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Learn About Nonfiction: Definition, Examples, and 9 Essential Nonfiction Genres

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

The majority of books that are sold and read throughout America are nonfiction books. Such books routinely top the New York Times bestseller list and are consumed by everyone from academics to hobbyists to professionals.



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What Is Nonfiction?

Nonfiction is a broad genre of writing that encompasses all books that aren’t rooted in a fictional narrative.

Nonfiction writing can be based in history and biography, it can be instructional, it can offer commentary and humor, and it can ponder philosophical questions.

If a book is not rooted in a made-up story, then it is nonfiction.

What Is the Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction?

Literary works of fiction are works that aren’t based on true facts. Typically fiction appears as narrative—think of great novels by the likes of Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Edgar Allen Poe, and more.

In addition to novels, fiction can appear as short stories, poetry, and in theatrical scripts for film, television, and live performance.

In a nutshell, nonfiction covers everything else. The contents of nonfiction are rooted in true events, although many nonfiction books offer strongly opinionated commentary on those true events—think of authors like George Will, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and more.

9 Essential Genres of Nonfiction Books

Here are some of the most prominent types of nonfiction genres.

  1. History. Historical nonfiction consists of true accounts of historical eras and events. Some histories dwell purely in objective facts, and other histories are refracted through the lens of the author’s personal beliefs. In either case, history books must present true stories in order to qualify as nonfiction. Famous writers of history include David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
  2. Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. This subset of nonfiction focuses on the life story of a particular subject. Biographies are written in the third person about someone other than the author. Autobiographies and memoirs are written by the subject themselves. While autobiographies and memoirs are, by necessity, written by someone who is currently alive at the time of the writing, biographies may profile subjects both living and dead.
  3. Travel guides and travelogues. Travelogues are a close cousin of memoirs, and they recount an author’s specific experience traveling somewhere. Travel guides tend to be more instructive, offering suggestions and practical information for travelers bound for a particular destination.
  4. Academic texts. Academic texts are designed to instruct readers on a particular topic. Most Americans first encounter academic books in the form of assigned school textbooks that form the basis for a yearlong class. Academic texts are also used by adults wishing to learn a particular trade, such as car repair or music arranging.
  5. Philosophy and insight. These books are a close cousin of academic texts, and many are published by university-affiliated publishing houses. This genre runs the gamut from traditional philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes) to scientific theories (Newton, Watson & Crick) to analysis of scientific or cultural phenomena.
  6. Journalism. Journalism is a broad subgenre of nonfiction and one that encompasses many media. Journalism is most regularly consumed in the form of newspapers and magazines, along with monthly journals, TV news reports, and more. Journalism reports on true events that typically, but not always, have relevance to a contemporary audience. Journalism can also take the form of books. This includes narrative nonfiction and true crime books. Some of these books, like Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich and Memphis Rent Party by Robert Gordon straddle the line between journalism and history. The best journalism can receive acclaims like the Pulitzer Prize and the Peabody and Polk awards.
  7. Self-help and instruction. Self-help books are some of the best-selling books in the world of nonfiction. Many of these books concern business success, buoying confidence, staying organized, relationship advice, dieting, and financial management.
  8. Guides and how-to manuals. Related to the self-help subgenre, but more focused on specific skills is the subgenre of guides and how-to manuals. These include cookbooks, musical notations, athletic instructions, and tutorials for home hobbyists.
  9. Humor and commentary. These subgenres are forms of creative nonfiction, where analysis and reflection on real-world events are distilled through the prism of an author’s point of view. Sometimes that point of view can be humorous, sometimes it’s political, and sometimes it’s purely meditative. What prevents this subcategory from being fiction is that it is rooted in objective events, both present and historical.
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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.