Non-Fiction as Literary Form: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:03 Non-Fiction
  • 1:02 Biographies
  • 1:30 Autobiographies & Memoirs
  • 2:40 Essays
  • 3:33 Journalism
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

Although non-fiction might seem fairly straightforward, there are quite a few different genres within non-fiction that are easy to confuse. With this in mind, we'll consider the similarities and differences between biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, essays, and journalism.

Types of Nonfiction

What is non-fiction?

You probably know that fictional writing is assumed to be made-up and imagined, while non-fictional writing is believed to be based on truth. Although this distinction between these genres is pretty straightforward, the important thing to keep in mind is that an author's memories or facts may not be perfect, so nonfiction writing depends on the author attempting to tell the truth. In other words, even though no author knows everyone or everything, one of the main requirements of nonfiction is that an author should never claim something is true if he or she knows that it's not.

Even if these differences seem pretty obvious, it's worth taking some time to note the many different types of non-fiction there are and the ways that they differ from each other. As we'll see, the term nonfiction can cover a tremendous variety of writing styles. In this lesson, we're going to consider the most common nonfiction genres, including:

  • Biographies
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Essays
  • Journalism

Biographies

As you probably know, biographies are writings about real people that are composed by someone other than the person whose story is being told. It's important to note that, unlike some fiction stories that biographically tell the story of a character, biographies are meant to tell the story of a real person who lived or is alive. For example, biographies might describe the life of presidents, such as John Adams, or the experiences and careers of musicians, such as Bob Dylan.

Autobiographies and Memoirs

While biographies can be thought of as true stories written about people, autobiographies are stories about a person's life that are written by the person whose life is being discussed. One particularly influential example of this genre is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which covers Franklin's experiences growing up and becoming a famous political figure.

One subcategory of autobiography that also includes a first-person account of one's experiences is the memoir. While similar to autobiographies in that they retell the events of a person's life, memoirs tend to focus more on specific events or phases in the person's life than autobiographies.

Additionally, memoirs tend to focus more on personal memories than autobiographies do and look at specific experiences in the individual's life. This means that while the distinction between autobiographies and memoirs aren't always obvious, someone describing a specific struggle in his or her life will probably be called a memoir rather than a biography. One great example is Elie Wiesel's famous Night, which describes the experiences in German concentration camps.

Essays

You've probably written essays, so you know that they encompass a general term. Because they apply to so many types of writing, essays are known to be quite difficult to define; still we can think generally of essays as works that are meant to introduce an author's opinion or argument. This naturally means that essays might take all sorts of forms, such as long editorials, articles in a magazine or journal, or even collections of photographs that are meant to make a point.

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