What is nonfiction, and why does it matter to know its definition?
Consider this: you want to write a book about your life, but you’re unsure if it will be listed as fiction or nonfiction.
Why would a book about your life be fiction, you ask?
Well, while some authors prefer to base their stories strictly on reality, other writers choose to draw from true events while infusing the story with creative liberties. When people see a book listed as nonfiction, they assume that everything in it actually happened and is completely accurate – to the best of the author's knowledge.
Conversely, when a book, movie, or series says “based on true events,” there is a lot of room for interpretations, exaggerations, and even completely made-up characters and parts of the story.
To get clear about this genre, I first ask (and answer) the question, what is nonfiction? Then, I explain how you can confirm a book is nonfiction, list popular subgenres and types of nonfiction books, share three classic characteristics of nonfiction books, and highlight a few famous nonfiction authors. So, are you ready?
This guide answers, “What is nonfiction?” and more:
First, what is nonfiction?
A nonfiction book is one based on true events and as factually correct as possible. It presents true information, real events, or documented accounts of people, places, animals, concepts, or phenomena. There is no place for fictional characters or exaggerations in this genre.
But that doesn't mean it won't read like fiction. There are plenty of people who have such a fascinating or unbelievable story to tell that it doesn't feel real. The Prince Harry memoir comes to mind. It has everything that you might find in a fantasy novel – except it really happened. A real-life prince? Yes. War, drama, and family conflict? Yes. A movie star wife? Also yes.
Others about trauma, death, and struggle have less magic to them, but could be equally difficult to believe due to the difficulties encountered by the author. An example here is the Jennette McCurdy memoir, I'm Glad My Mom Died.
There are plenty of other memoir examples, but memoirs are just one answer to, “What is nonfiction?” In reality, it includes a whole host of other subgenres.
How can I tell if a book is nonfiction?
For starters, any nonfiction book should be listed as nonfiction – whether online or in a physical book store. But if you want to be sure the book you have in your hands falls in this category, here's what you can do:
- Examine the cover. Fiction books often have more artwork on the cover and may include a character or symbolism. Meanwhile, nonfiction book covers are often (though not always), more minimalist. Some may not have any artwork or may include a picture of the author.
- Find clues in the title and subtitle. Nonfiction book titles are often much more literal and descriptive about the subject matter. Exceptions to this are memoir titles, as they might be more interpretive.
- Read the author bio. A nonfiction author bio often leads with the author's qualifications (a degree or lived experience) and reasons for writing the book, while a fiction author bio might be more personal or speak to other books the author has written.
- Look for a preface and/or table of contents. Most nonfiction books are penned to educate or help the reader. Many of them will have a preface introducing the concept or the author's background on the subject matter. Similarly, they'll likely include an easy-to-navigate table of contents, similar to a textbook or educational text.
- Scan the pages for citations or a reference list. Nonfiction books are factual. Therefore, the presented information should be backed up by studies, academic papers, or other reputable sources.
- Read reviews. This is much easier if the book is listed online. But nonfiction book reviews usually use words like “transformation,” “helpful information,” and “life-changing.”
- Consider the style and tone. While any author is free to use any tone in writing, most nonfiction authors default to an educational (even if casual) tone. Memoir authors may be the exception to this one, as most personal accounts are written in the distinct tone and voice of the author.
What types of nonfiction books are there?
When posed with the question, “What is nonfiction?” it's also worth noting the different subgenres, types of writing, and themes in books that appear in the nonfiction category.
Popular nonfiction book genres include:
- Memoir and autobiography
- Spirituality or faith
- Health and fitness
- Art and photography
- Motivational and inspirational
Each of these sub-genres includes the three characteristics of nonfiction that we'll discuss in a bit. But before we get there, consider the different types of writing that could also appear in nonfiction:
- Narrative nonfiction
- Creative nonfiction
- Scientific works
- Historical accounts
3 purposes and characteristics of nonfiction
Now you have a strong foundation and can confidently answer the question, “What is nonfiction?” Let's go deeper. Why do people read nonfiction? What is the purpose of a nonfiction book?
Equally as important as being able to define nonfiction is to be able to describe the characteristics that make a book an effective nonfiction piece.
1. What is nonfiction? Inspiration.
One of the primary characteristics of nonfiction is its inspirational themes. While there are many types of nonfiction, most of them find a way to weave in enough inspiration to help readers want to better themselves and lead a better life.
Whether your book focuses on a personal victory – instilling in readers the idea that “I overcame this and so can you” – or uses data to inspire readers to join the 5 a.m. Club, nonfiction is inspiration, no matter how overt.
2. What is nonfiction? Education.
Educational nonfiction exists as its own sub-genre. However, even outside of strictly educational books, nonfiction includes lessons for readers who desire to self-educate.
Need an example? James Clear’s bestseller, Atomic Habits, stands as a key example of the power nonfiction has in educating readers – while inspiring change.
3. What is nonfiction? Self-discovery.
Some of the bestselling nonfiction today acts as a guide for readers intent on self-reflection. It often uses repetition in writing to portray a theme.
In fact, at a deeper level, answering the question, “What is nonfiction?” often comes down to identifying how a particular book helps readers see parts of themselves they would not otherwise see.
Top nonfiction authors
Let's finish this long-winded answer to “What is nonfiction?” with some concrete – and a bit famous – examples. What better way to define what a nonfiction book is than to read some of the top books in the genre? Who knows, maybe you'll learn something along the way!
Readers know Elizabeth Gilbert for her New York Times bestsellers Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic. She put travel memoirs – and nonfiction books – on the map in a whole new way with the former and continues to write great books to this day. Big Magic is a nonfiction book that focuses on creativity – and does so from a vulnerable perspective.
Fiction writers often create vulnerable characters. However, with nonfiction memoirs, it’s arguably more difficult. Why is this? You, the author, are often the protagonist. Whatever you reveal is likely personal.
What you can learn from her: How to write with appropriate vulnerability to connect with your readers on a more personal level.
Related: Memoir Writing Do's and Don'ts
Another bestselling author, James Clear, focuses on self-development through small, atomic-sized habits in his aptly-named nonfiction book, Atomic Habits. His mindset shift guides readers into self-discovery, and his writing inspires change that lasts.
Now known as one of the leaders in the self-development world, Clear didn’t start at his current success level. His personal journey further proves the results of his message.
What you can learn from him: How to provide small, actionable next steps that lead to large, impactful results.
To say Jennette McCurdy is famous would be a massive understatement. With nine million Instagram followers and a bestselling memoir, her writing style is one to take note of.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is an evocative title that sets readers on a hilarious yet heartbreaking look at Jennette’s life, including deep-seated, personal struggles.
What you can learn from her: Balance humor and heartbreak to communicate your story with the highs and lows associated with great plots.
At times a polarizing figure, David Goggins’ work ethic is no joke. Known for his extreme self-discipline, stringent workout routine, and early mornings, his book, Can’t Hurt Me, has sold four million copies.
What you can learn from him: Don’t shy away from fully communicating your passion, your past as it relates to your writing, and your progress. Combining all three can help your readers in profound ways.
These iconic authors paved, and are paving, a definitive answer to the question, “what is nonfiction?” with their work:
- Svetlana Alexievich
- C.S. Lewis
- Frederick Douglass
- Rebecca Skloot
- Mark Twain
- Caroline Fraser
Fraser focuses on America’s beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder. Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winner is known as a landmark work of oral history. Frederick Douglass’s personal narrative tells horrific stories of overcoming with beautiful prose. Rebecca Skloot shares scientific knowledge in a way that resonates with her readers.
Mark Twain’s adventures are iconic in American history. C.S. Lewis is known for his compelling nonfiction works (as well as his original fiction plots).
These names, and many more, can provide a foundation on which to draw from as you move into ideating your draft. But you might still be asking if nonfiction is the right path for you – and your book.
Should you write a nonfiction book?
Don't just want to know what nonfiction is but why – and how to write a nonfiction book as well? Well, can you answer any of these questions with a resounding “yes!?”
- Do you live a unique life?
- Have you overcome something life-changing or mindset-altering?
- Do you have a desire to teach a valuable lesson?
- Is there something you know due to your profession, education, or background that could help others?
- Do you want to shift from teaching one-on-one as a service provider to changing multiple people's lives with the same amount of effort?
- Do you have a business that you want to grow?
- Are you passionate about a specific event or time in history – and want more people to learn about it?
The next time someone asks you, “What is nonfiction?” you can explain that nonfiction encompasses writing based on factual events or data – and then hand them a copy of your own book as an example!
Define nonfiction with your own book
So what is nonfiction? As you can see, it's a lot of things. Great nonfiction is storytelling grounded on facts, written with purpose, and crafted in a creative way that readers connect with.
Now it’s your turn to become the protagonist in your own story. Whether you choose to write a memoir or autobiography or want to share lessons learned from a less-personal perspective, it’s your turn to answer the question, “What is nonfiction?”
While many nonfiction books (especially self-help) include data and stats, the stories mentioned above are not simply a collection of data but a framework that ties the following together:
It's important to define what is nonfiction as it relates to your specific writing goals. Think about the themes, topics, and characteristics you want to include in your manuscript. Consider how you want your readers to feel during and after reading your book.
Your nonfiction can mix horror and heartbreak, tragedy and triumph, failures and persistence. You can use your expertise to inspire others to health, wellness, and new levels of self-development.
Every writer has a unique perspective to share. Your viewpoint matters, and what you have to say can play a vital role in the trajectory of the nonfiction genre!
Need book writing help? Reference the free resource below for further guidance!