If you’re brand new to writing, you may feel like you’re at a bit of a loss. Where do you even get started? Maybe you took a creative writing class and just enjoyed writing poems, or maybe you’ve always had ‘write a book’ on your bucket list. You may even be a seasoned writer looking for a different writing path.
One of the most fundamental decisions writers have to make is this: what genre will I write in? And it’s not as simple a question as you might think.
If you already know that you want to write an autobiography or a memoir, this is a little easier. If you have a story and you’re not sure how to tell it, you may wonder whether you ought to give the nonfiction account, or a fictionized version of it. What’s the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, anyway?
In this article, we’ll talk about fiction vs nonfiction: how they differ, what sorts of people prefer each, how to choose between the two genres, and we’ll even talk about which one is a better path for you.
What is fiction vs nonfiction?
First things first: fiction and nonfiction are both huge umbrella genres, each containing a wide array of subgenres. To avoid getting confused while sorting through subgenres, let’s talk about how to tell fiction and nonfiction apart.
Fiction is, plainly put, a made up story. The point of fiction is often to tell a story about a character. The places and people in the story might be based on real people and places—it’s common for fiction to be set in real-world cities, states, and countries—but the characters and interactions between them are not meant to be an actual, real-world account of something that happened.
Fiction occasionally uses allegory, where readers can draw comparisons between the book to real-world events. But again, these comparisons are only comparisons. Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example, is not a factual account of something that literally happened on someone’s farm (although that would be incredible).
Another way to help distinguish fiction from nonfiction is the use of prose. Prose is written language which is meant to be something of an art form—fiction writers often use prose to put artistic meaning into their word choice, tone, and flow. Nonfiction authors also use prose (since prose is literally, by definition, just written word), but fiction authors tend to put more of an artistic spin on it. Fiction will have more imagery, for example, and more use of metaphor and descriptive language.
Nonfiction is literature focused on factual retellings of things that actually happened. Where fiction is meant to tell a completely made-up story that doesn’t correspond to real characters, nonfiction does the opposite.
Nonfiction is generally focused on informing the reader as opposed to telling them a story. The narrative in a nonfiction book is less focused on things like rising action, climaxes, and conclusions, and more focused with the flow of information from the author to the reader. This genre includes information books on things like history, science, or art, and it also includes things like biographies and memoirs.
While a fiction author might focus on making their prose more artistic, a nonfiction author’s top priority is usually using the prose to convey information effectively. You’ll find less imagery, descriptive language, and metaphor in a nonfiction book (although these things can be included, and it doesn’t mean the book isn’t nonfiction).
Creative nonfiction and memoirs
People tend to get confused around creative nonfiction and memoirs. Why? Well, creative nonfiction blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. It’s usually going to read more like a novel than like an informational text—the prose might be artistic, there might be scenes with dialogue and characters, and there might even be a plot like you’d find in a fiction novel.
But in a work of creative nonfiction, the focus is still to convey factual events which really happened. It might be dressed up like fiction, but it’s still nonfiction.
It’s a similar story with memoir. Autobiography tends to be a factual retelling of all the points in a person’s life—this is plainly nonfiction. Memoir tends to be a more artistic rendering of a specific aspect of someone’s life, like their pregnancy, their climb to CEO, and so on. Memoir might fuzz some details and skip over some sections, but again, it’s predominantly fact, and it’s about real people and real events which really happened.
What type of people prefer fiction to nonfiction?
There are a ton of different studies out there which track trends in reader habits, so it’s hard to say for absolute certainty, but we know that women and younger people (young adults and children) tend to read more fiction than men. The specifics on this vary widely from state to state and county to county, but this is the overall trend.
It’s also worth mentioning that this margin is pretty slim—adults on the whole still tend to favor nonfiction over fiction.
What type of people prefer nonfiction to fiction?
Nonfiction is usually preferred by adults, and slightly more men than women tend to read it.
But nonfiction is an enormous genre, and it’s helpful to know the specifics. Memoir and autobiography absolutely dominate nonfiction sales, with memoir especially having an edge. Self-help books are also extremely popular. These books can vary widely and appeal to hugely different demographics—books on how to succeed as a woman in business, for example, are probably going to attract more women than men.
How to choose whether to write fiction vs nonfiction
Now that we know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let’s decide: which genre is best for you?
Read widely across both genres
Your first assignment when it comes to writing anything is to read. Reading is the cornerstone to any writing endeavor, and it’s going to help you out here, too. If you don’t know what nonfiction looks like, how can you say it’s not for you? If you haven’t read fiction since high school, you might not know that you actually love it.
Read lots of contemporary nonfiction and fiction. Find subgenres you love—maybe fantasy doesn’t do it for you, but you love crime and mystery novels. You might not care for memoirs, but you might love history books.
Having a good sense of what these genres look like will help you figure out which you’d like to work with. It would be awful if you decided to write a fantasy novel only to discover that you actually don’t like most fantasy novels!
Consider your target audience and goal
The next thing you want to consider is your target audience. If you’re building an author platform from scratch, you need to keep your business model in mind. Who are you writing for, and what are those people reading?
If you want to write for children, for example, you may have a trickier time writing nonfiction than fiction. Turning your information into stories might yield better results than making a straightforward nonfiction book. If you want to write for adults, maybe a self-help book would be a great way to communicate your ideas!
And, again, think about demographics. Say you’ve got a story to share about your story as a woman undergoing a certain situation—you’ll want to write that story for other women who might be going through the same thing. If you’re a man writing about how you’ve become a CEO, you’re probably going to be writing to other men looking to do the same thing.
Tell the story that you want to tell
If you have no idea where to start, it definitely helps to consider your target audience, look at trending categories, and read a little bit of everything.
But, bottom line: tell the story that you want to tell.
Think of it like this. You’ve got something that you want to share with the world. Maybe it’s a really cool fantasy world and a quest that happens within it, or maybe it’s your own personal struggles, or maybe it’s your personal twist on a classic crime novel trope. This is the thing you have that you want to share with other people.
Genre is the vessel with which you tell that story. You want to pick one that helps you tell your story clearly and easily—it shouldn’t make it harder to get your point across. Maybe you want to fictionalize your experiences, but maybe you find that when you try to do so, things get muddy and murky. It might be the case that writing a memoir or some other nonfiction account of things actually makes it come much more naturally to you.
Similarly, you may want to write a fantasy story based on Norwegian folklore. But you may find that you really just want to talk about Norwegian folklore, and you’re not super interested in your characters or coming up with concepts that don’t have direct tie-ins with that folklore. In this case, maybe you just write a book about Norwegian folklore.
Decide what kind of story you want to tell, decide what you want to tell, and let genre be the vessel through which you tell it.
Fiction vs Nonfiction – which is better?
As you may have guessed by the previous section, it’s impossible to say whether fiction or nonfiction is objectively better.
Fiction has its role in literature, and so does nonfiction. We need both, and authors can use both to tell impactful, engaging stories. You may prefer one over the other, and someone else might disagree with you, and that’s totally fine!
Even when it comes to sales, it’s difficult to assert which is more profitable. Fiction sales lag just a tad behind nonfiction sales, but not enough to say that one is inherently a better money-making endeavor than the other. It depends on the subgenre, and it depends on the book.
Forcing yourself to write a book you’re not interested in just to make a quick buck probably isn’t going to lead to a prosperous career. This puts you at a higher risk for burnout, and it dramatically increases the likelihood of your book not being very good. By contrast, writers who are passionate about their stories, even if those stories aren’t what’s ‘hot’ right now, can find huge success and even break open new trends. Twilight, for example, came out of seemingly nowhere, and practically invented the young adult genre as we know it today overnight.
- Related: How to Start Writing a Book (Nonfiction)
- Related: How to Start Your Novel (Fiction)
- Related: How to Start Your Picture Book (Children’s Book)
What’s your favorite genre, fiction or nonfiction? If you’re already writing in one genre, have you considered trying another? Let us know!