What is Creative Writing in Non-Fiction?

What is Creative Writing in Non-Fiction?

‘Creative non-fiction’ is one of the trickiest terms in writing. Non-fiction means – duh! – being factual. Creative means – duh again! – using your imagination. Isn’t that a conflict?

Well, actually, no. Think of non-fiction as a spectrum. At one end, you have the ultra non-creative kind of writing: textbooks, how-to books, academic and professional work of every sort. In areas like this, factual expertise and clarity matters hugely. Imaginative writing and creative insight may actually get in the way.

At the other end of the non-fiction writing game, you have some genuinely creative areas. Travel writing is one. Memoir and biography can be another. Factual reconstruction of particular historical episodes another. Indeed, if you want to read a non-fiction book that reads exactly like a novel, then try Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s completely true. But it reads like a novel. Capote, in fact, called it a non-fiction novel. It’s famous partly because of its genre-bending format.

You can also find historians writing quite creatively (try Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings). Or try the memoir category – look for John Fenton’s Please Don’t Make Me Go, or Barbara Tate’s amazing West End Girls. Both these books had the freshness and creativity of novels.

If you’re keen to write creative non-fiction, then you need to acquire a novelist’s skills – but deploy them to your own factual ends. You’ll find good advice on novel writing in numerous places on the net – but do remember that the core of creative writing in non-fiction is to create immediacy. It’s all about getting close to character and to the drama of the unfolding moment.

Other bits of advice would be:

1) Read a lot. You won’t succeed in non-fiction unless you know the market you’re trying to write for.

2) Take a course. It’s one thing learning from books. It’s quite another getting personal feedback from a top tutor as you start to develop your skills. Courses these days can be quite cheap and can be done from home, so it’s not the hassle that it once used to be. Depending on exactly what you’re writing, you may even find that a ‘how to write a novel’ course will be the right one for your particular project. If in doubt, then ask the course provider before you sign up for a course.

3) Start writing. Finally – and crucially – the only way you’ll learn how to write better is to start writing. Just get stuck in. You’ll learn masses simply by plunging in. Then, once you’ve got a good chunk of the manuscript written, you can get expert feedback on what you’ve done – what works, what doesn’t work, what you need to do to fix it. Using that support wisely can make all the difference between a book that publishers love, and one that just accumulates rejection letters.

And whatever your project – good luck!

Harry Bingham has written successful creative non-fiction. The Writers’ Workshop runs online writing courses in memoir and novels.

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