Short Story Long 02: Nonfiction A basic guide to writing nonfiction.

Short Story Long is a series delving into the how of crafting, submitting, and publishing short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. It seeks to explain, as simply as possible, how to go from title to conclusion, and from submission portal to publication.

Nonfiction is intimidating to novice writers. It has a reputation for being rigorous, restrictive, dense, and boring. Not so. Nonfiction, when done right, is as experimental and free-flowing as poetry. It is as powerful a storytelling medium as the best fiction, and as imaginative as the most fantastical story ever told.

Here is a scenario: You are looking at a literary magazine’s call for submissions and you decide fiction and poetry are easier avenues to publication. Not really. The poetry editor is slogging through nonsensical stanzas while the fiction editor cries their way through a thousand short stories invoking raven imagery.

You should probably give nonfiction a try.

Here’s a short story long.


What is nonfiction?

Nonfiction is “real life writing.” It is writing that chronicles a moment or event.

What forms can nonfiction take?

Nonfiction can take any form that serves the writer’s intention. As Annie Dillard says: “There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is prescribed. You get to make up your own for everytime.”

Therefore, nonfiction remains a form that writers can use to make sense of the world and themselves too.

If I am writing nonfiction with some autobiographical elements, do I need any form of permission from the people I might write about? 

Not necessarily. When you write nonfiction, the things you are writing about happened to you or someone else. They are your feelings or your thoughts or what they did to you. They might also be someone else’s testimony – a recording of events that happened outside of your body. If you are writing about yourself, the only permission you need is your own truth. If you are writing about someone else, their permission is not strictly needed. However, writing does not happen in a vacuum, nor does the writer live on their own planet, detached from the consequences of their writing. So, in some cases, it might be best to inform someone that you intend to write about them. Writers rarely need permission to do what they do; but a writer is a citizen above other things. No one wants to end up like Nova in Queen Sugar.

What characteristics does good nonfiction possess?

Good writing is the most important thing. The so-called factual blandness of the real world is polished by the writer’s craft. A captivating narrative; rich, flowing language; a clear sequence of events, a distinct voice, or an experimental style which challenges the reader’s expectations – good writing comes in many forms. None of the listed characteristics are prescriptive, though. Each writer finds their own voice and style of writing nonfiction.

Doek! Prizes nonfiction that tells a story, not a mere retelling of facts. Other literary magazines favour other aspects. But good nonfiction, like fiction, is a journey.

How long is a nonfiction piece of writing? 

It can be as long as you want it. Or as long as the submission requirements.

If an editor feels a larger word count would allow the writer to fully express themselves they might extend the word count. If a piece starts wandering, they might trim it. Good editors will always advise a writer and show them where to cut or add.

Trust the editor. The really good ones are always committed to improving a writer’s work.

Does all nonfiction writing have to involve trauma? 

Definitely not. There is a rising misconception that nonfiction is only about pain, loss, or trauma.

Nonfiction can be about joyous moments too.

Perhaps because nonfiction attempts to make sense of our world, many writers lean into those dark spaces as a way to deal with something in their lives, and to heal from it by writing their way out of it.

We never have to heal from our happy moments, our minds never register them as big enough – but these moments matter. They cannot be left to the poets alone. Or, worse, the fiction writers. There is a wonderful and challenging vulnerability in sharing joy in a way that includes the reader. As an editor, I hope we get more nonfiction that is not traumatic, writing that is bright and fun to read.

Road trips with friends to hotel hookups, nonfiction can be everything and anything – as long as it is real life nonfiction does not discriminate.

Should my nonfiction come with trigger warnings? 

That depends on the writing and the descriptions within the text. Sometimes a literary magazine will insist on them, others might not. The general trend, however, seems to be that depictions of extreme violence and abuse should come with some warning. This is not a rule, though, and each magazine decides its own levels of tolerance.

A literary magazine has sent out a call for themed nonfiction. Should I make up a story or edit a preexisting one to bring it in line with the issue’s theme?

The best advice would be to find something from one’s life that matches the theme. But if the existing work falls within the theme’s ambit, there is no problem with editing away and hoping for the best. Fiction writers do it. Poets do it. A lot of writing involves hoping anyway. Nonfiction writers are not exempt.

I have something I wrote a while back. But I am too scared to publish it as nonfiction. Let me change it to fiction.

This is a personal creative decision. Changing the story might steal something from it – the original intention might not come through in the mutation. But each writer decides for themselves.

Will a reader know that I have changed a nonfiction piece to fiction?

Yes, sometimes it is quite obvious. So do not do that. Sincerity is always key.

What is the difference between a personal essay, a memoir, and narrative nonfiction? 

They are all kind of similar. All of them are life-writing. A memoir tends to focus on a specific part of one’s life. A personal essay is where someone writes about a personal event that had a certain effect on them. Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction writing that has a storytelling style—it reads as though it were a fiction story.

Now that I have committed to writing nonfiction I will only read nonfiction and hang out with the non-fic gang. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Toni Morrison, and Wole Soyinka, or nah. I already have my James Baldwin cigarette and typewriter ready. The short story writers and poets cannot sit with us.

No. Do not do that. As a writer, you should always stay near any form of writing and engage with writers working with other disciplines. Even if you do not write fiction or poetry, these mediums will influence your writing in some way. Do not isolate yourself: absorb every kind of writing that you have access—your wide reading will help to mould your style too. You will learn some things by delving into a form that you do not normally write in. The poets know things. The short story writers know things, too. Do not be that person who thinks nonfiction writers know everything, or that they are better. Read widely.

Nonfiction looks like it is only written by former American convicts and retired British politicians. Are there Africans or black writers playing the nonfiction game? 

Ah, of course. There are many black and African writers writing really good nonfiction. Doek!’s nonfiction section is always a good place to start. And Lolwe, Isele, The Johannesburg Review of Books are also important portals to access some of the best nonfiction writing from the continent. It might be harder to find nonfiction books, though. Distribution is not quite what it should be—bit it is getting better.

Wait. If it is “real life” that means it cannot be plagiarised, right? It means I can write about anyone’s experience and pass it off as my own. Great.

Please do not scam. Do not take another person’s story and make it your own. That is just disrespectful. Honesty is a huge part of writing. Respect the reader, respect yourself—there is no need to plagiarise someone’s life.

How honest is too honest in nonfiction? Where are the limits of the lie?

What is a limit? What is too honest? When you write, write to end lives. To shake folk. Your story must be told however you see fit. You are the one that decides the information that lands on that page. You decide. Therefore, there is no such thing as too honest. Just be conscious about descriptions of graphic themes—these can be triggering to some people.

Should the title of my piece be simple and to the point? Or is The Short Story of A Long Version okay?

Whew. When in doubt, simpler is always better. If it is a mouthful for the title then it must have a point. Some titles are used to arrest a reader’s attention—that is fine. At the end of it all what matters should be the writing and content of the work.

Like with all forms of writing there is always more to say.

But that is a short story long for another time.

Zanta Nkumane is a Swazi freelance writer, journalist and ex-scientist. His work has been published in OkayAfrica, This Is Africa, Mail & Guardian, Racebaitr, Kalahari Review, City Press, The Johannesburg Review Of Books, New Frame, Doek!, and Lolwe. He has work forthcoming work in We F**king Here (iwawelabooks), a queer sex anthology. He completed his undergraduate studies in microbiology from the University of Cape Town and his honours degree in journalism and media studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Cover image: Yussuf Evli on Unsplash.