Reading & Writing Across Curriculum

Nonfiction Works

Types of Nonfiction


Tips for Reading Nonfiction

Reading Argumentative/Expository Essays or Books

Reading Nonfiction Textbooks


Types of Nonfiction

Essays are texts that express the author’s opinion on a topic through discussion of evidence, stories, or personal experience. Essays vary in length, but they tend to be shorter works published in larger collections. College students are expected to write essays for many of their courses reflecting the subject matter.

Articles are nonfiction works published in periodicals (such as newspapers, magazines or journals). Some articles contain purely factual information; for example, many newspaper articles report only the facts about a particular event. Some articles express opinions or arguments and are very similar to essays.

nonfiction books can be written on a variety of subjects. Some types of nonfiction books give background on a subject such as history or science books. Some make arguments, such as political books. Some instruct the reader, as in self-help or money management books. Some nonfiction books tell stories, such as biographies or memoirs. These works can seem similar to novels (fictional books), but since they tell the true story of someone’s life, they are nonfiction.

Periodicals are works published on a regular basis such as newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Works contained in periodicals are usually nonfiction (though a literary journal is a type of periodical that publishes fiction or poetry).

Anthologies are books that contain many shorter works by a variety of authors. Anthologies can contain essays or short stories.

Textbooks are books covering a particular academic subject, such as history, math or biology, for use by students.



Use quotation marks for titles of shorter works that would usually be published within another, larger work. Examples include essays, articles, short stories and poems.

Use italics (or underlining if italics are not available) for titles of longer work that would not be published within another work. Examples include books, anthologies and periodicals (such as newspapers, magazines and journals).


Tips For Reading Nonfiction

In high school, you probably read many poems, short stories, and novels. These texts are works of fiction. In college, you will be reading mostly works of nonfiction. You will almost certainly read nonfiction works in courses such as history, sociology, anthropology, biology, political science, English, and humanities. Nonfiction is work that contains factual information, information that can be verified as true, as opposed to fiction, which is a work of art created from the author’s imagination and is not expected to contain facts or verifiable information.

Reading Argumentative/Expository Essays or Books

What to look for when reading nonfiction will depend largely on the type of work you’re reading. In an English composition course, you will be assigned to read mostly nonfiction argumentative or expository essays, essays in which the author is asserting his/her opinion, making a point, or arguing a case.  When instructors assign these types of essays, they expect that you will not only be able to discern the main idea and/or different arguments being made, but also to form your own opinion about them. In order to form your own opinion, you will need to come to a solid understanding of the main point/s of the essay. You’re probably familiar with the concept of annotating a work – taking notes in the margins as you read. Annotating as you read is the first step that you should take in identifying an essay’s main idea and/or the author’s argument and forming your own opinion about it. Learn more about annotation. Below are some other steps, in addition to annotating, that you can take when reading a nonfiction work for deep understanding.

  • Underline, and/or write on a separate piece of paper, what you think is the author’s overall main idea/thesis, and all the topic sentences. The topic sentences should contain new supporting ideas, and will contain information that will help you form your own opinion. Remember that not everyone will always agree on the same main point of an essay, so don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not you “got the right answer” because it’s not a test.
  • Take a look at how the essay has been organized. Does it use chronological organization? Spatial? Seasonal? Does the essay move from the personal to the political or from the political to personal? Has the essay been organized around a series of definitions of terms? Is the essay bookended (begins and ends in the same or similar way – with a story, and anecdote) in anyway. Does the essay appear to jump from one idea to another? Does the essay make a series of related arguments? Does the organization follow any kind of pattern?
  • Ask yourself why you think the author made the organizational choices he/she made.
  • Ask yourself, how does this essay’s organization help me better understand what the author is saying and/or help the author say it better?
  • While looking for the essay’s main idea, the explicit message, identify any possible implied messages.
  • Look for flaws in the author’s logic: inconsistencies, hypocrisies, flawed arguments, etc.
  • Look up any unfamiliar words, even words that you think you know, but don’t quite understand in the context of the essay.

Reading Nonfiction Textbooks

Nonfiction textbooks usually follow a pattern that is repeated from chapter to chapter. In order to get the most of out of what you read when reading nonfiction textbooks, it’s best to familiarize and remain cognizant of the pattern established early on by a textbook author. All textbooks are broken down into chapters and each chapter is given a chronological number and a name and the author will have made purposeful choices about which chapters and which information to place where. Reading and remembering the title of each chapter will help with chunking the information together in your mind. In addition to chapter titles, most textbooks use subject headings. Subject headings are titles for a new bunch of information and/or a new subject. Authors of textbooks use subject headings to help orient readers to a new subject, working like transitions from one idea/subject to another.  Subject headings are a way of helping the reader keep a lot of information organized, another way to chunk information into manageable sub-sections, making the information easier to retain. Reading and remembering the subject heading names, rather than skimming over them, will help you better retain what you read and will make it easier for you to go back and find information for making study notes/cards, and practice questions for quizzes.

While you may not be accustomed to writing in your textbooks, it’s important to remember that annotating as you read is an important way to interact with and therefore retain what you read. Remember that, in addition to writing in the margins, annotating also means looking up any unfamiliar words that do not appear in the glossary of the textbook. Most textbooks include a glossary of commonly used words and/or terms associated with the subject or discipline near the back of the book. These glossaries are often underutilized by students and can make a difference in reading and navigating a difficult nonfiction text.

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Meghan Swanson
RAW Coordinator


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Originally created by
Karin Spirn and
Meghan Swanson

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Page last modified: April 25, 2017