How to Write Creative Nonfiction (Definition & Examples)

BY P.J McNulty | Mar 15, 2023 | Learning, Non-Fiction, Writing

Are you interested in writing creative nonfiction?

More and more people are discovering the joy of getting immersed in content based on true life that has all the quality and craft of a well-written novel. 

If you’ve ever got lost in a memoir so descriptive that you felt you’d walked in that person’s shoes, you’ll know exactly why creative nonfiction is so popular.

But what pathways are out there? Is it a viable form of writing to pursue? And how exactly do you go about it?

If you’re looking to get truly creative, read on!

This guide to creative nonfiction covers:

  1. What is creative nonfiction?
  2. Types of creative nonfiction
  3. How to write creative nonfiction
  4. Examples of creatively written nonfiction to inspire you
  5. Are you ready to tell a true story in a creative way?

Let’s start by exploring the basics of creative nonfiction.

What is creative nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is defined as true events written about with the techniques and craft more commonly found in creative writing

We can understand what creative nonfiction is by contrasting it with plain old nonfiction. 

Think about news or a dry history book, for example. They tend to be written in very matter of fact, declarative language. While informative, this type of nonfiction often lacks the flair and pleasure that keep people hooked on fictional novels.

Let’s use a real example for a final consideration of what sets creative nonfiction apart. 

Imagine two ways of telling a true crime story – one in a newspaper and the other in the script for a podcast. Which is more likely to grip you? The dry, factual language, or the evocative, emotionally impactful creative writing?

Creative nonfiction is a great way to deploy your full writing skillset even if you’d rather not focus on imaginary people.

So what are the different options available?

Types of creative nonfiction

Creative nonfiction comes in many different forms and flavors. Just as there are a myriad of types of creative writing, there are almost as many types of creative nonfiction.

Some of the most popular types of creative nonfiction out there include:

  • Literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction refers to any form of factual writing that employs the literary elements examples that are more commonly found in fiction. If you’re writing about a true event but using elements such as metaphor and theme, you might well be writing literary nonfiction.
  • Memoir. Writing a life story doesn’t have to be a dry chronological history. Opting for a memoir not only allows you to single out events or episodes from a life that share a theme or message, it also allows you to do so creatively. If you’re unsure of what to write about, why not consider a creative memoir? After all, no one else can tell your life story like you. 
  • Nature writing. The beauty of the natural world is an ongoing source of creative inspiration for people of all types, from photographers to documentary makers. But it’s also a great focus for a creative nonfiction writer. Evoking the natural beauty and majesty of our environment is an endless source of material for creative nonfiction. 
  • Travel writing. If you’ve ever read a great travel article or book, you’ll feel as if you’ve almost been on the journey yourself. There’s something special about travel writing that conveys not only the literal journey but the personal journey that takes place. Writers with a passion for exploring the world should consider travel writing as their form of creative nonfiction. 
  • Speeches. For types of writing that have the potential to leave a lasting impact on the world, it’s hard to look further than speeches. From the sermon on the mount to ‘I have a dream’, speeches go down in history and move hearts and minds like almost nothing else. The difference between an effective speech and one that falls on deaf ears is little more than the creative skill with which it is written. 
  • Biographies. Noteworthy figures from history and contemporary times alike are great sources for creative nonfiction. Think about the difference between reading about someone’s life on Wikipedia and reading about it in a critically-acclaimed biography. Which would a reader prefer? Which is the better way of honoring that person’s legacy and achievements? If there’s someone whose life story is one you’d love to tell, creative nonfiction might be the best way to do it. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list of creative nonfiction types. However, it should provide a general idea of what this type of writing looks like and whether you want to explore it further.

Is the idea of writing creative nonfiction appealing? Then let’s look at how to do exactly that. 

How to write creative nonfiction

Choosing to write creative nonfiction has much in common with other types of writing. You won’t be reinventing the wheel. The better you are at writing in general, the easier you’ll find your creative nonfiction project. Having the ability to be disciplined, focused, and able to hit your word count and goals will be just as important here as it is at any other time. 

However, there are some nuances it’s worth being aware of. 

Knowing how to write creative nonfiction is often down to these five factors:

  1. Choosing a form. Before you commit to a creative nonfiction project, get clear on exactly what it is you want to write. That way, you can get familiar with the conventions of the style of writing and draw inspiration from some of its classics. Try and find a balance between a type of creative nonfiction you find personally appealing and one you have the skillset to be effective at. 
  2. Gathering the facts. Like all forms of nonfiction, your creative project will require a great deal of research and preparation. If you’re writing about an event, try and gather as many sources of information as possible so you can imbue your writing with a rich level of detail. If it’s a piece about your life, jot down personal recollections and gather photos from your past. 
  3. Planning your writing. Unlike a fictional novel, which tends to follow a fairly well-established structure, works of creative nonfiction have a less clear shape. To avoid the risk of meandering or getting weighed down by less significant sections, structure your project ahead of writing it. You can either apply the classic fiction structures to a nonfictional event or take inspiration from another work of creative nonfiction you admire and how they pace their material. 
  4. Drafting in your intended style. Unless you have a track record of writing creative nonfiction, the first time doing so can feel a little jarring and uncomfortable. You might find yourself second-guessing your writing more than you usually would due to the novelty of applying creative techniques to real events. Because of this, it’s essential to get your first draft down as quickly as possible. The time for refinement and improvement comes later. 
  5. Rewriting and refining. As stated, your creative nonfiction first draft should be written as quickly as possible. Only then should you read back through it and critique your own work. Perhaps you haven’t used enough source material as you would have liked. Or perhaps you’ve overdone a certain creative technique to the point it comes across badly. Whatever you happen to notice, take as long as you need to refine and rework it until it feels just right. 

Now that you have a process for writing your own creative nonfiction, let’s draw inspiration from some classic examples.

Examples of creatively written nonfiction to inspire you

This section is intended as just a brief taster of the finest examples of creative nonfiction out there. It’s intended as a series of sign posts to point you in the right direction rather than the destination itself. 

An example of literary nonfiction

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a landmark work of literary nonfiction, helping to establish the literary nonfiction genre in its modern form, as well as paving the way for the contemporary true crime boom.  

An example of a creatively written memoir 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway is one of the best creative memoirs ever written, beautifully reflecting on Hemingway’s time in Paris as well as the city itself. 

An example of creative nature writing 

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezukumatahill is a beautiful series of essays worthy of the poetic author herself and the varied natural landscapes she enjoyed over the years.  

An example of creative travel writing

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is a beloved travel book that uses creativity to not only explore the Appalachian Trail but convey Bryson’s take on America in his humorous trademark style.

An example of creative speeches

The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln is one of the most impactful speeches in American history and an inspiring example for creative nonfiction writers.

An example of creative nonfiction biographies 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou creatively captures moments from her life and shares the power of literature to transcend one’s circumstance at any time.

Are you ready to tell a true story in a creative way?

You know have the knowledge, process, and examples you need to write a work of creative nonfiction.

No matter which form you choose, we hope you enhancing the power of your true story with the skill of creative craft. 

Avatar Of P.j Mcnulty

P.J McNulty

P.J. McNulty is a bestselling ghostwriter of both fiction and nonfiction books, with over a decade of experience in the industry. He is also a travel enthusiast and a mentor to indie authors, providing guidance on book marketing, self-publishing, and writing tips. With a passion for storytelling and creativity, P.J. is known for his expertise in SEO and love of caffeine.
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