Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Many Varied Forms of Nonfiction

The I received a request to write about the different forms of nonfiction. I teach this – at least in terms of article forms – in my “Writing for Publication” teleseminar and class, but I’ll give it a go here as well in shortened form and without telling you how to structure any of these articles or books.

First, of course, we have the news article. You can find a news story in any newspaper. Most newspaper articles are written in the classic “inverted pyramid” form, which means it begins with the most important facts and ends with the least important ones. News stories are comprised of all facts and no opinion. They can be slanted by presentation of facts, but they are supposed to be unslanted (written in a way that offers no opinion) and neutral. That said, I’ve read some wonderfully slanted news stories. Here’s an interesting fact: The reason the most important facts are at the top and not at the bottom of the article is due not only to the fact that they make up the crux of the story but because if that particular day’s edition happens to be crammed full of news, the story can be cut by full column inches from the bottom without worry. They just delete the least important paragraphs from the bottom up. Most news stories cover the 5 W’s and 1 H – who, what, where, when, why, and how – and they often manage to give readers those details in the first paragraph or two.

Feature stories often arise out of news stories. In a newspaper, these would be more in depth coverage of a news story. In other words, the reporter or journalist takes the basic facts and digs deeper, looking for more meaning and information. Often a feature story will deal with one aspect of a news story, an issue, a problem, etc. The story might take the form of a trend piece, or it might focus on one individual, thus becoming a profile article, or it might be a general feature about a certain subject. General features, trend stories, profiles often are found in magazines, since feature articles are the name of the game in magazine journalism. (I should know, since that’s my specialty.) You could take a news story and write a book about that news story in much the same way you write a feature article -- only longer.

How-to articles, a favorite of mine, offer readers advice on – you guessed it – how to do something, such as lose weight, find a mate, sell a house, make money, or change jobs. These stories represent a staple in the magazine industry. E-zine directories also love how-to articles. Many books on the market today are how-to books.

Essays appear commonly in magazines, but they can be found in some newspapers, too. These articles are based on personal experience; however, the writer then broadens the subject so it applies to a wider audience. I love writing essays. They are slice of life pieces with an educational twist. If you learned something from an event that happened to you, teach others what you learned. Essays require little to no research or interviews, making them quick and easy to write – another reason I like to write them.

If you prefer to voice your opinion, you can write an opinion piece. Newspapers love to publish these on their op ed pages. These are short opinionated essays on a subject you feel strongly about.

Narrative nonfiction has become a big deal these days. It’s like literary journalism or a nonfiction novel. The writer writes a story based on facts or goes out and conducts interviews and then writes a novel based on those interviews. All the information in the novel is true and factual – none of it is made up.

Other nonfiction books are based either on interviews (with experts, people who have had a common experience, etc.), research, or the author’s expertise. As such, they are factual rather than fictional.

Then, you have the autobiography, a book written about your whole life.

A biography is a book written about someone else’s whole life.

A memoir is a book written about a period of time in your own life.

An anthology is a compilation of essays or articles written by many people.

Most nonfiction writers aspire to write a book. So, maybe this blog seems a bit off base, but my college professor once told me that if I could write an article, I could write a book. He said, "Each chapter in a book is like one article. You just write one article after another." So, if you haven't ever written a book, you might want to try your hand at writing a few articles first.

(If I missed any article or book forms, I’m sorry. Drop me a note. I'll write about it tomorrow.)

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