Practical or Literary Nonfiction: Why Not Both?

There are many kinds of books on the market—about as many as there are kinds of readers. Some readers want to cut to the chase whereas others love to “feel their way” through the information.

For that reason, there are different ways to approach nonfiction.

Practical and Literary Nonfiction: What’s the Difference?

Practical nonfiction is all about your message—the only criterion for its success is the reader’s understanding. Creativity, however valuable, doesn’t add to the purpose of the writing.

Literary nonfiction, on the other hand, is born of a love for writing itself. When reading literary nonfiction, I breathe the language, and often, when a surprising phrase anchors in my consciousness, I feel goosebumps crawling up my back.

It’s the kind of prose you read even when the subject doesn’t interest you. The words, the anecdotes, the play of tension and release—all of it—make its reading an adventure.

Telling the Story in the Most Artful Way

Though complex words are more common in literary than practical nonfiction, literary isn’t about being pompous—it’s about searching for the most resonant or precise word. Each word and phrase gets scrutinized for effectiveness, rhythm, imagery, tension, color, characterization, et cetera—all regardless of complexity.

It’s about telling the story in the most artful language (which should never draw attention to itself and exist only to enhance the story).

When Not to Use Literary Elements

Literary nonfiction isn’t always the right choice. Writing this kind of prose demands many rounds of meticulous self-editing, and thus, unless you’re famous, it will empty your wallet pretty fast.

Web content, for example, doesn’t need to be artistic; it needs to be effective, and therefore, the pay-per-word is typically not high. But wherever possible—being my unrelenting self—I do sweat my countenance to employ literary devices in my web content (while struggling to stay outside the poor house).

My Preference in Nonfiction: Doing Both to Strengthen My Writing

In my personal work, I lean toward literary nonfiction because I love language—that’s why I became a writer. And if I can’t love the language through my work, I’d be better off in my teenage job as a garbageman (yes, there’s a tale to tell).

So, practical and literary nonfiction have their place. And my experience is that, if we train our writing muscles to do both, the one discipline will strengthen the other. Your literary abilities will help you write more engaging content, and your practical writing will train you to keep your literature focused.

An Editor to Help You Write Your Nonfiction Book

Whether you’re writing practical or literary nonfiction, I can edit your book for maximum impact.

You’ll publish stories your readers will remember.

Book a free discovery call below, and we’ll have a look at your project together.



Enjoyed this blog?

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Practical or Literary Nonfiction: Why Not Both?

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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