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What Are the Main Features of Nonfiction?

Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

The main features of nonfiction are facts, reality and analysis. A piece of nonfiction attempts to portray the truth instead of fiction, putting reality ahead of imagination. Most commonly associated with the written word, nonfiction is also associated with photographic, cinematic and spoken creations.

Another of the features of nonfiction involves the wide range of styles. At its minimum, it is a diagram or a list of dry facts, but can also take on literary or fictional elements in order to create narrative nonfiction. One element nonfiction rarely featured is dialogue; this is because any dialogue has to be actually captured, on tape or on video, in order to be a true representation of events.

Herodotus's histories acknowledge their potentially inaccurate sources.
Herodotus's histories acknowledge their potentially inaccurate sources.

In theory, a piece of nonfiction does not contain untruths or imagined elements. This makes facts the most important of the features of nonfiction. Facts, however, are prone to bias, distortion and misuse by nonfiction creators intent on making a specific point regardless of the truth. Some, like Herodotus, acknowledge that their sources might be inaccurate, while others are willfully subjective.

Biographies and autobiographies feature narratives concerning one person’s life or a slice of his or her life. The exact focus and the angle depends on the writer. These typically mix primary sources such as letters, diary entries, speeches and footage with secondary sources and eyewitness reports. One of the main features of nonfiction in biography is that it is very difficult to build a complete and accurate picture of a person, perhaps even more so in an autobiography.

Travel nonfiction features a mixture of descriptions and experiences. The experiences tend to be biographical, while the descriptions can either use narrative nonfiction features or veer towards the more academic. A more academic side of travel writing looks into a specific area of travel, whether it is a culture and language or a region’s unique topography.

Science and social sciences also range from the academic to the narrative. Academically-focused research papers tend to be dry pieces containing research, raw and processed data, and analysis. They tend to have narrowly-focused objectives. Narrative nonfiction in these areas looks to tie such research papers into a narrative spanning a process, element of nature or historical period. It covers areas such as biology, physics, history and archaeology.

Technical nonfiction is purely dry and aimed at explaining certain objects or processes. Typical features of nonfiction of this kind include how-to manuals, blueprints, diagrams and schematics. They are used for building design, electronic circuits, machines such as cars and for explaining chemical reactions.

Journalism is another form of nonfiction. Features of nonfiction with regards to journalism include reporting events within a short period of them happening, drawing together facts and opinions, and presenting them in an objective manner. Above all other nonfiction forms, journalism is the most averse, in theory, to outright lying. Journalism covers magazines, newspapers, some books and some documentary films.

Discussion Comments


@clintflint - Autobiographies are one thing, but what annoys me more is when popular non-fiction that is full of speculation starts being taken as absolute fact. Books by Malcolm Gladwell, for example, like The Tipping Point and Outliers, have very interesting points, but some of their theories are presented as facts and I've definitely heard people who didn't know how to tell the difference.

If you're reading non-fiction it's always a good idea to look the book up online and see what discussion surrounds it, because it's rarely as black and white as is presented.


@croydon - The book that annoys me most is Go Ask Alice, which is still being sold in places as non-fiction even though the author fessed up a long time ago that she made the whole thing up as a scare tactic for teenagers to stop them going on drugs.

But in other cases I think people can over-scrutinize autobiographies. Sometimes what the person remembers might not be exactly what happened, but what they remember is more important to the overall story.

The example I'm thinking of is the Frank McCourt books, which quite a few people have contested as being full of exaggeration, but I don't think he was telling a tall tale so much as just recounting what events felt like from a child's perspective.


Never take for granted that a nonfiction text is truthful or even based around facts. There have been hundreds of literary hoaxes over the years, and most of them have involved someone basically saying that something happened without a slightest scrap of evidence and not being challenged by anyone.

Even publishers won't necessarily be able to verify all the facts in a particular work. Look at the most famous recent example of A Million Little Pieces, which Mr. Frey claimed was a totally truthful autobiography and turned out to be mostly fabrication. The thing is, when you are writing an autobiography it's difficult for anyone to challenge it because there might not have been witnesses to prove your "facts" one way or the other.

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    • Herodotus's histories acknowledge their potentially inaccurate sources.
      By: Renáta Sedmáková
      Herodotus's histories acknowledge their potentially inaccurate sources.