16 types of nonfiction, how “truthful” they are, and tips on how to write them.
NONFICTION describes communicative work (typically written, but also including diagrams and photos) understood to be fact. Implicit in this, however, are the varying degrees to which the writer’s subjective interpretation of facts, and/or selective presentation (i.e., withholding, distorting) of facts end up making a “factual” work less true.
Given this, an interesting way to delineate nonfiction forms is to look at them in terms of how accurately they reflect the writer’s experience, beliefs, and emotions in real life (IRL).
The above diagram is intended to be a kind of visual take on how this applies to typical forms of nonfiction. Below are notes and further explanations on different forms, along with tips on how to write them.
Advice columns range in truthfulness from extremely close to fact (such as most sex writing, which we’ll get to later) to the kinds of financial, lifestyle, parenting, gaming, social media, and other advice articles and blogs that seem to have, at best, only tangential relationships with the writer’s actual experience IRL. These are the articles where titles implore you to do things like “Dress Up That Turkey Sandwich!” while, on the same homepage, also promise to explain “Why You’re Not Losing Weight.”
Tips: The key is volume. Use the Google Keyword Tool to create article ideas around keywords searched by the biggest potential audience, but with the fewest websites targeting those same keywords (i.e. low “competition”). Factor in your approximate knowledge of the subject vs. how long it would take you to copy / paste and then remix text from a similar article. Avoid subjects in which you’re emotionally invested. Employ a “detached but friendly” 2nd person POV (example: “Or if you’re feeling a little south of the border, top it off with some cilantro and roasted red pepper,”) which allows you to effectively obfuscate your own reality, such as writing an article on “healthy relationships” while in the middle of an affair / divorce / custody battle over children. Submit to: About.com, your own websites.
Copywriting / “Advertorial” / Ad copy
Copywriting is nonfiction that uses rhetoric to persuade readers to consume products / ideas / viewpoints. It’s often factual in only a nominal sense, and uses a variety of linguistic and psychological tactics to effectively remove the entire context of “true vs. false,” creating a kind of vacuum around the subject, a universe unto itself where no other time or space or culture or even logic seems to exist except for that which is suggested to and potentially “consummated” by the reader. Examples: signs advertising real estate saying “if you lived here you’d be home already,” or like “Cedar Ridge: Mountain Clusterhomes from the low 250s,” or comings attractions for kids’ movies that begin “From the magic within our hearts, to the adventure beyond the horizon, there is only one: Disney.”
Tips: Devise ways to suggest things that seem to come from an omniscient as opposed to personal POV. Study what motivates people to buy shit, and how this consumption expresses their personal brands. Submit to: your professor, the creative team for whatever marketing company you work for.
The label “creative nonfiction” can apply to various categories of writing, including food, travel, memoir, personal essay, and other hybridized forms. The defining characteristic of CN is the use of literary techniques to create a sense of artfulness in the language, character development, and story, all of which tends to drive the narrative “inward.” CN work also tends to focus on transformational events in the narrator’s or central character’s life. CN generally seems closer to the truth of the narrator’s experience than other forms of nonfiction, as revealing the narrator’s experience / emotional consequence of the experience often seems the implicit “goal” of the work.
CN sometimes ends up sounding “crafted” or “poetic,” however (example: “In an instant, the city was back to its normal self, yawning in the dawn haze,”), to the point where it can be difficult not to question whether a work really reflects what the writer actually felt / experienced or if he/she is more just attempting to showcase a certain brand of writing skills.
Tips: Write about events to which you have strong emotional connections. Write in present tense “I’m on a bus in Tel Aviv,” even though you’re actually at the library. Avoid any usage of your own common vernacular / slang / accent in your writing voice. Construct “closeup” scenes around images of ordinary household items – a fork, a shoe, a hanger – to give dark subtextual cues which eventually give rise to emotionally shattering conclusions. Compensate for lack of ground-level knowledge of terrain / vegetation / architecture by using poetic terminology (“canted ridges’). Use codified / cliched expressions for physical features (“unruly” or “a shock of” or “luxuriant” hair), movement (“braving a potholed road”), and weather patterns (clouds “scudding”) as these are commonly used by masters of the genre. Submit to: Creative Nonfiction, Best American Essays.
From Koko, the “Talking” Gorilla
“Experimental” isn’t so much a form but a label often applied to various works not recognized as traditional nonfiction forms. This can include things like fragmented or nonlinear narratives, “flash” nonfiction, prose poems, work incorporating graphic or multimedia elements, and even, possibly, work that’s traditionally structured but which examines something to a degree or in a way not actualized by mainstream writers.
In other experimental works, the condition of the writer during the work’s composition is itself a central element, and can be deliberately manipulated via things like sleep deprivation, ingesting drugs and/or alcohol, etc. Depending on how much the work is a catalog of the writer’s inner world vs. a narrative of events IRL, this type of work sometimes falls into the old-school category of “navel-gazing.”
Much experimental work seems about creating an immediacy / proximity to the the writer’s experience and subconsciousness (check Blake Butler’s series “I am drinking gin & wrote about 7 songs as they came up on random in my itunes while they played“), that the form uniquely expresses. In some way this can make for the truest of all nonfiction writing; however, there often seems to be an element of “performing” inherent in much experimental work that makes it come off feeling less true a reflection of the narrator’s experience, almost in the opposite way of creative nonfiction’s being overly crafted. It’s as if there’s still just as much editing and crafting behind the scenes to make experimental work appear unadulterated and raw. Maybe in the future we’ll have new forms (Google Wave had established this technology, actually) where you can see a “recording” of a work as it’s created in real time.
Tips:[For “flash” nonfiction]: Recreate scenarios where thoughts or realizations arose seemingly independent of external stimuli, while juxtaposing descriptions of the stimuli in a way that creates rich metaphorical possibilities and meaning for the reader. Isolate the thought / stimuli juxtaposition from any memories or sense of one’s connection to place / culture / family, as well as any personal interpretations of the “meaning,” so that the work seems to exist like its own self-contained universe, almost a kind of advertisement for this particular moment in your consciousness. Submit to: your twitter. [For fragmented or nonlinear essays]: Overwhelm the reader with descriptions of external stimuli presented in short, rapid sentences so the overall effect is disorientation. Don’t be afraid of using sentence fragments. Add quotes and bits of dialogue without attributing them to “s/he said.” If a travel piece, create sense of expertise / authenticity via cultural references or phrases in other languages that 95% of you readers won’t understand. Go for a “sense of time passing” feel. Submit to: Brevity. [For “altered states” work]: Catalog / narrate an event so seemingly superficial (ex: watching 80s-era Bones Brigade skate videos on YouTube), that it provokes the reader, instigating preconceptions and judgements re your writing or brand, only to then undermine / leverage those preconceptions with a demonstration of perspicacity, self-awareness, sensitivity, and philosophical, logical, and etymological references in an all out assault so complex and divergent and yet so coherent that you’re actually getting off on the writing, contextualizing the whole process as an act of self-affirmation. Points for using hip hop vernacular as if you grew up speaking that way. Submit to: HTMLGIANT.
This term was invented, as far as I know, by Daniel Britt, while traveling overland from Iraq through Iran and into Afghanistan on a German motorcycle with a leaky carburetor and living hand to mouth filing reports and selling photos to various media companies about the US Armed Forces’ withdrawal from Iraq (and deployment in Afghanistan), along with various fucked up juxtapositions of local people, contractors, soldiers, kids, dogs, and just the day to day life in a place where there’s generalized death and mayhem. At one point we had a skype chat from the US Army base in Shah Joy Afghanistan that went:
[2:23:27 PM] daniel c. britt: hey were getting mortared
[2:23:47 PM] daniel c. britt: just one
[2:23:55 PM] daniel c. britt: pussies
[2:30:12 PM] david miller: damn
[2:30:21 PM] david miller: like the base is getting mortared?
[2:30:23 PM] david miller: wtf?
[2:30:53 PM] daniel c. britt: one shell
[2:31:04 PM] daniel c. britt: just inside the hescos
[2:31:19 PM] daniel c. britt: dood we didnt even loose internet
[2:31:26 PM] david miller: hell yeah
[2:31:48 PM] david miller: dude did you get hooked up with body armor?
[2:33:30 PM] daniel c. britt: yeah we found a dealer in kabul , totally ripped us off, its US interceptor gear though so itll stop a .762 round, supposedly point black. anyway tomorrow im going to start looking for ieds or possibly go on a mission to clear a weapons cache
[2:34:22 PM] daniel c. britt: which ever i get illl stick with it for the next five days
[2:34:29 PM] daniel c. britt: and that will be my story
Feral journalism follows from the same gonzo paradigm established by Hunter S. Thompson, only in a modern global context where you’re dealing with potentially getting kidnapped / beheaded / blown up by an IED. As the impact of a feral journalism piece often relies on the level of concrete detail and sense of the narrator’s authenticity, this type of nonfiction is typically very close to actual fact / experience.
Tips: Cultivate your narrator’s persona as having low bodyfat (though not via exercise, but heavy smoking / drugs, while, paradoxically, still retaining a high fitness level in terms of 100-yard dashes or other evasive parkour-like skills), and a zealous commitment not to some greater recognizable “cause,” but to documenting ground level struggles of local people in spots 87% of Americans could never identify on a map. Align yourself with other “crackpot” indie photographers and filmmakers. Submit work to: Matador, Guernica.
Raw, unedited field notes often contain the most veracious writing, only to have the images / intensity mollified when the work is prepared “for publication.”
Tips: Focus less on how to write your notes, and instead learn how to draw so you can share art + notes together. Submit: myMoleskine.
Along with sex, food writing should theoretically be the most veracious of all nonfiction forms. And it usually is. What acts reveal more about us than how we eat and how (and who) we fuck? Fans of Jason Sheehan or Jim Harrison would know this. Food writing diminishes in truthfulness, however, to the degree it becomes about the writer playing the role of a critic.
Tips: Remember that, as Wendell Berry said, eating is essentially an “agricultural act.” Create metaphorical vectors between, say, Malbec grapes grown in the Andes, Colorado grass-fed beef, and the need for a palliative meal post breakup with your girlfriend. Submit to: your local alt. weekly.
People still do live person to person interviews a la Truman Capote-style (ex: San Quentin), which have traditionally been about revealing candid moments (although this in and of itself doesn’t make an interview factual). It seems, however, that the “interview” as a form is becoming just a way for one writer (or artist / musician / whatever) to align his or her brand with another’s and/or create easy content via email conversations. Gchats often seem realer in that they’re live and you can see how much time goes by before each person responds. Not sure.
Tips: Ask questions about what the subject will be doing after the interview, or has just finished doing, focusing on quotidian things whose answers reveal the subject’s life as existing in a continuum, not just as a chain of projects / goals / accomplishments orbiting the internet. Submit to: The Nervous Breakdown.
Although wikipedia’s list of contemporary nature writers includes authors (Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Linda Hogan, John McPhee, and Gary Snyder) that have been important to me at different times of my life, I feel like as a genre, most nature writing seems to follow a tradition set forward by Thoreau where everything, even moments of the apparent suffering, are rendered in pastoral language (or something), which pushes it farther from fact than say, Big Boi rhyming about collard greens.
Tips: Isolate yourself in a wilderness area with field guides for all relevant flora and fauna as well as natural histories and any first hand accounts of indigenous people who once lived there. Either (a) leave out any mention of descendants of those native peoples or other people who might still exist in the area (such as in nearby trailer parks), and the truth of whose day to day existence might undermine your portrait of “place,” or (b) objectify / romanticize their “condition.” Have epiphanies. Submit to: Orion.
News reports are among the least factual of all nonfiction forms. Particularly with mainstream media companies, news reports are often team projects – each team tasked with creating news “packages” around current events. These packages often rely on old / recycled stories whose research and fact-checking may or may not be accurate. What seems to matter is that the delivery is on brand, professional, and “timely.”
Tips: Practice your skills at personification, so that famines are described as “stalking” the Horn of Africa, or torrential rains are “sweeping” / tornadoes “ripping.” Use “BREAKING” in all caps to your advantage. Type fast. Submit to: your section editor / Huffington Post.
Op-ed / Social Commentary
Whereas social commentary and op-ed traditionally used rhetoric to promote change, in a modern (or more accurately, post-modern) context, social commentary tends to be truthful to the degree in which it reveals the narrator’s experience and emotions without necessarily suggesting any kind of change.
Tips: Subvert traditional forms such as “how to’s” or “top 5” articles by using hyperpersonal information and narrative that’s theoretically impossible to “follow,” and yet is still presented as advice. Remember that it’s always easier to sound smart when you’re criticizing something. Submit to: Thought Catalog.
Round-ups / Top 10 lists / “Best of” Lists
As demonstrated by David Letteman, ESPN, and now what seems like 68% of all websites, roundups draw attention by creating a sense of anticipation in the reader or viewer. Along with news reports, roundups are the least veracious of all nonfiction forms.
Tips: Identify potentially divisive content areas, that “pit” one person’s opinion against another, for example, “Barbecue Sauce,” then collect barbecue sauce information via internet, rounding up and ranking info either arbitrarily or according to SEO / keyword traffic, crafting the title (“Top 5 Barbecue Sauces in America”) so that people within the relevant geographic / subject area wonder if their preferences are either being (a) validated, (b) rejected, or (c) ignored, and thus compelling them to read / comment.
Sex Writing (ex: Dan Savage ) is among the truest of all nonfiction forms when the writer essentially removes or frees him/herself from any sense of holding back information / emotions due to cultural taboos. Conversely, this level of truth seems to diminish when the work seems deliberately about manipulating these taboos to “shock.”
Tips: Not sure, except for allowing people to ask questions anonymously.
As a form it seems like the more popular the travel blog, the more it reflects not truth, but a writer’s effectiveness at reducing complex, nuanced elements of culture and place and packaging them in “travel-sized” bits. I can’t ever read “popular” travel blogs without a sense that the writer is withholding 95% of what actually happened or how s/he felt about it because it would alienate his / her followers.
Tips: Create a personal brand with some variation of “Wandering” / “Nomad” as a central element. Present experiences based on recognizable place names / landmarks / cultural groups, but without specific details so that regardless of where you are, culture / place all seem interchangeable in a way that makes the entire “world” (and all culture / people visited therein) reduce to this kind of backdrop for you to appear in front of, and for the reader to vicariously experience via your sense of “I’m having the time of my life.” Submit to: your blog.
Nonfictional prose genres cover an almost infinite variety of themes, and they assume many shapes. In quantitative terms, if such could ever be valid in such nonmeasurable matters, they probably include more than half of all that has been written in countries having a literature of their own. Nonfictional prose genres have flourished in nearly all countries with advanced literatures. The genres include political and polemical writings, biographical and autobiographical literature, religious writings, and philosophical, and moral or religious writings.
After the Renaissance, from the 16th century onward in Europe, a personal manner of writing grew in importance. The author strove for more or less disguised self-revelation and introspective analysis, often in the form of letters, private diaries, and confessions. Also of increasing importance were aphorisms after the style of the ancient Roman philosophers Seneca and Epictetus, imaginary dialogues, and historical narratives, and later, journalistic articles and extremely diverse essays. From the 19th century, writers in Romance and Slavic languages especially, and to a far lesser extent British and American writers, developed the attitude that a literature is most truly modern when it acquires a marked degree of self-awareness and obstinately reflects on its purpose and technique. Such writers were not content with imaginative creation alone: they also explained their work and defined their method in prefaces, reflections, essays, self-portraits, and critical articles. The 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire asserted that no great poet could ever quite resist the temptation to become also a critic: a critic of others and of himself. Indeed, most modern writers, in lands other than the United States, whether they be poets, novelists, or dramatists, have composed more nonfictional prose than poetry, fiction, or drama. In the instances of such monumental figures of 20th-century literature as the poets Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, or the novelists Thomas Mann and André Gide, that part of their output may well be considered by posterity to be equal in importance to their more imaginative writing.
It is virtually impossible to attempt a unitary characterization of nonfictional prose. The concern that any definition is a limitation, and perhaps an exclusion of the essential, is nowhere more apposite than to this inordinately vast and variegated literature. Ever since the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers devised literary genres, some critics have found it convenient to arrange literary production into kinds or to refer it to modes.
Obviously, a realm as boundless and diverse as nonfictional prose literature cannot be characterized as having any unity of intent, of technique, or of style. It can be defined, very loosely, only by what it is not. Many exceptions, in such a mass of writings, can always be brought up to contradict any rule or generalization. No prescriptive treatment is acceptable for the writing of essays, of aphorisms, of literary journalism, of polemical controversy, of travel literature, of memoirs and intimate diaries. No norms are recognized to determine whether a dialogue, a confession, a piece of religious or of scientific writing, is excellent, mediocre, or outright bad, and each author has to be relished, and appraised, chiefly in his own right. “The only technique,” the English critic F.R. Leavis wrote in 1957, “is that which compels words to express an intensively personal way of feeling.” Intensity is probably useful as a standard; yet it is a variable, and often elusive, quality, possessed by polemicists and by ardent essayists to a greater extent than by others who are equally great. “Loving, and taking the liberties of a lover” was Virginia Woolf’s characterization of the 19th-century critic William Hazlitt’s style: it instilled passion into his critical essays. But other equally significant English essayists of the same century, such as Charles Lamb or Walter Pater, or the French critic Hippolyte Taine, under an impassive mask, loved too, but differently. Still other nonfictional writers have been detached, seemingly aloof, or, like the 17th-century French epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld, sarcastic. Their intensity is of another sort.
Reality and imagination
Prose that is nonfictional is generally supposed to cling to reality more closely than that which invents stories, or frames imaginary plots. Calling it “realistic,” however, would be a gross distortion. Since nonfictional prose does not stress inventiveness of themes and of characters independent of the author’s self, it appears in the eyes of some moderns to be inferior to works of imagination. In the middle of the 20th century an immensely high evaluation was placed on the imagination, and the adjective “imaginative” became a grossly abused cliché. Many modern novels and plays, however, were woefully deficient in imaginative force, and the word may have been bandied about so much out of a desire for what was least possessed. Many readers are engrossed by travel books, by descriptions of exotic animal life, by essays on the psychology of other nations, by Rilke’s notebooks or by Samuel Pepys’sdiary far more than by poetry or by novels that fail to impose any suspension of disbelief. There is much truth in Oscar Wilde’s remark that “the highest criticism is more creative than creation and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not.” A good deal of imagination has gone not only into criticism but also into the writing of history, of essays, of travel books, and even of the biographies or the confessions that purport to be true to life as it really happened, as it was really experienced.
The imagination at work in nonfictional prose, however, would hardly deserve the august name of “primary imagination” reserved by the 19th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to creators who come close to possessing semidivine powers. Rather, imagination is displayed in nonfictional prose in the fanciful invention of decorative details, in digressions practiced as an art and assuming a character of pleasant nonchalance, in establishing a familiar contact with the reader through wit and humour. The variety of themes that may be touched upon in that prose is almost infinite. The treatment of issues may be ponderously didactic and still belong within the literary domain. For centuries, in many nations, in Asiatic languages, in medieval Latin, in the writings of the humanists of the Renaissance, and in those of the Enlightenment, a considerable part of literature has been didactic. The concept of art for art’s sake is a late and rather artificial development in the history of culture, and it did not reign supreme even in the few countries in which it was expounded in the 19th century. The ease with which digressions may be inserted in that type of prose affords nonfictional literature a freedom denied to writing falling within other genres. The drawback of such a nondescript literature lies in judging it against any standard of perfection, since perfection implies some conformity with implicit rules and the presence, however vague, of standards such as have been formulated for comedy, tragedy, the ode, the short story and even (in this case, more honoured in the breach than the observance) the novel. The compensating grace is that in much nonfictional literature that repudiates or ignores structure the reader is often delighted with an air of ease and of nonchalance and with that rarest of all virtues in the art of writing: naturalness.
The writing of nonfictional prose should not entail the tension, the monotony, and the self-conscious craft of fiction writing. The search for le mot juste (“the precise word”) so fanatically pursued by admirers of Flaubert and Maupassant is far less important in nonfictional prose than in the novel and the short story. The English author G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936), who was himself more successful in his rambling volumes of reflections and of religious apologetics than in his novels, defined literature as that rare, almost miraculous use of language “by which a man really says what he means.” In essays, letters, reporting, and narratives of travels, the author’s aim is often not to overpower his readers by giving them the impression that he knows exactly where he is leading them, as a dramatist or a detective-story writer does. Some rambling casualness, apparently irrelevant anecdotes, and suggestions of the conclusions that the author wishes his readers to infer are often more effective than extreme terseness.
There is also another manner of writing that is more attentive to the periodic cadences and elegance of prose, in the style of the ancient Roman orator Cicero. The 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt praised the felicities of style and the refinements of the prose of the British statesman Edmund Burke (1729–97) as “that which went the nearest to the verge of poetry and yet never fell over.” A number of English writers have been fond of that harmonious, and rhetorical prose, the taste for which may well have been fostered not only by the familiarity with Cicero but also by the profound influence of the authorized version of the Bible (1611). Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament (1522) and of the Old Testament (1534) likewise molded much of German prose and German sensibility for centuries.
In the 20th century that type of prose lost favour with American and British readers, who ceased to cherish Latin orators and Biblical prose as their models. In German literature, however, in which harmonious balance and eloquence were more likely to be admired, and in other languages more directly derived from Latin, a musical style, akin to a prolonged poem in prose, was cultivated more assiduously, as exemplified in Italian in the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio, in French in those by André Gide, and in German in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Such an elaborate style appears to be more easily tolerated by the readers in nonfictional writing, with its lack of cumulativecontinuity and, generally speaking, its more restricted size, than in novels such as Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885) and occasionally in Thomas Mann’s fiction, in which such a style tends to pall on the reader. Similarly, it is easier for the nonfictional prose writer to weave into his style faint suggestions of irony, archaisms, alliterations, and even interventions of the author that might prove catastrophic to credibility in fiction. Critics have argued that too close attention to style was harmful to the sweep necessary to fiction: they have contended that many of the greatest novelists, such as Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Zola at times “wrote” badly; assuredly, they treated language carelessly more than once. Essayists, historians, orators, and divines often affect a happy-go-lucky ease so as to put them on the same footing with the common reader, but they realize that language and style are vital. They must know what resources they can draw from vivid sensations, brilliant similes, balanced sentences, or sudden, epigrammatic, effects of surprise.
The one feature common to most authors of nonfictional prose (a few staid historians and even fewer philosophers excepted) is the marked degree of the author’s presence in all they write. That is to be expected in epistolary literature, and, although less inevitably, in the essay, the travel book, journalistic reporting, and polemical or hortatory prose. Although the 17th-century French religious philosopher Pascal hinted that “the ego is hateful,” the author’s presence is still strongly felt. This presence endows their works with a personal and haunting force that challenges, converts, or repels, but hardly ever leaves the reader indifferent. Saint Paul’s epistles owe their impact—perhaps second to none in the history of the Western world—to the self that vehemently expresses itself in them, showing no concern whatever for the niceties of Attic prose. In the treatises, discourses, and philosophical argumentation of the great writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, they frequently resort to the first person singular, which results in a vivid concreteness in the treatment of ideas. To think the abstract concretely, a precept reminiscent of the 18th-century philosophers, was also the aim of the 20th-century philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty when they naturalized Existentialist thought in France. The growth of personal literature in its myriad shapes is one of the striking features of modern literary evolution.
The very fact that the writer of nonfictional prose does not seek an imaginary projection to impart his vision, his anguish, and his delights to readers also underlines the nature of his intention. A school of critics has vigorously attacked “the intentional fallacy,” which leads biographers and some literary historians to ask what an artist intended before evaluating the completed work of art. But in a work of apologetics or of homiletics, in a work of history or of sociology, in a critical or even in a desultory and discursive essay, and certainly in aphorisms or maxims or both, the intention of the author remains omnipresent. This intention may be disguised under the mask of a parable, under the interlocutors of a philosophical dialogue, or under the admonitions of a prophet, but the reader is never oblivious of the thinker’s intent. The reader has a sophisticated enjoyment of one who shares the creator’s intent and travels familiarly along with him. He respects and enjoys in those authors the exercise of an intelligence flexible enough to accept even the irrational as such.
In terms of approach, that is, the attitude of the writer as it can be inferred from the writing, the distinguishing features of nonfictional prose writings are the degree of presence of the ego and of the use of a subjective, familiar tone. Such devices are also used, of course, by authors of fiction, but to a lesser extent. Similarly, the basic modes of writing—the descriptive, the narrative, the expository, and the argumentative—are found in both nonfictional literature and in fiction, but in different degrees.
The descriptive mode
In nonfictional prose, essayists, moralists, naturalists, and others regularly evoked nature scenes. The most sumptuous masters of prose composed landscapes as elaborately as landscape painters. The French writer and statesman Chateaubriand (1768–1848), for example, who was not outstandingly successful in inventing plots or in creating characters independent from his own self, was a master of description; his writings influenced the French Romantic poets, who set the impassive splendour of outward nature in contrast to the inner anguish of mortals. The 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin had a more precise gift of observation, as revealed in his descriptions of Alpine mountains and of the humblest flowers or mosses, but his ornate and sonorous prose was the climax of a high-flown manner of writing that later read like the majestic relic of another era. American nonfictional writers of the same period such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau scrupulously described the lessons of organization, of unity, and of moral beauty to be deciphered from the vicissitudes of nature. Russian essayists vied with novelists in their minute yet rapturous descriptions of the thaw releasing the torrents of spring or the implacable force of the long Northern winters. Writers more inclined to the observation of social life, in satirical sketches of the mechanically polite and artificial habitués of salons, helped the novel of social life come into existence in several Western countries.
The narrative element is less conspicuous in writing that does not purport to relate a story than in fictional works, but there is a role for narrative in letters, diaries, autobiographies, and historical writing. Most often, an incident is graphically related by a witness, as in letters or memoirs; an anecdote may serve to illustrate a moral advice in an essay; or an entertaining encounter may be inserted into an essay or a travel sketch. Digression here represents the utmost in art; it provides a relief from the persistent attention required when the author is pursuing his purpose more seriously. Similarly, such writing provides a pleasant contrast to the rigid structure of the majority of novels since the late 19th century. In historical writing, however, simplicity and clarity of narrative are required, though it may be interspersed with speeches, with portraits, or with moral and polemical allusions. In other forms of nonfictional prose, the meandering fancy of the author may well produce an impression of freedom and of truth to life unattainable by the more carefully wrought novel. Many writers have confessed to feeling relieved when they ceased to create novels and shifted to impromptu sketches or desultory essays. The surrealist essayists of the 20th century poured their scorn on detective fiction as the most fiercely logical form of writing. In contrast, the author of essays or other nonfictional prose may blend dreams and facts, ventures into the illogical, and delightful eccentricities.
Expository and argumentative modes
The rules of old-fashioned rhetoric apply better to expository and argumentative prose than to the other modes. These rules were first set down in ancient Greece by teachers who elicited them from the smooth eloquence of Socrates, the impassioned and balanced reasoning of Demosthenes, and others. The ancient Romans went further still in codifying figures of speech, stylistic devices, and even the gestures of the orator. Such treatises played a significant part in the education of the Renaissance Humanists, of the classical and Augustan prose writers of 17th-century England and France, of the leaders of the French Revolution in the 18th century, and even in 19th-century historians and statesmen such as Guizot in France and Macaulay and Gladstone in Britain. But the sophisticated oratory of such 18th-century British orators as Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, and Charles Fox or, during the 20th century, that of Winston Churchill, hardly seems attuned to audiences in the age of television.
It has been suggested by students of German history that Adolf Hitler, in his vituperative speeches at Nuremberg in the 1930s, fascinated the Germans because they had been unaccustomed, unlike other Western nations, to eloquence in their leaders. If a large part of a population is illiterate, unending flows of eloquence may constitute a convenient means of educating the masses. Elsewhere, a more familiar and casual type of address from political leaders tends to be preferred in an era of mass media. The gift of a superior orator has been facetiously defined as that of saying as little as possible in as many words as possible. Like sermons, many types of formal address such as lectures, political speeches, and legal pleadings appear to be doomed as documents of literary value, as Burke’s or Lincoln’s orations and addresses were when they were learned by heart by the younger generations and helped mold the style and contribute to the moral education of men.