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Five Common Forms of Nonfiction


All nonfiction includes true information, but it takes multiple forms. While some types of writing, like personal narratives and memoirs, involve a strong sense of the author's voice, others, like expository writing, focus on strictly imparting facts about different topics. Whether you're an English student or a nonfiction author, knowing nonfiction's most common types can help you determine the correct genre of something you're reading or writing.

Slices of Life: Personal Narratives

A personal narrative is an essay that describes an actual experience in the author's life. Often written for college writing classes, academic applications and creative writing assignments, these brief pieces tell the author's story using elements usually reserved for fiction writing, such as description, imagery, characterization and dialogue. The end of the story typically teaches a moral that audiences can apply and relate to their own lives. For example, David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day" depicts his experience taking a French class in which he's determined to learn the language in spite of a hostile instructor.

A Time of Your Life: Memoir

A memoir is a longer work, often book-length, in which the author describes the significance of a particular period in his life. Like the personal narrative, the author uses creative writing elements like description, characterization and dialogue to bring the events to life. Rather than describing a single experience, though, the goal of a memoir is to help the author find meaning in past events and impart that significance to readers. For example, the book "Night" is Elie Wiesel's memoir of his struggle for survival while imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

The Whole Life Story: Autobiography

An autobiography might look like a memoir on paper, but is actual very different in content and structure. While memoirs look at one isolated time period, autobiographies cover the entire scope of the author's life from birth to the present day, including significant experiences, influences, relationships and awards. Chronology plays a more important role in autobiographies as well; while memoirs may be episodic in nature, autobiographies generally follow a linear timeline. Comedian Tina Fey's "Bossy Pants," for example, describes her life as an entertainer, from her father's influence in her childhood to her experiences as a writer, actress and television executive.

The Lives of Others: Biography

Not all nonfiction authors tell their own stories. Biographies are book-length texts that cover the entirety of another person's life. They examine the same significant life events, accomplishments and experiences as autobiographies, but without the intimacy that comes from the subject himself telling the story. Instead, biography writers must do extensive research to create portraits of their subjects, including investigating their early years, researching different stages of their careers and interviewing people who knew them. Brad Gooch's "Flannery," for example, is a biography of Southern writer Flannery O'Connor, covering her childhood, brief career as an author and death from lupus.

Just the Facts, Ma'am: Expository Writing

Expository writing is a type of nonfiction that focuses on teaching readers about a topic. As a result, expository texts give basic facts, define important words or terms or instruct readers on how to complete a task. The text's content is often efficiently organized and outlined in a particular structure, such as chronologically, least important to most important or categorically. Textbooks, pamphlets, instruction manuals, news stories and reports all are examples of expository texts.

About the Author

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

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