April 17


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

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

April 17, 2018

author skills, authors, books, business books, editing, ghostwriting, indie authors, nonfiction, self-publishing

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’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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