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Writing

Tips for Writing Nonfiction: Memoir, Autobiography, and Creative Nonfiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 7 min read

If you’re an aspiring author seeking inspiration for your first book, it may interest you to know that nonfiction writing is the top selling book genre in the United States. If you specialize in writing fiction such as novels, short stories, and poetry, then it makes sense to pursue such work. But if your goal is to one day be a bestselling author, you might want to brainstorm a nonfiction book proposal.

The broad genre of nonfiction includes a wide array of appealing topics, from memoirs to self-help books, sports histories to cookbooks, true crime mysteries to travelogues. Many publishing houses represent authors who specialize in one or more of these subgenres. Nonfiction regularly outsells fiction, and authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Bob Woodward routinely top The New York Times bestseller list. Here are some tips, both for creative writing and publishing, that aspiring nonfiction writers can take into consideration.

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4 Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction refers to a subgenre of nonfiction that incorporates writing techniques more closely associated with literary fiction—and as such, this subgenre is sometimes called literary nonfiction. Creative nonfiction writing tends to have an engaging, story-centric format that emphasizes narrative over a list of facts. This makes a creative nonfiction book markedly different from other types of books associated with the nonfiction genre, like academic textbooks.

When setting out to write your own creative nonfiction, remember the following guidelines:

  1. Tell a captivating story. Figure out if there’s a story that can encompass all the facts that you need to communicate in your nonfiction writing. Michael Lewis did this in Moneyball, a book about baseball, by focusing his story of the Oakland A’s on the team’s general manager Billy Beane, thereby resisting the urge to weigh down his book with lists of statistics.
  2. Highlight firsthand accounts from real world characters. Readers want to hear from the characters who actually lived through the story and were emotionally invested in its outcome. These characters’ points of view can be gleaned via interviews if they’re still living or primary source documents from the time period in which they lived.
  3. Share your own perspective. While misrepresenting facts is off limits, don’t hesitate to show your personal relationship to the material. As a creative nonfiction writer, you have license to describe how your topic affects you personally. This particularly applies to travel writing, memoir, humor, and opinion essays. An author’s point of view can be humorous, political, or purely meditative. Still, be sure to draw a distinction between your own beliefs and the facts themselves.
  4. Avoid overly technical terms. You don’t need to master nomenclature to understand a topic on a conceptual level. For instance, a reader can learn about exciting breakthroughs in the world of gene therapy without knowing the difference between cytosine and adenine.

4 Tips for Writing a Memoir

A memoir is a nonfiction book that presents a firsthand retelling of a period in an author’s own life. It does not document the memoirist’s entire life story but rather a selected era or a specific multi-era journey. Alternatively, a memoir may concern its author’s entire life but presented through a particular lens—such as the events leading up to and surrounding their professional career. Many authors who are writing nonfiction for the first time embrace the memoir genre. This is because it allows for first person narrative voice, a strong point of view based on true stories.

Here are some writing tips for nonfiction writers looking to turn a real life personal story into a memoir:

  1. Choose a period in your life that feels unique to you. Strong memoirs talk about parts of a person’s life that could not have happened to anyone else. If you’re writing about a universal experience—coming-of-age, love, loss—consider the unique perspective you bring to the subject matter.
  2. Remember that a memoir is not a diary. Although you are presumably the main character of your memoir, you are not the audience. As you begin your first draft, consider the perspective of someone who doesn’t know you well, and ask yourself what would feel compelling to them. Steer clear of self indulgence.
  3. Seek outside perspectives. Typically, it’s good to write a first draft of your memoir, take a few days off, read it back to yourself, and then dive into a second draft. Once you’ve completed the second draft, however, it’s time for outside eyes. Send your draft to some trusted friends—even a professional editor if you have one—and receive their notes with an open mind.
  4. Remember who your audience is. With humility, you’ll understand that events aren’t necessarily interesting simply because they happened to you personally. You need to find exciting and riveting points of emphasis to keep your audience invested. Respect your audience and they’ll reward you with their attention and emotional investment.
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3 Tips for Writing an Autobiography

Closely related to memoir is the autobiography genre. Both share the same subject matter: the person who is actually writing the book. However, the two forms are not identical. Most notably, an autobiography is a first-person account of its author’s entire life. A memoir does not document the memoirist’s entire life story but rather focuses a selected era or a specific multi-era journey. As such, a memoir is comparatively focused when considered side-by-side with an autobiography. Here are three tips to consider in the autobiography writing process:

  1. Tell a complete story. A good autobiography includes an origin story (including family history), significant experiences from both your personal and professional life, and a clear narrative voice that represents your personality. It’s also important to include the less successful episodes of your life. A personal story of failure humanizes you, and it allows the reader to draw parallels to their own life.
  2. Think about creative structure. You can tell your life story in the most traditional way—dry, factual, chronological—or you can brainstorm more creative storytelling methods. Start by compiling any and all life experiences that you suspect might be compelling to a reader. As you sort through your own memories, think about ways to organize them that go beyond mere chronology.
  3. Read other autobiographies. Unless you are a voracious consumer of biographies and autobiographies, it’s possible you haven’t read one in a long time—perhaps not even since high school. So before you start writing the outline and first draft of your own book, do some research to find out what good writing looks like in the autobiography genre. Pay attention to narrative arc, sentence structure, tone, point of view, and overall organization—from the table of contents all the way to the epilogue.

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4 Resources for Nonfiction Book Writing

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Lots of valuable resources exist for authors looking to get into nonfiction writing. The actual writing process will take a lot of time, so it’s wise to maximize that time by having a plan of attack when you work. Use these resources so you can make the most of the writing process and come away with a book, article, or personal essay that you feel proud of:

  1. Read the work of William Zinsser. Famed author, editor, critic, and teacher William Zinsser has guided countless aspiring writers through his book On Good Writing. It’s widely available in bookstores and libraries.
  2. Listen to podcasts from Pushkin Industries. Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg have launched an NYC-based podcast network called Pushkin Industries. Tune in to their programs to hear great nonfiction writers like Bethany McLean, Michael Lewis, and Gladwell himself delve into the nonfiction topics they love.
  3. Use digital tools. Many online resources exist to help you master the techniques of good writing. This includes mechanical tasks like keeping a writing schedule, avoiding procrastination, organizing your book structure, scanning for typos, monitoring word count and more. Examine platforms like Scrivener and Reedsy, both of which can help make the writing and editing process accessible to those who may not be able to afford a traditional professional editor.
  4. Learn how to self-publish. If you will be self-publishing, you will be responsible for more than just a great book. You will also be responsible for proofreading, book cover design, finding a target market, publicity, book marketing, and researching self-publishing methods. Fortunately there are a lot of resources to help you in this endeavor. Entire self-publishing companies have sprung up to help new authors, whether they’re writing fiction, writing non-fiction, or even compiling anthologies. Kobo Writing Life is an author platform that is notably popular among self-publishers. So too is Createspace. Make the time to do your research to find the best platform for your work. The goal is to balance your publishing dream with the workaday responsibilities of family and your day job. It’s possible to craft that balance, but you may need some help from these outside platforms.

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