How Nonfiction Books Build College Research Skills

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stared at a blank Word document, wishing your college essay could generously write itself, perhaps thinking, “Forget this. I’ll have ChatGPT write my paper for me.” Yet many students don’t realize that nonfiction books often use the same research techniques their professors are asking for.

What is nonfiction? Whereas novels rely on an author’s imagination, nonfiction works are based on real subject matter and require facts and logic to make reasoned arguments. As such, nonfiction literature uses the same building blocks as many college research papers. Keep reading to learn how studying the former can help you succeed in writing the latter.

Separating Fiction From Nonfiction

First, let’s define fiction vs. nonfiction with respect to the writing process.

Fiction writing focuses on fundamentals like plot, characterization, and conflict in imaginary settings. Harry Potter doesn’t actually exist; Hogwarts isn’t a real school; and running head-on into Platform 9 ¾ is not, in fact, a good idea.

Meanwhile, nonfiction writing attempts to share knowledge or present an argument. Nonfiction authors put more emphasis on finding reliable sources, making evidence-based claims, and providing coherent analysis.

Understanding what is fiction and nonfiction matters because each requires different skill sets. And since academic writing is based on nonfiction techniques, it’s important to understand that nonfiction literature comes in many forms.

A Few Examples: Five Types of Nonfiction

Now that we understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction, let’s review five types of nonfiction writing. Each of these mediums is constructed differently and can cover a wide range of subject matter. However, all of them require a combination of structure and evidence to be effective.

This should sound familiar because academic papers take on different forms, but they are often assessed on similar analytical skills. The good news is that this allows students to pull from a variety of intellectual influences. Elaborating upon these types of nonfiction will show just how many resources college students have at their disposal.

The Essay

The word “essay” derives from French for “attempt” or “trial.” It is a flexible form of nonfiction in which the author organizes an analysis on one of many possible literature topics.

As a common college assignment, the essay has defining traits that may be familiar to students. It begins with a thesis statement summarizing the author’s central argument. It follows with supporting claims, often in paragraphs containing topic sentences and strengthened with evidence. Effective essays are also charitable toward other perspectives, making space for counterarguments while responding with logical rebuttals. Therefore, looking to essays for guidance is always invaluable for students seeking to improve their own argumentative prowess.

The History Book

Anyone who’s been to Barnes & Noble knows that history books are perennially popular and full of dense research. With infinite topic examples in literature, history books are built upon letters, newspapers, government documents, interviews, and other sources obtained from older books or historical archives.

In that sense, writing a “history” is a bit like doing detective work. Students can learn from history books not just in terms of content – the actual historical evidence they bring to light – but also in process: the vast amount of effort required to organize diverse sources into cohesive, compelling narratives.

The Biography

The biography is a type of history book that focuses on the life and contributions of a specific person. As such, it requires the same commitment to investigative research and commonly includes, based on that research, some interpretation of its subject’s legacy.

However, biographies also frequently use narrative structures that readers can find in fiction. In following one person’s life from beginning to end, biographers have the opportunity to combine minute historical detail with the digestible language of storytelling.

That’s why biographies aren’t just useful for students researching only one person’s actions; they are also a source of guidance on how to communicate rigorous academic research through entertaining prose.

The Memoir

Let’s get even more specific. A memoir is another type of history book and is, in a sense, like a biography. The difference is that memoirs are written by the biographical subject themselves and are, as the name suggests, more so a collection of memories than a straightforward retelling of their life story.

While memoirs are thus prone to personal bias, they are not inherently bad resources. For one thing, identifying a subject’s bias is in and of itself a valuable part of academic research. Like biographies, memoirs also provide a model by which college students can learn to structure fact-based papers in narrative, often chronological form.

The Newspaper Article

Newspapers are among the most commonplace types of nonfiction writing and still provide a vital outlet for investigative journalism. As the “first draft of history,” news coverage can give students guidance on how to prioritize relevant information and keep background knowledge from overshadowing their research.

Journalists often structure their ideas like an “inverted pyramid,” putting their most important findings up front and asking critical questions – “Who?” “What?” “Where?” – before filling in details of decreasing importance. While distinct from argumentative nonfiction, like the essay, the newspaper article still contains a logical structure designed to communicate information effectively to the public.

Put Into Practice: A Few (More Specific) Nonfiction Examples

Having defined five forms of nonfiction literature in the abstract, let’s go over some specific examples of nonfiction.

As we cover these three pieces of literature, reflect upon their differences in structure, objectives, and use of sources. Think about their value not just in terms of content – any old study guide can list off facts, after all – but as holistic, cohesive contributions to academic discussion.

In other words, remember that strong nonfiction literature is defined by its readiness to make meaningful conclusions from clear, cogent analysis. Its ultimate goal, as with college research, is to “say something.”

Essay: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” – Henry David Thoreau

What makes this essay so iconic? Among other things, let’s first marvel at how unapologetically Thoreau makes his case. His central claim – that citizens have the right to resist unjust governments – is stated right at the beginning with unambiguous language: “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”

Weaving in provocative questions, exercises in logic, and references to slavery and the Mexican-American War, Thoreau provides here a masterclass in analytical writing. Rather than give only indisputable facts, he delivers memorable statements that, crucially, can be debated. Thoreau shows that what’s worse than a disagreeable essay is one which does not say anything worth disagreeing with.

Memoir: Night – Elie Wiesel

One of the most famous Holocaust memoirs ever written, Night demonstrates that real historical events – the author’s imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald – can be recounted with gripping if also upsetting prose.

Being a personal narrative, this memoir does not pretend to give us a complete history of World War II. Instead, it trades breadth for depth; in focusing on one person’s experiences, combined with commentary on his loss of faith in humanity, Night reminds us that nonfiction literature can vary widely in scope. Wiesel’s story is one of millions, and yet its ability to “zoom in” on individual tragedy gives us, ultimately, a clearer historical picture.

Newspaper Article: “Kennedy is Killed by Sniper” – New York Times (11/23/1963)

Any research paper writing service can tell you to use a catchy title, but sometimes the headlines just speak for themselves. This particular article recounts John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath, organizing all of its moving parts – Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in as president, Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, eyewitness accounts – in order of importance.

Thus we see how, even in such a historic moment, the inverted pyramid model provides structure and flow to the story. Though still a work of nonfiction, summarizing real events from different perspectives, the investigative journalism on display here maintains its commitment to logical narrative.

Analysis: So How Will All of This Actually Help Me?

Ok, ok. At this point, you might still be wondering how a deep dive on nonfiction sources, replete with a few lovely examples, will actually translate into practical use.

In this section, let’s tie everything together and discuss how college students can use nonfiction literature as a template for academic writing. If you need college paper help and have been waiting patiently for concrete advice, know that your hard work is noted. With any luck, and perhaps even a bit of effort on a good day, you’ll never have to use ChatGPT again from here on out.

The Importance of Nonfiction Literature

Any nonfiction work is born from an author’s willingness to spend countless hours researching, editing, and thinking about a nuanced subject. It represents a triumph of intellectual curiosity.

And yet to make the most of literature, you have to be willing to read nonfiction books with intentionality. Passive readers will skim a book word by word, perhaps “enjoying the ride” but not critically engaging with its overall analysis. Active readers, however, will take thoughtful notes, not fixate on every detail, and end up absorbing more knowledge in the end. Graduating from passive to active reading marks a vital step towards appreciating all that nonfiction literature has to offer.

Applying Nonfiction Literature in College

It follows that college students who engage critically with nonfiction writing will incorporate its processes into their own academic writing.

After all, what makes somebody better at cooking: enjoying a nice meal, or watching a chef in the kitchen? Do musicians learn their instruments by putting on headphones, or do they go out and take lessons?

You get the point. If you need guidance on how to write your college research papers, you’re best advised by the contributions of those who have written before you. Observing how professional academics form sound arguments is the first step towards meeting their standards of quality in your college career.

How About Some Examples? Reviewing American Literature Topics

Just to give an idea, let’s look at a few American literature essay topics. If you need to write about American nonfiction for an assignment, these may be extra relevant. But even if you don’t, think about how you can translate lessons from robust academic works into your own college research.

Rather than just give more works of nonfiction, let’s also connect each subject to a specific kind of research assignment. Not every college paper is an argumentative essay, after all. By using these American literature research paper topics, though, it should become easier to visualize transposing these formats to other fields of study.

“Self-Reliance”: The Reflection Paper

We’ve already looked at Thoreau, so let’s turn to another giant of American literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his classic 1841 essay on the necessity of self-reliance.

Imagine you’re asked to read Emerson and compile reflection paper ideas. Which arguments resonated with you? Which ones did you find unconvincing? Did “Self-Reliance” leave you with questions? Are there other texts, perhaps of Emerson’s time, that answered those questions for you?

The personal reflection format might require less formal language – first-person perspective, for example – but we thus see that it allows for the same commitment to academic analysis as a more argumentative assignment.

Legacies of Watergate: The Literature Review

At first glance, being asked to research literature review topics that other people have researched looks like an exercise in dull summarization. But that’s only the case if, as passive readers, we forgo critical engagement with scholarly debate.

Alternatively, good nonfiction histories often review nuances in historiography – in essence a historical literature review – before presenting their own original research. As an example, read how Beverly Gage outlines different interpretations of the Watergate scandal. If literature reviews still don’t sound exciting, just remember that your ability to appraise other scholars’ ideas is ultimately key to contextualizing your own.

The Civil Rights Movement: The Argumentative Essay

Finally, here’s a Socratic exercise. Argumentative essays often center around one research question, or “prompt”; however, as we’ve already established, students often struggle to transform that blank document into a sustained, nuanced analysis.

Asking questions can unlock your creative side and help you organize unlimited literature research paper topics. If you’re asked to assess the importance of churches during the Civil Rights Movement, just start asking. Which churches? Were they more important in the South? Did churches stay important throughout the 1960s?

These questions will direct your search for nonfiction literature, which in turn will guide your questions further. Before you know it, your research paper will not only have direction but the sources it needs to succeed.

In Conclusion: Finding Nonfiction Meaning in Academia

To review, we’ve learned:

  • What does nonfiction mean vs. fiction
  • Types of nonfiction writing
  • Specific examples of nonfiction works
  • Applicative uses of nonfiction literature
  • How to connect American literature with different types of essays

Creating academic research at a college level is daunting, but it gets less overwhelming over time. Don’t panic if you feel stuck or confused by a vague assignment, but also, just as importantly, don’t try to reinvent the wheel! Look to nonfiction literature and see how professional scholars do it. Learn by example, and your efforts will, with honest, original work, be rewarded with academic success.