Anything made up is fiction. Anything with facts is non-fiction. So what exactly is creative non-fiction and why does it need editing in the same ways as fiction?
Creative non-fiction, sometimes called narrative non-fiction covers a broad spectrum of non-fiction genres. Any non-fictional topic, one based on facts, that also has a narrative element or a story-type feel, counts as creative or narrative non-fiction.
Most popular in this genre is the memoir. This is often more focused than an autobiography, typically looking at one aspect or one event of someone’s life. Whereas an autobiography (or biography) will explore many aspects of someone’s life, their relationships and many defining moments, a memoir could just recount one memorable event or journey.
Another popular creative non-fiction genre is the self-help book. This is often rooted in the author’s own experiences and so often starts with elements of memoir or biography before transforming into the advice and help part of a self-help book.
Sometimes, even when recounting real-life events, there needs to be an element of fiction. Whether that’s to protect identities or to make the story more engaging, even when telling real-life events, the author needs to be creative.
And so we come to editing creative non-fiction.
Unlike more traditional non-fiction (think textbooks and academic reference books), creative non-fiction has a storytelling element to it. It will have a structure that, unlike a reference book, cannot be dipped into and out of but works sequentially. Like a recount of a significant event or a life’s experiences, the reader needs to see them in order too.
A clear structure helps. Just like a story needs a beginning, middle and end structure, creative non-fiction needs to have a clear start, an engaging middle and a conclusion too. In fiction, we often think of a conflict as being the “point” of the story. Creative non-fiction, too, needs a conflict: why are you writing this story. It might not be a typical story-type conflict but why are you choosing to write this story?
As well as structure, creative non-fiction benefits massively from other features typically associated with fiction: dialogue, action as well as “showing not telling”. All of these can be used in your creative non-fiction writing to engage the reader.
Dialogue that shows a development in the “plot”, progress in the story or the people involved, is crucial. Mundane, everyday talk, if it serves no purpose, has no reason to be in your manuscript!
If you have structure and conflict, there is going to be some action in your story too. Use action to hook your reader in. This might not be as explosive as you find in a spy thriller but some way of grabbing your reader’s attention and pulling them into your writing is crucial.
The advice of “show don’t tell” equally applies to creative non-fiction as it does to fiction. Why say you felt sad when you can show that sadness in your actions or reactions? It’s all about the reader’s experience.
If you’re writing creative non-fiction, you can easily look to any fiction writing advice and apply it equally well to your own writing process.
Although I predominantly edit fiction, I also work with creative non-fiction writers, including memoirists and authors of self-help books. To find out more about how I can assist your book, please get in touch or request a free sample edit today!
Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.
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