Friday, September 20, 2019

Language Matters: How We Talk about Nonfiction

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on March 27, 2019.

Recently, I read an article that contained this sentence:

“While writ­ing non­fic­tion, I use every sin­gle fic­tion tech­nique a nov­el­ist uses.”

The author then provides a series of examples of how she includes characters, scenes, conflict, rich language, voice, etc. in her writing.

Sound good?

Not to me.

While I applaud authors who draw back the curtain to reveal their creative process, I’m so, so, SO sick and tired of reading articles in which authors describe how they borrow and make good use of fiction craft moves in their nonfiction writing.

Newsflash, folks. If you are writing nonfiction, any craft technique you incorporate is a nonfiction craft technique. Period.

Well developed characters.
Carefully crafted scenes.
A compelling narrative arc that elicits an emotional response.
Strong voice.
Rich language.
These are NOT fiction techniques. They are writing techniques, and they can be employed in either fiction or nonfiction. Or poetry, for that matter.

Not all nonfiction includes all of these elements, and that’s okay. The truth is nonfiction is much more versatile than fiction. There are so many different kinds of nonfiction, from a recipe scrawled on a napkin to a legal contract to a finely-crafted book that wins the National Book Award.

As writers, we know that words are important. Language matters. When we talk about the craft of nonfiction writing, let’s be more careful. Let’s make sure we give nonfiction the respect it deserves.


  1. Thank you for this blog and your dedication to educating us about non fiction. It really has helped me as a librarian in presenting books to our students

  2. I just spoke about "writing" techniques versus "fiction" techniques yesterday during a talk to librarians and I wish I had a picture of their faces as the concept sunk in! These were librarians who are considering writing for children (fiction and nonfiction) and I loved planting this seed early in their journey. Thanks for the language!

    1. I'd love to see that picture too! Thanks for emphasizing the craft elements associated with nonfiction writing. These are new ideas for many people in the kidlit community.