Non-fiction genres

We read literature to learn about life, and it is also a very interesting and informative way of learning or improving language. However, in our daily lives we are most often dealing with what we can call non-fiction: the language of communication between people in social and working life, business language, political language, legal language, scientific language, factual language (newspapers and periodicals), other academic language and so on.

We write and read all sorts of language in our daily lives, from the relatively new abbreviated SMS messages and e-mails to the formal essays we write in school and reports we write in the working world. 

Some genres, such as biographies and feature articles in magazines are written in a style that makes use of  literary techniques. Other texts will be more factual and formal as they have a different purpose.

Things to consider with non-fiction texts:

  • Is the text as objective as it claims to be? Are the choice of words (diction) and emphasis designed to influence you? For example, when one newspaper refers to a “rebel”, another paper may call the same person a “liberator”, all depending on what side of the fence they are on.
  • Are words with positive or negative connotations being used?
  • What tone does the text have? Is the language flowery or emotional? Does the writer have a detached or personal style? Does the writer use irony or other literary devices?
  • Is the text trying to persuade you? If so, how? Is there liberal use of adjectives and adverbs? Is powerful evidence used in a passionate argument? Does the text ask rhetorical questions? Is the writer using figures of speech?
  • What do you feel is the aim of the text? Has the writer succeeded in doing what he or she set out to do?


Some non-fiction genres

1) Advertisement texts

These are texts that aim to sell something. There are many genres within advertising texts: newspaper/magazine advertisements, television and cinema advertisements, billboards and screens, radio advertisements, e-mail, brochures, flyers, video cuts on the internet and more. Advertisements can even be received as SMS messages.

The principle of advertising is to get our attention so communication is the key. Here we are talking about what we do with language in advertising, but of course the visual, the multimedia approach, is also a key part of advertising.

The typical advertisement may:

  • strive for a light, upbeat tone
  • address you directly, or personally. "You" and "your" are often used as the advertiser is striving to speak to you
  • have language that is accessible to everyone
  • be full of emotive words, for example: 
    - Adjectives:                     
    bold, bright, new, good, better, best, fantastic, free, fresh, splendid, great, delicious, wonderful
    - Evaluative words:         
    glamorous, sure, clean, special, crisp, fine, real, easy, extra, rich, safe, delicate, perfect, expert, lovely
    - Simple, direct verbs:    
    make, taste, start, hurry, get, look, need, love, feel, ask for

So it is important to look at the tone, choice of words, accessibility and the way the text addresses the reader. Modern advertisements also use other techniques, like extended narratives, irony and humour.

2) News reports (for example the newspaper article)

A newspaper article uses fairly simple language as it is trying to reach a wide audience. It will use short, concrete and direct words wherever possible. News reports generally contain short sentences and have a neutral, impersonal and objective style. Here is an example of a straight forward newspaper article that aims to simply report the facts. We have taken the first nine paragraphs from the article.

Canadian Press
Nov 23, 2007 07:57 PM 

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile — A group of tourists, including 12 Canadians, spent up to six hours in lifeboats in the frigid waters off Antarctica after their cruise ship hit ice and started sinking in the middle of the night. 

All 154 passengers and crew aboard the Explorer, owned by a Toronto-based company, were rescued safely by the Norwegian cruise liner Nordnorge, which responded to a distress call. They were to spend the night at a military base in Chile before being flown home, officials said today. 

Despite being in lifeboats for hours in rough waters, none of the passengers suffered hypothermia, said Arnvid Hansen, captain of the Nordnorge. 

“The passengers are absolutely fine,” Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures, owner of the Explorer, said in an interview. “They’re all accounted for. No injuries whatsoever.” 

A Chilean ornithologist identified as Paola Palavecino was quoted in an Argentine media report as saying she and others aboard went into the lifeboats before dawn and endured subfreezing temperatures for a few hours until they were picked up about 6 a.m. EST. 

“The ship took on water quickly,” she was quoted by the Argentine news agency Diarios y Noticias as saying in a call from the Nordnorge. 

The 75-metre-long Explorer was carrying 91 passengers, nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. It was completing an ecological tour of Antarctica when the accident took place around midnight Eastern time today about 850 kilometres southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city. 

“The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water ... but quite slowly,” Hayes said. 

Hours after the pre-dawn incident, the Chilean navy confirmed that the cruise ship had sunk. 

  • Note how the article has relatively short paragraphs
  • The article also has relatively short sentences
  • The vocabulary is quite simple
  • The language is very neutral
  • Quotes from witnesses/survivors are used to bring us closer to the event
  • The passive voice is used, e.g. “were rescued” as this is neutral and objective
  • The article has no subjective comments like a feature article (see 'Land of the Fat' page 245)
  • The first paragraph immediately establishes:
    • What – sinking ship; passengers in lifeboats
    • Who – group of tourists
    • Where – frigid water off coast of Antarctica
    • When – middle of the night (as this article is in a daily paper the day this happened is clear)
    • Why – the cruise ship hit ice
  • The article establishes the facts and then elaborates on them further into the article
  • The article uses both indirect and direct quotes
  • The article from a Canadian newspaper about a Canadian boat makes a point of immediately establishing how many Canadians were on board. A Norwegian paper might put even more emphasis on the role of the Norwegian cruise ship that comes to the rescue. The perspective will change according to the intended readers and who is reporting the news. 

3) Feature article

The writing of feature articles is one of the most prominent genres in newspapers and magazines today. A feature article is not “breaking news”. The author of a feature article has taken the time to research and get to know his or her subject. The article has facts but they may be presented in a more subjective way, the author may have an “angle” in his or her article. Therefore characteristics of the feature article are:

  • Not “hard news”
  • Can be profiles, travel writing, “how-to” texts, inspirational texts
  • May make extensive use of literary techniques such a metaphors, similes
  • Language more evocative, embellished than a straight-forward news article
  • Can be more personal and subjective
  • Will most likely appeal more to the reader’s senses, aiming for a particular response

 'Land of the Fat' (page 245) is an example of such a feature article.

4) Editorial

An editorial is a clear statement of the writer’s views on a particular subject. Characteristics are:

  • A text that expresses an opinion rather than attempting to simply report
  • Editorial language may be a little more demanding than a newspaper article but it may still attempt to talk to you directly
  • Generally starts off by trying to capture the reader's attention, often with a shocking statement or perhaps by telling an anecdote
  • Editorials have a thesis or basic argument
  • Strong arguments are used to support thesis
  • Strongest argument saved for last as that is what readers tend to remember most
  • Concludes by restating the thesis and perhaps ends with a call to action, a demand for action to be taken, a vision for the future or food for thought

 Here is a very brief sample editorial from a Canadian newspaper:

Smoking with kids in the car

It's not unreasonable to ask people to refrain from smoking when children are in the car.

Prince Edward Island should follow the lead of a Nova Scotia town and at least consider imposing a ban on smoking in vehicles carrying children as passengers. It would be the logical extension of legislation now in place to protect people from second-hand smoke.

Wolfville, N.S., recently passed a bylaw banning smoking in any vehicle with children. It is said to be the first of its kind in the country. In the view of town officials, it is a matter of not only protecting the health of children, but raising awareness of the health risk of second-hand smoke.

The move has won the applause of the anti-smoking lobby, which is now looking to other jurisdictions to follow suit. But critics have called the measure too intrusive, warning that such restrictions on individual rights are a sign that big brother is getting too close for comfort.

Point taken. But no rights are absolute. In a society that now recognizes the health hazards of smoking and the effects of second-hand smoke, it is a question of balancing the rights of the smoker with the rights of others – in this case, children in the back seat of a car.

Given what most of society now accepts about second-hand smoke, it is not unreasonable to demand that people refrain from smoking when kids are in the car. Wolfville is breaking new ground with its bylaw, and its leadership should prompt other governments to follow suit.

What makes this a typical example of an editorial? Use the features listed above to help you in your answer.

5) Letter to the editor

This is the public forum where individuals can state their opinions and discuss issues of public importance. Today the letter to the editor is losing ground to the internet, blogging and online comments forums.

  • A letter to the editor is a text you write to voice your opinion on an issue
  • Write clearly and concisely following the limitations usually given by the editor. If you write too much your letter will be either rejected or edited by the newspaper staff
  • Get to the point very quickly 

6) Review

  • A review is an evaluation of a book, movie, drama or performance.
  • Do not to spend all your time re-telling the story.
  • A review is a recommendation.
  • Reviews are generally rich in adjectives.

If, for example, you are reviewing music you should

  • Listen to the music many times.
  • Ask yourself how effective, catchy the music is?
  • Do the lyrics say something to you?
  • Does the music touch you or does it sound forced, pretentious or just too simple?
  • Do the songs effect your emotions or make you think?
  • Consider how the record fits with other works by the artist.
  • What do think the artist has accomplished?
  • Perhaps compare it to other works.

Here is a sample of a review of an electronic game where the reviewer finds a somewhat odd way to introduce his subject when taking the entire review into account.

Super Mario Galaxy is an embarrassment. It's an embarrassment for platform games. It's an embarrassment for adventure games. It's an embarrassment for Nintendo and an embarrassment for the Wii. What have we all been playing at in the ten years since Super Mario 64 came out? This is what gaming ought to be like. 

Bright, bold, unrepentantly loony, Galaxy is everything you wanted it to be. It's beautiful and inventive. It's pure-blood Mario without being a retro indulgence. It's a stiff platforming challenge and a free-wheeling romp. It's the best thing on Wii, and the best traditional game Nintendo has made in a decade. The only thing about it which dulls your enjoyment is the memory of all the mediocre games you've had to play in the meantime. 

Book review:
When you have finished a novel, skim through it again and note the following points:

  • Main characters
  • Setting
  • Summary of the plot and the theme
  • Parts you liked
  • Parts you found disappointing

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Did the characters come alive to you?
  • Was the action well planned?
  • Could you picture the setting?
  • Did the plot drag on?
  • Were there any confusing parts?
  • Was the ending believable and satisfying?
  • Did you enjoy the book?

Now put your notes in order and write the review. Give good reasons for your comments and be fair with criticism. Give a brief outline of the plot without giving away the end.

Would you recommend the novel? To whom? Why or why not? Give your review a catching title.

7) Reports

The language of reports is formal and unambiguous. First you will have an introduction stating the purpose of the report. The second part of the report informs the reader of the facts in the case or the findings from a study. The report will then conclude with the report writer’s interpretation of the facts/findings. The final part of the report is then your recommendations on what to do about the matter your report has discussed.

Your report should also have a:

  • Title page – short and precise, but also informative (stating what areas the report covers).
  • Contents page – important for quick references; no. 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.2, 2 etc.
  • References – If you have consulted other works or sources, credit them.
  • Bibliography – List books, articles, internet sites etc. that you have used.


Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 17.07.2008

© Cappelen Damm AS