Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Nonfiction writers can be as creative as fiction writers," says L. Elisabeth Beattie. "Nonfiction is simply another form" (Conversations With Kentucky Writers II, 2000). (Andersen Ross/Getty Images)


Nonfiction is a blanket term for prose accounts of real people, places, objects, or events. (See also Robert L. Root's "alternative definitions" below.)

Types of nonfiction include articles, autobiographies, biographies, essays, memoirs, nature writing, profiles, reports, sports writing, and travel writing.

See the observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "not" + "shaping, feigning"


  • "I see no reason why the word [artist] should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term 'Nonfiction'--as if we were some sort of remainder. I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of 'Nonfiction.' In the hope of finding an antonym I looked up 'Fiction' in Webster and found it defined as opposed to 'Fact, Truth, and Reality.' I thought for a while of adopting FTR, standing for Fact, Truth, and Reality, as my new term."
    (Barbara Tuchman, "The Historian as Artist," 1966)
  • "It's always seemed odd to me that nonfiction is defined, not by what it is, but by what it is not. It is not fiction. But then again, it is also not poetry, or technical writing or libretto. It's like defining classical music as nonjazz."
    (Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction. Story Press, 1996)
  • "Many writers and editors add 'creative' to 'nonfiction' to mollify this sense of being strange and other, and to remind readers that creative nonfiction writers are more than recorders or appliers of reason and objectivity. Certainly many readers and writers of creative nonfiction recognize that the genre can share many elements of fiction."
    (Jocelyn Bartkevicius, "The Landscape of Creative Nonfiction," 1999)
  • "If nonfiction is where you do your best writing, or your best teaching of writing, don't be buffaloed into the idea that it's an inferior species. The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing."
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 2006)
  • Alternative Definitions of Nonfiction
    "[A]s an attempt to clarify the way we write nonfiction now, I offer the following alternative definitions:

    Nonfiction n.
    1. the written expression of, reflection upon, and/or interpretation of observed, perceived, or recollected experience;
    2. a genre of literature made up of such writing, which includes such subgenres as the personal essay, the memoir, narrative reportage, and expressive critical writing and whose borders with other reality-based genres and forms (such as journalism, criticism, history, etc.) are fluid and malleable;
    3. the expressive, transactional, and poetic prose texts generated by students in college composition courses;
    4. (obsolete) not fiction.

    I often give the first two definitions to my students when they ask, 'So, like, what is nonfiction?' The definitions give us a way of narrowing the field."
    (Robert L. Root, The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)
  • The Difference Between Nonfiction and Fiction
    "To help us understand the essential difference between nonfiction and fiction, let's look at an example:
    Traditional Nonfiction: New York City has more than 1,400 homeless people.

    Better Nonfiction: The man who has laid claim to the bench on the corner of 88th Street and Park Avenue is one of New York City's 1,400 homeless people.

    Fiction: His skin the color of rust, the man sits on his park bench next to his bag of belongings, staring at the brightly lit windows in the apartments across the street, at the strange race of people who still have hope.
    In the transition from plain fact to fiction, we lose statistics and focus on the individual character. The writer, having invented the character, can convey what the character thinks."
    (Sol Stein, Stein on Writing. St. Martin's Griffin, 1995)
  • Purposes of Nonfiction
    "The four main purposes of nonfiction are to:
    - entertain
    - inform
    - inspire
    - persuade
    Dave Barry entertains. This book informs. Many essays inspire. Editorials persuade. Can a piece of writing have more than one purpose? Definitely. However, one purpose should be primary."
    (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction. Penguin Books, 2003)

  • The Common Core State Standards (US) and Nonfiction
    "One central concern is that the Core reduces how much literature English teachers can teach. Because of its emphasis on analysis of information and reasoning, the Core requires that 50 percent of all reading assignments in elementary schools consist of nonfiction texts. That requirement has sparked outrage that masterpieces by Shakespeare or Steinbeck are being dropped for informational texts like 'Recommended Levels of Insulation' by the Environmental Protection Agency."
    ("The Common Core Backlash." The Week, June 6, 2014)
  • Sticking to the Facts
    "Each year, or so it seems, a new scandal erupts involving a story marketed as nonfiction when the narrative is, in truth, partly, or even mostly, made up.

    "The trouble with this notion of narrative is that it regards facts as obstacles to overcome rather than opportunities for insight. As a nonfiction writer for some 30 years now, I’ve come to see that factual accuracy is as important to my stories as meter or rhyme might be to a classical poet. Granted, the facts of a narrative do impose a limit on a writer’s field of action. But it’s this tension between form and expression, like the sublime shaping of lines required by the rules of the sonnet, that gives good nonfiction its real beauty."
    (Danny Heitman, "Just the Facts." The New York Times, May 7, 2012)


Pronunciation: non-FIX-shun