer by trade, how can you reassure the publisher and reader that you are qualified to write this book? It’s important to show how much research you’ve done on the subject and to use sample writing to show off the quality of your writing.
Remember, this genre is all about research and storytelling. Your book should be well-researched and should account for real-life events as accurately as possible. It should be written in an engaging way that holds the reader’s attention. You should aim to tell your story in as dramatic and interesting a way as you can, while staying faithful to the truth.
Bestselling books to read
If you’re thinking about writing a narrative non-fiction book it’s a good idea to read some of the top-selling books in this area to help you get a flavour of the writing style and reading experience. Reading some of these books should also give you helpful insights into different ways you can hook your reader in, how to approach the narrative arc and structure of your book, and give you ideas on pacing.
Agent Sonya by Ben MacIntyre
This is the remarkable story of the greatest female spy in history, from one of Britain’s most acclaimed historians. A devoted mother-of-three, attentive wife, and friendly neighbour, Sonya Burton seemed to epitomise British domesticity. But far from an obedient homemaker, Sonya Burton was a dedicated communist, a decorated colonel, and a veteran spy who risked her life to keep the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race.
In Agent Sonya , Ben Macintyre has created a page-turning work of non-fiction that has you hooked at every twist and turn, so much so that it almost reads like a thriller . Macintyre writes with the diligence and accuracy of the very best of journalists but the flair of a master storyteller .
He adds colour and incredible details to deeply researched reporting. Every sentence is rich with description and imagination but never at the cost of the truth. He is also wonderfully skilled at leading the reader down a rabbit hole about some seemingly insignificant event or detail that one might usually lose the thread of, only to weave it back into the main action with sophistication.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
This is the inside story of the breathtaking rise and jaw-dropping collapse of Theranos, a multibillion-dollar biotech startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes, that promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Holmes was a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup, ‘unicorn,’ was backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and valued at more than $9 billion. There was just one problem: the technology didn’t work.
In Bad Blood , Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou tells the riveting story of one of the most shocking tales of corporate fraud ever, a story of ambition and hubris in Silicon Valley. Carreyrou unveils the many dark secrets of Theranos with nuanced and compelling reporting , presenting the scientific, human, legal, and social sides of the story with remarkable skill.
Carreyrou’s brilliance is in his ability to explain complicated science that would ordinarily be difficult to follow in a remarkably digestible way. Not many writers can make a very specialist subject feel universal and accessible to all , but Carrreyou achieves it. The level of research he has undertaken to get to the truth of this deeply secretive company is unparalleled. He also paints fantastic character portraits and has a way of building intrigue around people shrouded in mystery that leaves you on the edge of your seat.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
An astonishing feat of historical detective work, The Five is the story of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane, five women who never met but are famous for the same thing – being victims of Jack the Ripper. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes.
Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, but it has also prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, telling the untold stories of five women who wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, breathed ink-dust from printing presses, and escaped people-traffickers. This is an incredible new perspective on a well-known story.
What is so exciting and different about this book is that Rubenhold casts an entirely new light on a well-known story and in doing so makes a political statement about the treatment of women both then and now. The author’s rage is palpable in the writing. It’s a blistering counter-narrative that has all the ingredients of a fantastic narrative non-fiction book – original and surprising research , gripping plot, clever structure , rich description – but also a strong political and social undercurrent that acts as the beating heart of the book.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
This is the gripping and shocking story of three generations of the Sackler family and their roles in the stories of Valium and Oxycontin, by a prize-winning American investigative journalist.
The Sackler name adorns the walls of many-storied institutions – Harvard; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Oxford; the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing Oxycontin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis-an an international epidemic of drug addiction that has killed nearly half a million people.
What makes Empire of Pain so exceptional is how Patrick Radden Keefe exhaustively documents jaw-dropping events over a long period of time to tell the story of a dynasty but also: a parable of 21st-century greed. It is a masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, that draws conclusions no one had ever thought to make before and takes you from dodgy GP practices to the misfortunate hangouts of opioid victims, to glamorous fund-raisers to the inner echelons of power in modern-day America.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, Hidden Figures is the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
It tells the story of a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories, scores of personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women.
One of the things you can’t help but admire in this book is how Shetterly manages to weave so many moving parts and themes to tell a cohesive story – moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures tells a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation but also manages to recount the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world.
Like Rubenhold, Shatterly is revisiting a moment or event in history – but rather than humanizing victims whose identities and stories were overlooked, Shatterly gives power back to the women who were actively written out of history books and who deserve credit for their enormous achievements, and in doing so helps to reframe how women are currently perceived in science and technology.
Note: All purchase links in this post are affiliate links through BookShop.org, and Novlr may earn a small commission – every purchase supports independent bookstores.
If you’re interested in writing non-fiction and want to get your work in front of a publisher, visit our free non-fiction book proposal course written by Lydia Yadi, Senior Commission Editor for Non-Fiction at Penguin Random House. To see all posts in this series, please click here .
COACHING + PUBLISHING
FORMATTING + DESIGN
5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Captivate Readers
by Alexander Limberg | Oct 12, 2020
Do fiction and nonfiction writing have anything in common?
After all, their goals are fundamentally different. One wants to entertain, the other one mainly educates.
But take a look at Hunter S. Thompson’s work and you will know better. Thompson was a master at crafting tight, compelling fiction, and he used these very same fiction techniques to become one of the most highly acclaimed and fascinating nonfiction writers in history.
How to write a nonfiction book using fiction techniques
There’s no doubt: If you want to hook your audience, some story techniques come in extremely handy. It’s basic human psychology.
Take a page from your favorite fiction writer and adopt these five nonfiction writing tips.
1. Tell a memorable story
Humans have been fascinated by stories since the dawn of time. At lunch, we tell our newest stories to our co-workers; at night, we tell fanciful tales to our kids and then consume suspense from our flatscreens.
We remember stories much better than abstract rules, formulas or concepts. Your post or essay will be stronger and more relatable if you include little examples, experiences and comparisons.
For example, instead of saying “Spinach is healthy,” you could tell a story about a runner who improved his performance by eating a lot of spinach. Just two or three additional sentences is often enough to help your words hit home for the reader.
2. Bait your audience
Great fiction grabs you right at the beginning and doesn’t let your attention go until the end. Why not do the same with your nonfiction?
If your article is online, it’s in direct competition with thousands of other articles; your reader can choose from all of them instantly, and mostly for free. She could also just close her browser and go watch TV. In today’s multimedia world, attention is the number one commodity .
Does your first sentence make the reader want to read the second? Does your second sentence evoke curiosity for the third? Here are a couple of options for beginnings that I found worked best for my blog:
One strategy is beginning with a little personal or historical story . Take a look at the storytelling tips above and make sure to always keep the reader wondering what’s next. Before he knows it, he will be halfway through your article.
You could also ask a question that moves your audience. If you write an article about how to save money, how about a start with “Isn’t it frustrating that at the end of any given month, there is no money left in your wallet?“ That’s how you put yourself in the reader’s shoes, to make her identify with you and your article.
You could start with an interesting or funny thought , too. When you’re writing about the phases of the moon, why not begin the post like this: “Did you know that on the moon, you would only weigh 16.5 percent of your weight on Earth?”
By using one of these strategies, you have a better chance of catching your reader’s attention — and keeping it.
3. Use emotional language
Bad nonfiction pieces are overly factual and prosaic. (Think of the last academic paper you read. Snooze!) They often employ a certain “code” of complex sentence structures and foreign words to make them seem more credible and expert-like.
The antidote: use more imagery, more emotion and more personality. Metaphors are also an interesting way to add some spice. Instead of writing “double-digit percent fluctuations,” write, “a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs.”
The less abstract your nouns, the better. Any noun of something you’re able to touch physically is better than something you can’t touch. Palpable words draw the reader into your text more effectively, so he experiences them instead of simply reading them.
Certain words like ”confession” or “magic” are emotionally charged power words that hit your audience strongly. They make them feel your content. Power words can evoke vibrant emotions, and emotion will keep the reader’s eyes glued to every single word of yours.
So read some Hemingway or Dickens, reconnect with the emotional side of your writing, and stir up your audience’s feelings!
4. Say it simply
Have you ever given up on an article or instruction manual because its wording frustrated you? If you have great content, don’t encrypt it . Provide even more value for your reader by cutting the content down into easily digestible bites.
Look at any post on The Write Life: The content is top-notch, but it’s all packed into short sentences and easily understandable vocabulary. Ideas are broken down into detail. You see short paragraphs and a lot of white space. All the components of tight, simple writing are right before your eyes.
Many great novels are written in a fairly simple style. They impress with story rather than with wording. Take any novel by Charles Bukowski : Do you think his prose would have the same effect if it used long-winded, multi-clause sentences and a jungle of technical terms? Rather than trying to make a sophisticated expression, Bukowski conveys emotion and character.
Say it as simply as possible, but make sure your idea comes across.
5. Surprise the reader
Good fiction is full of surprising twists, but nonfiction often reads predictably, which is to say, dull .
Do it better and include an unexpected twist or turn when you can. It will keep things interesting and fun for your audience. Why do we watch dramas and why do we like our gifts wrapped up? It’s for the kick of the surprise that awaits us.
Keep readers on their toes by asking them a question and answering it in a way they wouldn’t have expected. For example, if you are writing an article about robots, you could ask: Which famous person drew early plans for a robot?
(Answer: Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoid machine in 1495.)
You could also make a statement and follow it up with a point that seems like a contradiction. Don’t forget to explain and reconcile your points. A surprising joke or a provocative comparison can keep the reader interested as well, provided it fits your style and the format of your writing. Be imaginative, just like a fiction writer.
Finally, how can you train yourself in the above techniques?
One way helps for sure: read a lot of great fiction . The storytellers’ styles and strategies will spill over into your unconscious, and before you know it, you’ll be a master at helping every reader fall in love with your writing.
What do you do to grab your reader’s interest? Share your secret weapons in the comments!
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
Photo via Dean Drobot / Shutterstock
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Writing Tips Oasis
5 Tips for Writing Nonfiction Stories
By Georgina Roy
There are two facts about nonfiction stories. The first is that nonfiction doesn’t have to be a compilation of facts presented through dry prose. It can be written in a compelling way through good storytelling (while keeping true to the facts, of course). The second fact is that every category, from cooking to travel and memoirs can be written in such a way. What is the key to writing a nonfiction story? The key lies in the writer’s style and storytelling abilities. When it comes to nonfiction, the writer takes a pledge to keep true to the facts. This implies that any kind of creativity will only discredit the facts the writer presents. However, a writer can be creative and keep true to the facts, and below, you will find some tips on how it can be done.
1. Be fresh and authentic
There are plenty of niches in nonfiction, but the major categories remain the same. You might be writing a travel guide, a cooking book, or your own autobiography, but you’re not inventing anything new. However, your approach to the topic at hand will be unique. It is always a sound idea to read as many books as possible in your category and niche. You will get a good idea of how other writers have approached the topic, and then you can go in a totally different direction. This is especially important if you’re new to the nonfiction world – the best way to get noticed is to be fresh and unique.
2. Bait, engage, compel
After establishing a unique approach to writing nonfiction stories, you will need to work on your writing style. You need to give your readers information in an interesting way at the beginning – which is how you bait the readers. Continuing in an easygoing, flowing style will only engage the readers more and compel them to continue reading your story. This means that instead of presenting the results of your research, you can present a story: the process of the research, the results, and how the whole experience affected you.
3. Simple instead of sophisticated
When it comes to style and language, you don’t want your nonfiction story to sound like a textbook. Read it out loud to friends, family members or acquaintances – if they get bored, you need to work on your prose . Forget about long sentences and paragraphs that seem to go on forever. Short and sweet is always better than purple and sophisticated – it attracts more readers. You want your readers to both learn something and be entertained. Use humor if your topic is light, and deliver the information in short bits which can be pleasurably absorbed. Remember, your goal is to write a nonfiction story – not a recap of events.
4. Emotional persuasion
Put the reader in your shoes if you’re recapping events from your life. Invoke emotion in the readers with powerful words. Use all five senses to describe the places in your travel guide book. Abstract nouns detach the readers, while concrete nouns are tangible and pull the readers into your story. Let the readers know why you chose to write a nonfiction book on that particular topic. Have them feel like they know you just from reading your book. You’re writing about real things, presenting facts and information. The personal touch will add emotion and take your readers on a journey the same as fiction stories.
5. The actual story
The story needs to be memorable. Read through the newspaper. Which articles did you remember best: The report of the weather, or the true story where people were involved? Probably the second one. A tangible story will always win over a dry report. What you must remember about nonfiction stories is that the actual story must be memorable and interesting – but also that any dry report of facts and events can be made that way through a little bit of creative storytelling, without sacrificing the truth of the story, of course.
Image credit: Pixabay [author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://writingtipsoasis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/photo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own. [/author_info] [/author]
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50 Creative Nonfiction Prompts Guaranteed to Inspire
But not to worry. I present one whole hefty list of prompts just for creative nonfiction writers.
One small note before you dive in: don’t be afraid to mix and match the prompts. Each suggestion was meant to highlight a specific line of inspiration. There is absolutely no reason that two or three of these can’t be explored within one piece.
In fact, just use my tiny suggestions as springboards. Good luck!
1. Explore a scene or story from your memory by reimagining it from an alternate perspective. Write the event from the point of view of a passing bystander, another person close to the event, a pet, or even an inanimate object. When choosing your narrator, pay attention to how objective they would have been, what they would have paid attention to, and what sort of background knowledge they would have had about the scene.
2. Tell the nonfiction story that you don’t want your mother to read. You know the one. Don’t censor yourself.
3. Recall a moment in which you felt a strong spiritual or unidentifiable energy. Describe the scene in vivid detail, with special attention to the senses. Connect that scene to your relationship with your own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Examine how you incorporated that experience into your worldview.
4. Create a timeline of events depicting your life by using newspaper headlines. Try to focus on events that didn’t involve you directly, but connect them to the pivotal events in your life.
5. Tell the story of one of your family holiday gatherings. Identify any of your family’s common trademarks, such as your one aunt that seems to tell the same joke at every Christmas, or your two uncles that always hide from the rest of the family by doing the dishes. Explore how you are linked within this family dynamic, and how these little quirks evolved and changed over the years.
6. Tell the story of a location. Possibly one that is very close to your heart that you already know well, or a new one that inspires your curiosity. Pay particular attention to your own connection to the location, however small or large that connection may be.
7. Choose a location that you’ve come to know as an adult. Compare how you interact with this setting now to how you interacted with similar settings when you were a child. How has your perspective changed?
8. Describe a time in which you expected or wanted to feel a religious or spiritual moment, but couldn’t. What were you hoping would happen? How do you choose to interpret that?
9. Recall a key lesson that parents or family members tried to impart onto you as a child. For example: “live with a healthy mind and healthy body,” or “put others before yourself.” Revisit that lesson as an adult and connect it to how you have come to interpret it as you grew up or in your adult life. Feel free to pick a less serious lesson and have a little bit of fun with it.
10. Revisit a special birthday from when you were younger. Describe specific details, with emphasis upon the senses. Now that you have years of context, how do you feel about what your parents and family did or did not do for you? What does that event mean to you now?
11. Choose an event in your life that someone else remembers differently. Describe both memories and debate the differences. Who do you think is right? Why do you think you remember it differently?
12. Choose a strong emotion and think of two memories associated with it. What are the links between those two memories?
13. Think of a lesson you learned recently and apply it to a memory. How would your behavior have changed if you had applied the lesson back then?
14. Choose a commonplace or otherwise unremarkable memory and describe it in the most dramatic and absurd way possible. For inspiration, I’m leaving you with some quotes from Douglas Adams. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” “He leant tensely against the corridor wall and frowned like a man trying to unbend a corkscrew by telekinesis.” “It was a deep, hollow malevolent voice which sounded like molten tar glurping out of a drum with evil on its mind.”
15. Have you seen those bizarre Illuminati videos in which some automated voice tries to prove that Arch Duke Ferdinand is actually alive and has a monopoly on the world’s dairy farms? For this prompt, think of people in your life who have believed in crazy conspiracy theories, and write about the time they first shared them with you. Think of how your beliefs might seem naïve to them, and explore the tension between the competing versions of history.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
16. What do you want more than anything in your life? Write about the burning hot core of your desire, and how that desire has changed over your life.
17. Recall what stressed you out most as a child. Was it the creaking stairs leading to the basement? Or being lost at the store? Explore your current relationship to that stressor. Did you ever move past that fear or anxiety? How do you interact with it now?
18. What relationship in your life has caused the most pain? Write the key scene in that relationship, when everything was at stake.
19. Write about a road trip you took, and about where all your fellow travelers ended up in life versus where you ended up. Are you glad you didn’t end up where they did, or are you jealous?
20. How has your identity changed over the course of your life? Write a scene from your teenage years that epitomizes the type of person you were, and then write a scene from recent life that shows how you’ve changed.
21. What event in your life has angered you the most? Write the scene where it happened, and tell us what you would do if it happened again.
22. What single experience most shaped who you are? Describe the experience in a single, vivid scene.
23. Who was your first friend to die? Write about how you learned of their death, and how you and their other friends mourned them.
24. Choose a happy or comfortable memory and write it in a way that makes the memory creepy or eerie to the reader. Don’t change the basic facts of the event, only select different facts and present them differently.
25. Show yourself in a scene pursuing the thing you want most in the world. Try to show the reader, without telling them, about your character flaws.
26. If you could throw five items into the fire, what would they be and why? To be clear, by throwing them in this fire, there would be no trace of them left anywhere, even if it’s something on the Internet or a memory. This is a very powerful fire. What would the consequences be?
27. What physical object or family heirloom ties together your grandparents, your parents, and yourself? Describe this object in great detail, and what it has meant to generations of your family.
This is seriously the best anthology out there for creative nonfiction.
Lee Gutkind and Annie Dillard have created a fantastic repository of classics.
In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
28. Tell a story from your life in inverted chronological order. Start with the end, then backpedal to the middle, then tell the beginning, and then fill in the rest of the gaps.
29. Write about your favorite trip or journey, and how that high level of happiness was eventually threatened.
30. Look at some photographs of your childhood. Look at the pictures of your old room, the clothes you wore, and the places you had been. Try to remember a friend from that time period, and describe the first memory of a time when they pressured you or made you uncomfortable or angry.
31. Take a small, boring moment that happened today and write as much as you can about it. Go overboard describing it, and make this boring moment exciting by describing it in intense detail with ecstatic prose. Eventually connect this small, boring detail with the grand narrative of your life, your bigger purpose and intentions.
32. Describe the best meal you ever ate. Then describe a conflict you had with the people you shared it with, one that happened before, during, or after.
33. Recall an individual that you particularly hated. Describe their cruelty to you, and try to write yourself into an understanding of why they might have done it.
34. What was the best/worst letter you ever received or wrote? Write about the situation surrounding that letter, and why it was so important.
35. Recall a name you’ve given to a toy, a car, a pet, or a child, and tell us the story of how you and your family selected that name. Who fought over the name? What was the significance of that name? What happened to the animal or thing you named?
36. Write about experiencing the craziest natural event you’ve ever seen — tornado, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane. Dramatize the physical danger of the natural event as well as the tension between you and the people you were with.
37. Tell the story of the most important person that has shaped your town and its culture (you might have to do some research). How did the activity of that person influence the way you grew up or live currently?
How do you find good creative nonfiction stories?
This book masterfully teaches you how to discover the stories others will want to hear.
Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life
38. Scientists have wondered for years how nature and nurture plays into the development of human minds and their choices. Explore where you and your siblings are today and the choices that brought you there. Would you like to trade places with your sibling? Would you be happy living in their shoes? How have your personal choices differed over the years?
39. Write a scene of a time when someone older than you gave you advice, and write about how you followed it or ignored it and the consequences.
40. Write a single, three-paragraph scene when your sexual desire was thwarted by yourself or someone else.
41. Describe a scene when you were stereotyping someone. Did someone challenge you, or if you only felt guilty by yourself, how did you change your behavior afterwards?
42. Describe the biggest epiphany of your life, then backtrack and tell the lead-up to that scene or the aftermath. In the lead-up or aftermath, show how the epiphany was either overrated or every bit as valuable as you’d previously thought.
43. Write about a fork in the road in your life, and how you made the decision to go the direction you did.
44. Explore an addiction you had or currently have. Whether the addiction is as serious as alcohol or cigarettes, or something much more mundane like texting, video games, or internet usage, describe in vivid detail the first time you tried it. If you quit, tell the story of how you quit.
45. Recall a scene in which you chose to remain silent. Whether it was your boss’s racist rant, or just an argument not worth having, explore the scene and why you chose not to speak.
46. Revisit a moment in your life that you feel you will never be able to forget. What about that moment made it so unforgettable?
47. What makes you feel guilty? Revisit a moment that you are ashamed of or feel guilty for and explore why that is. Describe the scene and the event and communicate why you feel this way.
48. Write about a moment in which you acted selflessly or against your own benefit. What motivated you to do so? What were the circumstances? How did you feel after words?
49. Write about the most pivotal scene in a relationship with someone in your extended family — Uncle, aunt, cousin, grandmother. Describe the tension or happiness you shared, and how that came to affect your relationship from that point onward.
50. If all else fails, try a writing-sprint. Set an alarm for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and write as much as possible within that time span. Even if you begin with no inspiration, you might be surprised with what you come up with by the end.
The definitive guide to creating riveting true life stories.
Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction
For added pressure, try these writing websites:
- Write Or Die
If you stop writing for more than 5 seconds, everything you’ve written disappears. It’s like writing with someone with a whip behind your chair. But with this new update you can choose to get positive reinforcements, too, like a kitten or candy, or to have your words disemvoweled rather than disappear.
A points-based system to encourage writers to write 750 words every single day. You get bonus points for not skipping days, and bonus points for writing more than 750 words.
- Written? Kitten!
Every 100 words you write, you get shown a picture of a kitten. Ah, simple motivation. No word whether a dog version of the site is in the works for those who are more dog people.
For more on creative nonfiction writing, I suggest Creative Nonfiction . This website works with its print magazine counterpart to specifically cater to creative nonfiction writers and operates as an excellent starting point for more inspiration. Happy writing!
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Thank you for adding Written Kitten to the list, Bridget! We have bunnies and dogs now!
Thank you for this. Very helpful for a useless person like me
Stfu, you are amazing, and no one in this entire universe is useless, except for me, so love yourself.
This is super awesome & I am so happy to have some new ideas… creative block has been beyond bad. this is what I have needed to start unclogging it!
do you have topics i can write about
This is very helpful!
Every writer NEEDS this book.
It’s a guide to writing the pivotal moments of your novel.
Whether writing your book or revising it, this will be the most helpful book you’ll ever buy.
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