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Creative Non-Fiction

October 21st, 2013

Hello All,

This week we’ve got a treat for you – a full article from Simon Whaley on Creative Non-Fiction. So, grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy!


Creative Non-Fiction

 By Simon Whaley


Fiction is all about making things up, whereas non-fiction requires you to report the facts. Although non-fiction means the information you provide is factually correct, it doesn’t mean that you have to report those facts in a dry, boring way. In fact, with creative non-fiction you can use a little white lie, if it helps you to convey the real truth. Using the techniques of creative non-fiction, it’s possible to make your non-fiction text as interesting and engaging as fiction.

Creative non-fiction is perfect for articles about travel, nature, or food writing, biography and autobiography, or personal essays. It’s a way of giving your words extra colour, depth and a story-like feel and structure, whilst also conveying useful, practical information. Here’s how to do it.


Journalists report a news story in a strict convention. The opening sentence will attempt to answer as many of the six journalistic questions as possible (who, what, where, when, why and how), like so:

Three ill-equipped climbers died yesterday afternoon when they were swept off the side of Ben Nevis, near Fort William, Scotland, after heavy snowfall lead to an unexpected avalanche.

Those 29 words convey a lot of information, and a journalist would expand upon this information further, by explaining who the climbers were, where exactly they were climbing, what the mountain rescue teams thought of the climbing conditions, etc. Whilst this journalistic style conveys the information, there’s no drama for the reader to get stuck into.

Creative non-fiction writers use scenes, much like a short story writer, or novelist, would.

The gusting wind and driving snow sapped every effort of strength from the climbers. The wind seemed to be on elastic, pushing them forward forcefully, then, suddenly, pinging back, almost toppling them over. How could something they couldn’t see pack such a powerful punch? Each snowflake landed on them imperceptibly, yet collectively the extra weight pushed the strength from the climbers’ muscles, with every molecule of sweat they oozed.

I’m not claiming this piece to be brilliant writing, but the scene has more drama than the factual journalistic writing earlier. Think of scenes like paragraphs, focusing on one particular aspect of the story. The next scene might have one of the loved ones of the climbers, looking out of the window at home, at the deteriorating weather, and getting increasingly worried. Writing in scenes helps writers transport the reader to the action.


Dialogue adds life, interest and can convey more information to a reader.

Sentence 1: The climbers were ill-equipped for their expedition.

Sentence 2: “Trevor, look! The stitching on my boots is coming apart. It’s disintegrating in the snow. And my crampons have snapped! The metal is so cold it’s brittle and perishing.”

The first sentence tells the reader what’s happening, but in a dry, perfunctory manner. The second shows the reader. Dialogue, though, is more engaging to the reader. It makes the reader feel that they are there, with them, and are eavesdropping on the conversation. It also conveys more detailed information for the reader.

Dialogue is where you could use a little lie to convey the truth about something. For example:

The 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol was filmed in Shrewsbury, and the film crew left behind part of the set in St Chad’s graveyard: Scrooge’s tombstone.

It’s an interesting fact, but it’s been reported in a mundane, matter-of-fact way. Let’s liven it up a little:

“Daddy! Daddy! I’ve found it! I’ve found Scrooge!”

Sure enough, there, lying flat on the ground, in St Chad’s graveyard in Shrewsbury, was Scrooge’s tombstone.

Firstly, the dialogue adds some life and action to the piece. But it also suggests to the reader that the writer took their young child with them on that day when they went tombstone hunting. But what if the writer didn’t take their child with them that day, or perhaps the writer doesn’t have any children at all? Is it wrong to mislead, or lie to, the reader? Creative non-fiction writers would say no, it isn’t, because the real truth – the fact that Scrooge’s tombstone can be found in St Chad’s graveyard in Shrewsbury – is still being correctly conveyed to the reader.

Be A Primary Source

Journalists are taught to report the facts of a news story, not to give their opinion. Indeed, if you block out the journalist’s name from a newspaper report, you shouldn’t be able to determine whether the journalist is male or female, or what their own thoughts of the story are. In order to report facts, journalists are taught to seek out primary sources, such as witnesses, or official documents.

However, creative non-fiction writers believe that they, themselves, can be a primary source of information. If they’ve witnessed something, then that makes them just as valuable an eye-witness as anyone else. So, to add more creativity to your non-fiction, draw upon your own experiences. One of the best ways is to draw upon your senses.

Rhythmically rocking from side to side, we’re suddenly pitched into darkness as the screech and clatter of bogies against rails assaults the ears and gritty smoke plumes into the carriage. Perhaps opening the window was a bad idea after all, but when travelling by steam train you want to really smell that smoke and hear that whistle, don’t you? Moments later, we emerge from the short tunnel, the air quickly clears and the view from our carriage on the Severn Valley Railway once again is of lush green fields sloping down to the sedate waters of the River Severn.

See? By drawing upon my own experience of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of travelling by steam train, I’ve been able to convey more of the action and the whole experience.

Try these exercises to get you into the creative non-fiction mood.

Exercise 1

Think about your favourite place. It can be anywhere in the world. Write about it in 100 words, using only your sense of sight.

Exercise 2

Still thinking about your favourite place, write another 100 words, this time describing only what you can hear, smell, taste and touch.

Exercise 3

Now join the two paragraphs together. Think about story structure, and edit your piece in a way that draws upon all five of your senses, but draws your reader in, right from the start. Compare what you’ve written here, to what you wrote for Exercise 1.

Exercise 4

Now rewrite this paragraph by injecting some dialogue into your description. And if you need to create a character to deliver that dialogue, then why not be a little creative? As long as it doesn’t get in the way of the truth!

About Simon Whaley

Simon is a tutor for the Writers Bureau and a freelance writer and author. Hundreds of his articles have appeared in print in the UK and USA, and his short stories have been published in the UK, Australia and Ireland. He is the author of ten books, including The Positively Productive Writer, which was published in January 2012. His latest book is The Bluffer’s Guide to Dogs and his next book for writers will be called Photography for Writers.





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