10 Types of Nonfiction Books and Genres
From journalism to instruction manuals, travel guides to historical CNF, nonfiction is one of the broadest and most versatile categories of writing. Indeed, we encounter many types of nonfiction genres in our everyday lives, including newspapers, social media, letters, reports, instruction manuals, and travel guides.
Rather than listing the numerous types of nonfiction in its broadest definition, this article will narrow our focus to creative nonfiction. Briefly defined, creative nonfiction is a genre of nonfiction that uses literary techniques more commonly used in poetry and fiction. This includes such techniques as dialogue, plot, and imagery. More to the point, the writer Lee Gutkind describes creative nonfiction as “true stories, well told.” If you’re interested in self-help, how-to-writing, and similar nonfiction writing forms, try Googling “prescriptive nonfiction” or “expository nonfiction.”
This article explores types of creative nonfiction—”true stories, well told.”
In this article, we will explore ten types of creative nonfiction genres, as well as the overlap between these genres and other types of nonfiction books we are more familiar with, such as historical nonfiction and autobiography. By the end of this article, you’ll also have a series of different types of nonfiction books to add to your reading list!
10 Types of Nonfiction Books and Genres
What are the types of nonfiction? Let’s examine common forms of the genre in detail.
One of the most common types of creative nonfiction, memoirs tell a story of the writer’s own life. Unlike autobiographies, however, memoirs do not need to be exhaustive. To understand the key similarities and differences between autobiographies and memoirs, check out this article on memoir-writing. It also offers a step-by-step guide to writing your own memoir, which is certainly one of the most accessible forms in creative nonfiction!
One of the most common types of creative nonfiction, memoir tells a story of the writer’s own life.
Memoirs are driven by narrative, and often connect the writer’s personal story to larger human themes, such as grief, family, and youth. To see what this means in action, check out Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which chronicles the year Macdonald spent training a northern goshawk following her father’s death. Other memoirs include William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir, and Tara Westover’s Educated.
Memoirs, however, can also be essay-length. A great example is David Sedaris’ “The Youth in Asia.” Structured around Sedaris and his family’s memories of pets, this humorous essay is ultimately a story about grief, mortality and loss. This essay is excerpted from the memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day, and a recorded version can be found here. Other great examples of memoiristic essays include Alexander Chee’s “Portrait of My Father,” Megan Stielstra’s “Here is My Heart,” and Roxane Gay’s “What We Hunger For.” Memoiristic essays are often collected into essay collections, and can be a great way to approach writing your first book! Inspired? Check out this step-by-step guide to writing narrative essays!
2. Personal Essay
Like the memoir, the personal essay draws from the writer’s personal life and perspective, and often creates an intimate experience for the reader. However, personal essays are less narrative-driven. Instead, the action is often more internal and driven by thought. Great examples of thought-driven essays include Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis,” and Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is to Blunder,” an exploration of what it meant for the author to renounce her mother tongue. In this way, personal essays often deal with questions that have no easy answer. For the reader, the pleasure comes in witnessing the writer attempt to grapple with difficult conversations in a meaningful way. This is very much in line with the etymology of “essay,” which means “to try.”
Personal essays are less narrative-driven. Instead, the action is often more internal and driven by thought.
While memoirs gesture to larger human themes, personal essays draw direct connections between personal experience and societal stories. In fact, in many personal essays, personal experience is used as evidence for these societal stories. Often, personal essays engage the use of “braiding” – a structure that alternates between a personal story and a larger story – to illustrate the connections between the personal and the societal. Examples include: Eula Biss’ “No Man’s Land” and Clare Elena Boerigter’s “Itasca, Alight,” an essay that reflects on her experience as a wildfire-fighter. For book-length examples, check out Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, and Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias.
3. Travel Writing
There are many different types of nonfiction travel writing, ranging from travel guides to blogs, journalism, and memoirs. Regardless of what form it takes, good travel writing helps your readers to imagine and experience an unfamiliar place. Travel writers thus use evocative prose that engages the senses with the details of a world you may not otherwise encounter. Classic examples include Jan Morris’ Among the Cities and Ilija Trojanow’s Along the Ganges.
Good travel writing helps your readers to imagine and experience an unfamiliar place.
Sometimes, the adventure of travel is less important than the internal journey that the writer experiences. A great example of such a travel writing and memoir hybrid is Running in the Family. Twenty-five years after leaving for Canada, the writer Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to sort out his family’s past. The book chronicles family stories, and a major plot point is Ondaatje’s seeking of reconciliation with a father he barely knew. Other books that fall into this category include Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
There is yet another type of travel writing, one influenced by the flaneur tradition of writers who observe society by walking around without a particular destination in mind. Examples include Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and Roger Deakin’s Waterlog: a Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, which puts a new spin on the flaneur genre in its use of swimming, rather than walking.
To get into travel writing yourself, check out our course Fundamental of Travel Writing with Jennifer Billock!
4. Literary Journalism
Sometimes called “immersion journalism,” “narrative journalism,” or “new journalism,” literary journalism is a type of nonfiction that combines reporting with techniques and strategies associated with creative writing, such as character development. Literary journalists often write in a third-person limited or first person point of view. The goal of such works is not simply to deliver facts, but to spark a larger conversation among its readers. Examples include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.
Literary journalism is a type of nonfiction that combines reporting with techniques and strategies associated with creative writing, such as character development.
Literary journalism is a type of nonfiction that really came to the forefront in the 1960s with the New Journalism movement. Books that are a part of this tradition include Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, described by the author as a “nonfiction novel.”
A feature is a form of journalistic writing that is longer than a news story, whose primary goal is to keep the reader up-to-date on the facts of a story. Features can either offer a more in-depth cover, or provide a different perspective of a developing story. Importantly, features do not have to cover breaking news. This type of writing often considers a variety of angles and is more immersive. There is more room for the writer to play creatively in terms of style and structure.
A feature is a form of journalistic writing that is longer than a news story, whose primary goal is to keep the reader up-to-date on the facts of a story.
A feature can be, but is not always, a form of literary journalism. There is a spectrum of feature pieces, including news features, profiles, trend reports, immersive features, and more “creative” features that draw on the author’s personal experiences. Thus, features are published on a greater variety of platforms that range from newspapers to literary magazines. Check out Adam Gopnik’s “The World’s Weirdest Library,” Rebecca Brill’s “The World Association of Ugly People,” and Zadie Smith’s “Meet Justin Bieber!” which can be found in her book Feel Free,
6. Cultural Criticism
This is a type of nonfiction that examines and comments on a cultural aspect or product. Importantly, “culture” here does not differentiate between what we traditionally think of as “highbrow” or “lowbrow.” In fact, one of the goals of cultural criticism is to expand the definition of what constitutes “culture.” Thus, underlying cultural criticism is a resistance of elitist definitions of what culture is and who gets to define it.
This is a type of nonfiction that examines and comments on a cultural aspect or product.
Cultural criticism often employs a more zoomed-out perspective to connect everyday phenomena with larger cultural contexts. This is not to say that cultural criticism is necessarily written in general and impersonal language. In fact, many cultural critics employ personal experience as entrances into larger cultural conversations. Jia Tolentino’s “Athleisure, Barre, and Kale: the Tyranny of the Ideal Woman,” Eula Biss’ On Immunity, Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays, and Wendy Rawlings’ “Let’s Talk About Shredded Romaine Lettuce” are great examples of this type of nonfiction prose.
7. Ekphrastic Essays
Ekphrasis, which comes from the Greek word for “description,” traditionally describes poems written about a work of visual art. In the contemporary literature landscape, however, ekphrasis can be written in both prose and poetry and about all forms of art.
Ekphrasis is writing, in poetry or prose, about another work of art.
There are many different approaches to writing ekphrastic essays. These may include writing about a work of art critically, writing about your experience, or even taking the more imaginative approach of speculating about the elements in a work of art. In “Find Your Beach,” for instance, Zadie Smith weaves the description of a beer ad with commentary on the culture of individualism in New York City. In “What We Hunger For,” Roxane Gay braids her discussion of female strength in The Hunger Games with her personal experiences. In “The Blue of Distance,” a series of three essays collected in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit builds on the idea of distance and intimacy through meditating on various works of art.
8. Lyric Essay
The term “lyric essay” was coined in 1997 by John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, editors at the literary journal Seneca Review. “The lyric essay,” write D’Agata and Tall, “partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.”
The lyric essay uses a type of nonfiction prose that is more poetic and compressed.
A relatively new genre, the lyric essay uses a type of nonfiction prose that is more poetic and compressed. Thus, it is often described as a hybrid of nonfiction and poetry. While it is difficult to pin down what a lyric essay is, the following are some characteristics of this genre:
- An emphasis on language and figurative elements, rather than on argument.
- An emphasis on exploration and experience, rather than reportage. While many lyric essays are research-heavy, they often draw on research in more suggestive ways, leaving gaps strategically to allow the reader to make connections
- A tendency to meditate. While lyric essays often draw on research and personal experience, they are less interested in crafting a linear narrative or plot, and more interested in meditative modes of writing.
Examples of lyric essays include Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Amy Leach’s Things That Are, and Kathryn Nuernberger’s The Witch of Eye. For a more in-depth exploration of this form, check out this guide on the lyric essay.
9. Hermit Crabs & Other Borrowed Forms
Coined in 2003 by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, the hermit crab adds a delightful variety to the types of nonfiction prose in contemporary creative nonfiction. The hermit crab is an essay that repurposes forms from everyday life – forms that we don’t generally regard as “literary” – as forms for creative nonfiction. For example, a hermit crab might use the forms of a how-to-manual, recipe, FAQs, or even a crossword puzzle.
The hermit crab is an essay that repurposes forms from everyday life—forms that we don’t generally regard as “literary”—as forms for creative nonfiction.
Often, such essays deal with topics that are tender or thorny (hence the reference to the soft-bodied hermit crab, which scavenge for shells to dwell in). In the writing process, the language and conventions of the form you’re borrowing can help to provide emotional distance between the writer and the content. An example is Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” an essay that uses the glossary form to write about the writer’s relationship to his father (it is also an abecedarian, which means that it is alphabetically arranged). Other examples are Randon Billings Noble’s “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” and Kristen Arnett’s short story “Gator Butchering for Beginners.” For more inspiration, check out The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, an anthology put together by Kim Adrian.
In addition to hermit crabs, essayists also often borrow forms from poetry. Examples include Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979” and Elizabeth Bradfield’s Toward Antarctica, which uses the haibun form. For inspiration, check out a list of poetic forms in this guide.
10. Flash Nonfiction
Flash nonfiction refers to essays that range from a few hundred to 2,000 words, though most publications cap the word count at 1,000. Flash nonfiction emphasizes compression and precision. It often plays with the limits of how much you can gesture to, or how much plot you can develop within the space of a few hundred words.
Flash nonfiction emphasizes compression and precision.
Writing a micro-essay is a great way to start writing, experiment with new techniques, and capture everyday moments. For inspiration, check out Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, the literary journal Brevity, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, an anthology edited by Dinty W. Moore.
Explore Different Types of Nonfiction Genres at Writers.com
With so many genres and forms at your disposal, there are infinite types of nonfiction stories you can tell. If you’re looking for additional feedback, as well as additional instruction on how to write a memoir, check out our schedule of nonfiction classes. Until then, pick a type of nonfiction and start writing!
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