Nonfiction: practical or literary

Should I write practical or literary nonfiction?


I recommend writing both. Here’s why.

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.

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.

But 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 not make your wallet overflow.

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 poorhouse).

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 in 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.

These examples demonstrate what I mean (the second is from a short memoir I wrote):


The letters my wife and I wrote each other remind me of when we first met, on my trip to Jerusalem in 2013.

Practical nonfiction: straightforward and without much emotion.

Sitting down on the bed, I opened the packet, exposing many pages of longhand—scribbled helter-skelter along the margins and into the dog-eared corners. And the memories of my journey to Jerusalem in the summer of 2013—the year our story started—began to reemerge.

Literary nonfiction: creating an emotion in the reader; make the reader feel as well as understand the message.

If you hire me to write your story, you can decide on the balance between practical and literary. And I’ll do what I can to make your book the best possible read.

Should I write practical or literary nonfiction? I recommend writing both. Here’s why. 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…

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