Elements of Style in Creative Nonfiction Writing

Creative nonfiction offers the unique challenge of molding your real life experiences into essays where the language reflects the content. Just as fiction writers use scenes and detail to create immediacy in their stories, nonfiction writers have the ability to bring their subject matter to life through these same strategies. A strong sense of the author's presence, unique structures and vivid description are a few stylistic elements that make creative nonfiction a compelling genre.


Michael Steinberg, author of the creative writing textbook "The Fourth Genre," says that the freedom to be creative with structure is one of the most exciting things about creative nonfiction. Nonfiction writers often weave together multiple ideas, memories and events, gradually developing a single theme throughout the essay. For example, Emily Watson's essay "Still, Sky, Girl and Marriage" is written in four sections, each describing a different painting that has personally affected Watson, an art history scholar. Together, the sections reveal powerful themes about relationships, fear and identity.

Author's Presence

Unlike fiction, where the author steps out of the way and allows the story to take center stage, creative nonfiction usually features a strong sense of the author's presence. Doing this requires you to craft a unique voice that reveals your personality and attitudes. For example, nonfiction writer Anne Lamott writes about a variety of topics, including the craft of writing, religion and her life experiences, but manages to maintain the quirky, satirical voice that endears her to readers. Similarly, David Foster Wallace is known for using footnotes and endnotes to visually illustrate his web-like thought processes on paper.

Descriptive Language

Because creative nonfiction often requires you to share your personal memories, language plays a vital role in recreating them for readers who don't know you. One tool is visual imagery, which lets you directly illustrate a memory's sights, sounds and smells instead of merely summarizing it. You can also use figurative language devices like similes, comparisons that use the words "like" and "as," and metaphors, which directly compare two unlike things. Jeannette Walls uses these techniques in her memoir "The Glass Castle" when she describes living in an uninsulated, unheated house in rural West Virginia during the brutal winters.


In fiction, a scene is the basic unit of dramatic action in a story. Rather than just telling the reader what happened, the author uses dialogue, action verbs and descriptions of the characters' interactions. You can use scenes in your creative nonfiction pieces to dramatize your reflections and memories. Jo Ann Beard's "The Boys of My Youth," an essay about her best friend from junior high, opens with a scene of the two girls prank calling a boy they have a crush on. Beard's crafting of their actions and lighthearted dialogue clearly establish their relationship for readers.

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