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:
A 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.
The sub-genres memoir and autobiography often get confused as being one and the same. The main difference between the two is 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 decision. Contrary to popular belief, the length of the book doesn’t have anything to do with the memoir vs autobiography debate.
Like 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.
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 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 level of 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.
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.
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.
Considering 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.
Embarking on a nonfiction writing project is not an easy task. It 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 specializes in nonfiction writing for the modern audience. Whether you’re interested in business or history, we can help you create the perfect book – from the drafting table to the shelves. Get in touch with us today!
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray (it's a long story), Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, and strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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