Nonfiction: What It Is and What It Can Be,By Sheilah Egan

Ask a younger reader what nonfiction means and you will most likely hear, “true.” Ask an older reader and the response may be more complicated, including explanations of: ” not fiction,” “true” or “real” or “factual.” A humorously, intelligent teenager of my acquaintance replied, “You cannot imagine it.”

Authors who write nonfiction are (or should be) dedicated to telling the truth about an event, period of history, or a person’s life. They begin a project with research-using all of the skills of a detective to ferret out details and facts about their subject. Experts in a particular field may be consulted, libraries provide materials for research, and the Internet may serve as a resource depending on the reliability of the particular website. Many times authors must do a great deal of traveling to historical sites or private homes to uncover primary resources to verify “oral history” accounts of an event or confirm facts that others have compiled. Nonfiction authors must use the facts and report information as accurately as possible, while creating a book or article that will appeal to readers and provide insight about a subject. Often an author uses the facts to support a certain hypothesis; but a balanced examination provides facts from more than one viewpoint, although there are occasions when a reader may become aware of the author’s own “slant” about a subject. One must always consider the integrity, reputation, and academic standing of both the author and the publisher of nonfiction material.

There are many types of writing styles and many uses of nonfiction. The following three types of nonfiction are a generalized look at nonfiction culled from websites such as:  (homeschooler who posts free materials), and

Narrative nonfiction:

tells a true story relating factual events, with real people, in actual locations. Examples include: autobiography, biography, memoir, and narrative essay (a short, factual composition).

Narrative Nonfiction can be read with enjoyment as it does use the elements of story (as does fiction-of, course, fiction is not true)






Informative nonfiction:

Explains a topic, reports the news, gives the steps of a process, etc.





Persuasive nonfiction:

Encourages readers to believe or do something or gives an opinion. Examples include such things as:





Keep in mind that:

  • Nonfiction deals only with real people, events, or ideas.
  • Nonfiction is narrated from the point of view, or perspective, of the author, who is a real person.
  • Nonfiction presents facts or discusses concepts.
  • It may reflect the historical context of the time period, including references to major social and cultural information.

Often in an effort to utilize an event or other nonfiction fact in a new or novel way, an author may choose Creative Nonfiction, which uses a variety of literary techniques to create an appealing presentation of some actual event or aspect of a person’s life. There is usually some sort of preface or explanation in the back matter of the book discussing how much lee way the author took with the facts and which parts are embellished or presented as they “might have been,” such as conversations between people that were not recorded or documented in any way…just extrapolated from the facts.

The reader must have the tools and skills to determine whether what they are reading is nonfiction or actually fiction. The many genres of fiction can be a challenge for novice “detectives,” especially in the area of “historical fiction.” Knowing the criteria for nonfiction and being able to discern the author’s intent and methodology is essential for students of all ages in making decisions about materials to be used for research projects, themed writing, essays, etc.

Updated 11/01/13

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