Elements of Nonfiction

What is Nonfiction?

Writing that is expository and/or descriptive, having to do with ideas, issues, actual events, and/or real people.

However, creative nonfiction borrows elements from fiction, poetry, and drama: plot structure of a true story, dialogue (re-created), “character development” of real people, scenes, summary, and description.

Types of Nonfiction:

Narrative Nonfiction:

Diary: a more intimate, personal, and private chronology of events that is presented sequentially – mostly chronicles personal feelings.

Journal: tends to be a more public forum, the writer being more concerned with ideas and the world at large.

Literary Journal: direct responses to other texts, based on feelings, emotions, imitation, and/or analyses. Often used by writers for getting ideas of their own.

Letter: informal or formal message written directly to a family member, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. Letters of famous people are often published in collections.

Epistle: a more formal version of the letter, often intended for public dissemination (publication and/or public speech). As such, the epistle usually addresses public issues, such as religion and politics.

Biography: a chronology of a famous or distinguished person’s life, written by a biographer other than the person whose life is being chronicled. Typically, a biography attempts to cover the person’s entire life.

Literary Biography: a specialized type of biography in which a writer’s life story is told from the perspective of his or her body of literary works.

Autobiography: a writer’s (usually a famous or noted person), version of his or her own life. Typically, the writer attempts to cover his or her entire life thus far.

Memoir: a writer’s (not necessarily a famous or noted person) attempt to emphasize events and/or people he or she has experienced and/or known from his/her own perspective. A memoir does not usually cover an entire life, but, rather, emphasizes key events and people. Memoirs tend to resemble fiction, and, in fact, some memoir writers have been accused of stretching the truth, for example, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces

Newspaper/news website story: an objective account of a fast-breaking event, incorporating the who, what, when, where, why, and how paradigm. While some expository elements may be found in straight newspaper writing, the journalist’s main purpose is to get the story disseminated fast and on deadline. Therefore, this type of writing tends to be bare bones – just the facts – with as much as possible information in the lede (or lead) and the following two or three paragraphs. Uses the inverted pyramid style, with the most important information at the beginning. Often, in print journalism, the bottom of the story is lopped off because of space concerns (not such a problem in digital versions).

Rhetorical Nonfiction: presents facts and ideas in such a way to persuade a reader of a viewpoint.

Journalistic/editorial prose: reportage that goes beyond the simple reporting of events; thus, the writer takes and supports a position and then writes a piece for publication. Some in-depth stories/editorials incorporate expository elements as well.

Descriptive prose: writing that is concerned with the physical world: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Also known as “sensory” writing.

Expository prose: writing that explains, offers information, and/or defends a viewpoint. Research is often involved. Often the line dividing the following can be fuzzy:

Issue: writing that defends/supports a viewpoint on a controversial issue.

Informative: writing that is intended to offer information on a subject – usually noncontroversial – without making major judgments on an issue.

Process: writing that explains how a something works (informative process) or how to do something (directive process)

Essay: a term for a piece of nonfiction prose that has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion – a complete work.

Informal: an essay that is more personal, tentative, or subjective – not the “last word” on a topic. Language tends to be informal/casual. Creative nonfiction falls into this category.

Formal: an essay that is serious in tone/register, objective, and formally structured. Extensive research of issues is usually involved.

However, the dividing line between narrative and rhetorical nonfiction can often be fuzzy.

Parts of the Formal Essay (Traditional Format):


The beginning of the essay that introduces the topic and attracts the reader’s attention by offering an anecdote, story, or scenario.


The major claim (position of the writer) or what the essay plans to cover.

Explicit Thesis:

The major claim or topic of essay that is stated directly in a clear and concise sentence.

Implicit Thesis:

The major claim or topic of essay that is implied throughout the essay–not directly stated.

Three Paragraph Body:

The “meat” of the essay, the evidence to support the thesis, which is offered to the reader, such as research, statistics, interviews, and solid reasoning.

Counterargument paragraph(s):

In an issue/persuasive essay, recognition, refutation, and/or accommodation of opposing viewpoints. Usually not needed for the informative essay.


The ending that wraps up the essay by restating the thesis in different words and sometimes offering an extra “nugget” for the reader for further thinking. 

I prefer to view to the formal/traditional essay format as “training wheels for writers,” although creative nonfiction writers tend to ditch this format quickly.


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