April 17


Do You Know Your Nonfiction? Understand the 6 Types Before You Write

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

April 17, 2018

#authors, #authorskills, #books, #businessbooks, #editing, #ghostwriting, #indieauthors, #nonfiction, #selfpublishing

Nonfiction – literary work that is based in fact – covers more than one genre. Or sub-genre. With so many potential subjects to cover, and so many possible ways to approach nonfiction writing, it’s important to understand the differences between these sub-genres. This way you can better direct your work and flesh out its ultimate potential.

Here are the six types of nonfiction writing, and some of the most famous examples of each sub-genre:


Memoir writingA historical account that is written based on personal knowledge or special sources is a memoir

Memoirs aren’t necessary told in chronological order, allowing much room for creative retelling. Some famous examples of a memoirs include Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (I recently read and loved Under an Afghan Sky, written by my former colleague Melissa Fung.)  Although The Diary of a Young Girl is more of a diary than a standard memoir, it can also be loosely considered a memoir for Anne Frank’s specific retelling of the German invasion. Some of Ingenium Books’ soon-to-be-famous (nudge nudge wink wink) memoirs include Cynthia Barlow‘s Four Fridays with Christina, C.A. GibbsThe Picture Wall, and Yvonne Caputo‘s Flying With Dad

The sub-genres memoir and biography/autobiography often get confused as being one and the same. The main differences between them are the scope and focus of the book. Memoirs are often about a single important experience: a break-it-or-make-it business deal, a detrimental career choice, a life-changing experience. The length of the book doesn’t have anything to do with the memoir vs autobiography debate.


AutobiographyLike a memoir, the writer of an autobiography is also the subject of it. However, instead of zooming in on an important event in a person’s private or public life, an autobiography is the complete retelling of a person’s life.

Autobiographies begin from a person’s childhood continuing up to the writer’s present. Autobiographies are considered one of the most intimate sub-genres of nonfiction. Influential people often write autobiographies as a way of sharing their story with the world and inspiring others. Businessmen, artists, politicians, and influencers lay bare their secrets and reveal previously unknown truths about their experiences and their life.

High profile examples of autobiographies include Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malala, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and Tina Fey’s Bossypants.


A biography is a lot like an autobiography, only the actual story doesn’t concern the writer. Biography authors are not related to the subject. Often, a famous person’s story encourages them to repaint a popular personality to bring him or her closer to the readers.

There can be more than one biography on a single person. For Barack Obama alone, there are about ten biographies available, each focusing on a different aspect of his life. The most popular ones include David Garrow’s Rising Star and David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story.

Biographies still offer plenty of opportunities for creativity. Biographers have to watch out for style and direction. These two things can separate their work from other existing biographies, and can tell someone’s story from a brand new perspective.


Expository nonfictionExpository nonfiction reveals the truth or brings light to important issues.

For example, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul details her experience as a journalist with Afghan girls and the phenomenon of bacha posh. As with other expository books, she reveals her subject’s daily routine and brings to light an unknown problem in present day Afghanistan.

Expository often poses a problem for inexperienced writers. As a form of journalistic nonfiction, it requires a deep understanding with the subject. Writers who come in contact with controversial topics must approach their writing with sensitivity and understanding. If you’re not conscientious with your story, you run the risk of looking insensitive, naive, or both.

Prescriptive Nonfiction (Self-help)

Enter any book store and you’ll see that self-help or self-improvement books are always among the best-selling books. It’s because they’re the most relatable and actionable books out of all the nonfiction sub-genres.

Everyone encounters problems. Not everyone can hire a private life or business coach or make significant changes on their own. Self-help books allow people to improve what they’re lacking. It doesn’t have to be something as big as battling drug addiction or getting over PTSD. The most popular self-help books are about finding motivation and improving skills, typically those that have something to do with interpersonal skills. Business, leadership, and management books often fit into this category: check out Gwyn Teatro‘s In the Thick of It, and Lisa King‘s Just Do You.

Famous self-help books include Spencer John’s Who Moved My Cheese and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (the paper back version has sold more than 15 million copies – we can aim for that, right? :-)). Not-so-famous include our own Rock Your Business. Motivating people and helping them change their lives for the better are the main purposes behind prescriptive nonfiction.

Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative nonfictionConsidering how many sub-genres can fall under narrative nonfiction, this almost feels like a genre of its own. You’ve got creative nonfiction, long-form journalism, and literary nonfiction all falling under narrative nonfiction. If it’s a well-crafted, compelling true story, it’s narrative nonfiction writing. Because of the wide range of works that fall under creative nonfiction, as a writer you’ll have fewer rules to follow.

Anything from crime thrillers to essays and interviews can fall under narrative nonfiction. What distinguishes narrative nonfiction from the other sub-genres is its playfulness with language. While other sub-genres are can also be written in the same manner, narrative nonfiction is premised on the creativity of a narrative, so much so that it doesn’t even feel like nonfiction.  

Which Style of Nonfiction Writing is for Me?

Embarking on a nonfiction book writing journey requires a lot of research and hard work, precisely because you’re in the business of journalism and creative writing.

To understand what sub-genre will suit you best, figure out what stories you respond well to. Does telling other people’s stories interest you? Or, perhaps you would rather tell your own? Do you want to expose an unknown cultural phenomenon, or inspire the world? Knowing what you’re passionate about helps you find material that you can easily convert into a full-length and even potentially best-selling novel.

Ingenium Books is a hybrid publisher of nonfiction. With us, it’s all about you: your book, your goals, your journey. Check out our #mswl (manuscript wish list). When you’re ready to submit your manuscript, go here. Reach out and connect with us today

What do you think?

  • Hi – I am writing a non-fiction book that examines the way we were socialized into believing certain ideas, beliefs, behaviors about different topics (relationships, mental health, physical health, career, etc.). I use my personal stories to offer alternative solutions to the way were “programmed”. Would this be a self-help or a hybrid? Thank you

    • Hi Rasha! This sounds fascinating! If you don’t have a publisher yet, do reach out. The specific genre will depend very much on how you position the content — but the way you’ve described it here could fit the self-help category IF you have a clearly-identified pain point the reader is struggling with. Hope that helps!

  • Hello, I am doing some self help writing based on fear, failure and focus. I would like to impact the younger generation by my writing as I share what causes set backs and disappointments and how to avoid it to gain greater achievements for their lives. But I want to also ask authors and successful people to allow me to write a biography of how they succeeded as I travel and scout for them and their stories. WHAT TYPE OF GENRE IS THIS IN,PLEASE?

    • Deyalonda, as with so many manuscripts, the genre can morph as the writing progresses. The first part of your description suggests self-help. The second half, where you invite the contributions of other people, could turn into an anthology if the other contributors write their own pieces — which could still be self-help. If you are just interviewing others and writing their stories yourself, this could still be self-help. And… I hope that helps!

  • Hi, I am writing a nonfiction book about being an empath and I look to inform people about what an empath actually is. What genre would this be in?

    • HI Paige :-). Sounds like an important book! A nonfiction about being an empath, with the goal of informing people what an empath is, could fit into a number of different sub-genres depending on how you treat the content. You could write a memoir about your experience as an empath (if indeed that’s the case) which would inform people about what an empath is. You could write a self-help book that would give other empaths tools they need to make their lives better/more successful, for example, which would fall into a self-help sub-genre of nonfiction. Hope that helps, and good luck with the writing!

  • Hi I’m writing a book about living with a mental illness. I realize this is a broad topic, but it will have my first hand experiences. I will also discuss the things/events that have helped, hurt, or trigger me. It’ll also help others who struggle with it as well.. With that being said, would this fall under Memoir or Expository non-fiction? Or neither?

  • Hi, I am writing a non fiction book on philosophy, that touches a little on psychology. What genre would this be?

    • Hi Ashli. In order to determine what type of nonfiction your book is, we’d need to know more about what you’re trying to say beyond the broad topics of philosophy and psychology. Is it an academic examination of research around a particular position or point? Is it an instruction manual of some sort that readers would use to guide them in some way? Is it challenging mainstream views on a particular point or perspective? Is it a narrative of what these topics have meant to you in your life and how they’ve influenced things for you personally? Your answers to these questions — along with examining your goals for your book — are what determine the genre, not the broad topics. I hope that helps!

  • Thank you for the insightful information, Boni. I enjoy watching and making documentary films as a storyteller and now I want write non-fiction books. Presently, I have stories of personal accounts of two people I would like to tell and I think they’re quite compelling stories. My purpose is simply to craft the stories on the background of a certain theme/setting to interest my readers and make them laugh or cry, entertainment basically. I guess I’ll be looking at the narrative non-fiction genre.

    Any comments would be deeply appreciated. Thank you.

    • Thanks for comment, Temitope. Narrative nonfiction is likely the writ-large genre. However, you might be well served to dig a little deeper into what kind of stories these are, and see if you can do some research, for example, by digging into how and where book retailers might put your book/books on the shelf—whether virtual bookshelf or physical. That will inform more about your writing—knowing what your reader audience both expects and is looking for based on where they’ll find the book will go a long way to helping you produce a book that serves the market and is poised for success.

  • Struggling to find my genre pigeonhole… My book is about understanding the body in a new way and using that understanding (and developing the skill) to eliminate chronic pain. But it’s not a manual or how-to, so it’s not prescriptive, right? I discuss current treatments and how they fall short but I wouldn’t classify it as expository either. My own experiences are a large part of it, but it’s not a memoir. My goal is to introduce radically new concepts to the general public, as well as to receptive people in the healthcare field. Your response is welcome!

    • Nancy, GREAT question. The clue likely rests in your answer to the question: what do you want your reader to do, think, and feel after they’re finished reading your book? Based on what you’ve said, it sounds to me like you want them to take new action to eliminate chronic pain. If that is indeed the case, then you are actually writing self-help, which is how-to. Just because the main genre is self-help doesn’t mean you can’t have elements that could also fit if the book were in another genre…. it’s important to bring your own story, or parts of it, into the explanations of concepts, how you came to understand and apply them, and what a difference it made in your life. The explanations of current treatments falling short is an important part of the motivation for the reader — motivating them with why messages for why it will be worth their while to make the changes you’re suggesting. I hope that helps! Sounds like an interesting book!

      • Thank you for responding. What I want the reader to do is understand their body differently, expand their own sense of touch, and spur some healthcare people to … idk, use the concepts in the book to treat patients in a better way, or maybe take a training that I haven’t developed yet. There are some elements of experiential self-exploration, and a chapter of What You Can Do but mostly it’s not prescriptive self-help in the usual sense. It’s more like ‘Hey, did you know your body works like this?! and not the way you’ve always thought!’ It takes training and practice to do the treatment I describe, so you can’t just read the book and help yourself. Which makes me think self-help isn’t the appropriate genre but I don’t know what is. Given what I’ve said, would you still say ‘self-help’?

  • True story. 2020/21
    Asking which sub-genre, please?
    I’m writing about three things, beating COVID-19, my world travels and me trying to get home to Australia – the country with tight closed borders. (Borders still closed so it’s current).
    Adventurous: fearful, sudden cancellation – by flight, country, and accommodation, so this had me country-hopping beyond even my belief.
    Duration of 14 months trying to survive.

    Problem: Style… I wanted to write it as light and shade, serious but also shooting for injections of humour and irony. I think I can manage irony as the story tells itself in parts.

    Memoir, narrative nonfiction? Or other?
    Thank you and I love your information! 🙂

    • Hi Kaz, your story does certainly sound current! Memoir is narrative nonfiction — but not all narrative nonfiction is memoir :-). And you get to decide which sub-genre you can work this story into — it all depends on your goals (which we often refer to as your “why”). You could take these experiences and weave them into a memoir. You could take what you learned from the experiences and write a prescriptive nonfiction (self-help) book to help others learn what you have. Or, you could take these experiences and turn it into, hypothetically and for example only, an expository nonfiction work where you’re shining light on (hypothetically, and for example only, repeated for effect) what you see as flawed decision-making around travel during a pandemic… there are myriad ways to treat the same core elements of the same story! I hope that helps.

  • Hi I’m Mimi. I have started on two books one is non fiction and the other is friction, but then when I have to continue writing my non fiction, it somehow feels as though I’m writing something that is supposed to be friction, or is it me just relating to both stories somehow??

    • Hi Mimi. Are the subjects related in any way? If yes, perhaps ask yourself why you feel the need to write two different treatments? The answer to this night be easier to sort out if you are also clear on what is motivating you to write in the first place: what are you hoping to achieve, who is your reader and how will your book serve them? Hope that helps.

  • how do I start writing a non fiction book about my school life and everyone in it, and is it ok if I use real people in my story

    • Hi Daneen. The trick is just to start. Start writing what comes to your mind and don’t worry about what you keep in or out until you are closer to being ready to publish. Hope that helps, and good luck with your project!

  • I have a collection of spiritual experiences that I want to publish. The goal is to encourage others to connect to earth-based spirituality and personal story-telling as a source of healing. What catagory would that be? How can I keep my own story-telling voice in tact during the publication process?

    • Hi Kate. You’d have two possible categories of nonfiction for a book like the one you describe: either a memoir, or a how-to book. You get to pick. And as to how to keep your own voice — a good editor will know how to ensure your voice isn’t lost through the editing process…. however you will want to expect changes to your original draft which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re asking you to change your voice. Hope that helps!

  • This is a great article. Thank you. What if the book contains many real stories about different people, undergoing a common problem? is that a biography or a narrative nonfiction or an expository? Thanks

    • Monica, it will depend on how the stories are treated. It wouldn’t be biography, as that is typically about one person’s life. But it could be either narrative/expository or prescriptive. If the purpose behind the stories is to demonstrate “how to” and includes, for example, action steps for the reader to follow, that would be prescriptive. 🙂

    • Abby, great question. It depends on how those books are written. If the intention is to tell someone how to write, or how to grow a healthy plant, those would be prescriptive nonfiction. If it was to outline an opinion as to the healing properties of plants or the therapeutic value of writing after trauma, for example, that would be expository. Or it could be narrative nonfiction if it was an exploration of the most recent research….. or something like that. I hope that helps!

  • THANK YOU! I want to be a writer and am currently writing film scripts but it doesn't fulfil me so I am now going to start nonfiction writing and this page helped me understand where and how to start. Thanks

    • Hello June, many ways to start, all depending on where you are starting from and where you want to go. Check out our YouTube channel and look for videos that talk about ‘your why’ and also how to identify your readers… lots of other resources there to get you going. And when you’re ready, reach out and schedule a discovery call 🙂

  • I am writing a novel about Nikola Tesla. Should I use real names? Can I add some fictional relationship to bolster Tesla's character and the story?
    Thank you very much.

  • What happens when I am writing a book about My personal account of being caught in a relationship with a pediphile? What genre would it fall into?

      • This is a story about Tesla, the great inventor who discovered AC and who worked with Edison. I repeat, can I add a fictional relationship to bolster his character and the story?
        Thank you. Ivan

        • Ivan, you can really do anything you want, as an author. The trick is to know how to appropriately handle each choice. If you are writing a nonfiction treatment of Tesla, and you wish to introduce a fictional relationship to bolster the story/character, then you’ll want to indicate, perhaps on the cover, most certainly in an introduction, that this is “based on a true story.” As long as you are up front with your readers about your choices, you are fine.

  • I enjoyed the article,but I want to expand my children’s book writing. I am a teacher. I have ideas for children, to information for teachers (professional learning)

    • Ann that sounds very interesting. Let us know if you ever want to brainstorm and chat through some of the options and considerations. We’d be open to that. Just schedule a discovery call 🙂

  • Thanks for the tons of information and instructions on how to write that you have provided us with. Hope,I shall be able to convert, at least, most of these into my writings.

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