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Writing

A Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

One of the great things about nonfiction writing is that almost anyone is capable of writing it. By tapping into your own experiences and putting pen to paper, you can create engaging, moving pieces that explore your personal history. Creative nonfiction is a type of nonfiction writing that encourages writers to incorporate techniques more often found in fiction writing and include personal opinion and emotion into their work.

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Malcolm Gladwell Teaches WritingMalcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is a genre of nonfiction writing that incorporates different creative writing techniques and literary styles to convey truthful, non-fictional narratives. Creative nonfiction writing tends to emphasize story and tone over more traditional subgenres of nonfiction. Creative nonfiction writers often approach their subject matter through a more emotional lens than other nonfiction writers like journalists or academic writers.

The 4 Golden Rules of Writing Creative Nonfiction

When trying to translate a true story into a creative nonfiction personal essay or longer book-length piece, it’s important to follow some general guidelines. One of the exciting parts about creative nonfiction is the leeway it gives writers to explore emotional truths, but this should never come at the expense of facts. If you’re interested in writing creative nonfiction for the first time, consider some of these creative nonfiction writing tips:

  1. Make sure everything is factually accurate. Even though writing creative nonfiction shares certain characteristics with writing fiction, writers should make sure that everything they write is factually accurate. Obviously, if this complicates things or proves too hard for you, you can always consider writing a piece of fiction.
  2. Play with person. Oftentimes the point of view of narrative nonfiction is dictated by the type of piece you are writing but sometimes you have some wiggle room to experiment with different techniques. Consider shifting from first person to third person or vice versa, especially when writing about your own personal life experiences. This can give you some new perspective on real world events.
  3. Follow emotion. One of the major differences between different subsets of the nonfiction genre is the way that emotion can play in a piece. Reporters try to avoid speaking about their own life or injecting their own editorial opinions into a piece. Creative nonfiction writers often listen to their emotions and allow their feelings to affect the shape and tone of their writing.
  4. Incorporate literary techniques. One of the things that separates creative nonfiction and literary journalism from other forms of nonfiction is the use of techniques more often seen in the world of fiction. Elements of fiction that you might find in creative nonfiction include: extended metaphor, allegory, imagery, synecdoche, and many more.
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3 Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

If you’re considering entering the world of creative nonfiction there are several options you can consider to get some training and expand your knowledge of the world of narrative nonfiction including:

  • Writing programs. Creative nonfiction writers often attend programs to help them hone their craft and learn alongside other aspiring nonfiction writers. These can be undergraduate, MFA or community writing workshops.
  • Read. It may sound simple but the best way to learn literary nonfiction is to read as much creative nonfiction writing as you can get your hands on. Creative nonfiction comes in many different formats. It can be very beneficial to your writing to read short nonfiction pieces as well as longer full-length books.
  • Network. It can be incredibly beneficial to meet other writers and professionals in the world of nonfiction books. If you live in a city like Los Angeles or New York there are many free writing events and readings that you can attend to meet and network with other writers. If you live somewhere more rural, there are plenty of online resources and communities that can connect you with writers and potential publishers.

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5 Creative Nonfiction Writing Prompts

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In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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As you start exploring creative nonfiction it can be useful to use writing prompts to get your creative energy flowing. There are many online resources and books that contain creative nonfiction writing tips and prompts that you should seek out. Additionally, you can consider the following ideas as you start thinking about what sort of creative nonfiction pieces you might want to write:

  1. Explore different perspectives. Tell a personal story from your own life from someone else’s perspective. Exploring a familiar real life event from a different angle can help bring nuance and variety to a personal essay.
  2. Write about a location. Rather than trying to tackle life stories head-on, it can be useful to think about a location in your life and dissect the events, people and objects that you associate with it. Taking this approach can help you craft a thematically cohesive piece of writing that
  3. Consider a piece of art. Think about a piece of art that deeply affects you. It can be visual art, music, poetry, etc. Think about the emotions it stirs up in you and what memories it might evoke and write a piece following this emotional journey.
  4. Events. Write a piece centered around an important event. This event could be anything from a national holiday or a particularly memorable birthday party from your past. The event should center and focus your essay and give you the freedom to explore deeper emotional truths.
  5. Experiment with genre. There are many different types of creative nonfiction including travel writing, book reviews, podcasts, new journalism reportage, etc. Explore a variety of subgenres and challenge yourself to write in formats you might not have much experience with.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re just starting to explore essay writing or you’re a seasoned journalist looking for some inspiration, learning how to craft a nonfiction story takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Malcolm Gladwell, whose books on seemingly ordinary subjects—ketchup, crime, quarterbacks—have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. In Malcolm Gladwell’s MasterClass on writing, the renowned storyteller shares everything he knows about researching topics, crafting interesting characters, and distilling big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Malcolm Gladwell, R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

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