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What Is Nonfiction?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Nonfiction is any work that conveys information that is presumed by the author or creator to present factual information. The media for nonfiction can be of any type, including video and still photography, but the term usually refers to written material. The information presented need not necessarily be accurate but must be regarded as such by the creator. In other words, facts presented in nonfiction works may be in error but not deliberately fabricated and presented as facts.

The genre of a work presented as nonfiction can fall into a number of categories. Reference works and textbooks are one of the primary types of nonfiction works. Historically, many works of this type have later been proven to have certain elements that are in error as advances in knowledge improve our understanding of the subject in question. This does not mean that the works are fiction but rather that the knowledge in them has simply become obsolete. This can occur in almost any field of study from history to mathematics and even reference works about literature.

Biographies and narrative accounts of actual events, either related from direct experience by the author or derived from documented information, both contemporary or historical, comprise another major field of nonfiction works. These works often contain portions that offer opinions or conclusions about the events being related. This type of inclusion does not disqualify a work as nonfiction as long as the main focus of the work is presenting fact rather than opinion. In fact, it is rather common in nonfiction works. Certain newspaper and news magazine articles are another type of nonfiction.

The primary types of nonfiction media, aside from written works, are visual representations. Video and photographic nonfiction works are common parts of everyday life for much of the world. News programs, documentaries and photographs are all nonfiction. Video and photographic records are good examples of nonfiction works, but these types of media are easily altered, the act of which, depending on the degree of alteration and the intent behind it, can cause them to no longer qualify as nonfiction.

An entertainment phenomenon arising in the late 20th century, popularly called reality television, is a good example of how intent and presentation can blur the line between fiction and non-fiction. Reality television programs are presented as depicting real life events but are sometimes staged and edited so as to show those events in a calculated, orchestrated way deliberately intended to influence the way they are perceived by the audience. While presented as nonfiction, some of these types of programs fit the definition loosely at best.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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