Literary Nonfiction: Essays, Diaries, Letters, & More

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  • 0:01 What Is Literary Nonfiction?
  • 0:52 Autobiographical Nonfiction
  • 4:15 The Essay
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Watch this video lesson to explore the world of literary nonfiction. You will learn the similarities and differences between journals, diaries, memoirs and much more.

What Is Literary Nonfiction?

Nonfiction, which includes any writing based on real life events, encompasses a vast variety of writing. Two subcategories for nonfiction are informational and literary. Informational nonfiction includes writing with the purpose to describe or express facts. Literary nonfiction also contains facts, but is meant to entertain the reader. In this way, literary nonfiction reads like fiction and has story elements, like character, setting and plot.

Some examples of literary nonfiction include personal journals, diaries, memoirs, letters, and essays. Let's look at the characteristics of each of these.

Autobiographical Nonfiction

Much of literary nonfiction can be described as autobiographical, which is writing from the author's perspective. This type of writing is usually in first person point of view, which means the narrator is a character in the story. Since the author is the narrator, this means the author is the main character in the story. Most autobiographies are novel-length since they cover the subject's entire life. However, there are many shorter works that are still considered autobiographical.

The first such work is a personal journal, which is a daily written record of personal experiences and observations. This usually consists of short pieces of writing each day. For example, if you were assigned to design an experiment for a science project, you might keep a journal to describe what you did for that experiment every day until the project was due. A journal could be kept for a few weeks or even several years but always has a factual account of experiences of the author.

Another related autobiographical work is the diary. Similar to journals, diaries contain a daily account of experiences. The difference is diaries include personal thoughts and feelings. While a journal is more based on facts, a diary can have a person's deepest secrets and desires; as such, it is usually not meant to be shared with anyone. A great example is the book The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank was a real Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from the Germans during World War II. She wrote about her personal thoughts and feelings about what was happening to her family. Years later, her diary was found and published by Anne's descendants to showcase the terrors of Nazi Germany.

A third type of autobiographical work is the memoir. Memoirs are extremely similar to journals and diaries in that memoirs relate the author's personal experiences. Like diaries, memoirs can also reveal the narrator's personal feelings. Memoirs are different because they are not written daily, are meant to be published and shared, and usually focus on one specific event or theme. A well-known memoir is Tuesdays with Morrie. In this book, the author, Mitch Albom, recounts his time spent with his aging sociology professor who is dying from ALS. This memoir is limited to that period of Albom's life. Other events of his life are not shown.

A final example of an autobiographical work of literary nonfiction is a letter. A letter is a written message addressed to a person or organization. Letters often contain personal thoughts and opinions, but they are directed at just one person. Letters are never really meant to be published and are usually discarded once the message is received. Emails can be considered a more advanced type of letter.

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