Studying non-fiction
Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • recognise different types of non-fiction prose texts
  • consider the variety and aims of prose non-fiction
  • think about where you might encounter non-fiction prose on your course

There are two possible ways in which you might encounter non-fiction prose texts on the A2 course. You might:

  • study a prose text that is non-fiction, such as Brittain’s Testament of Youth
  • encounter extracts from prose texts as part of your synoptic assessment.

Prose texts can take many different forms but very often many of the techniques of the novelist are also the techniques of the non-fiction writer and so much of what has been discussed so far in this chapter is applicable to non-fiction writing too. For example, non-fiction writers often write about characters and although their characters really existed they still need to re-create them in words. Similarly, they often describe scenes and settings, create moods and atmospheres and their texts often contain themes, ideas or messages that the writer wants to convey to the reader. Some texts, of course, also combine factual information with that which comes from the imagination of the writer. When studying prose texts, our approach is not necessarily any different from when we study novels, or even drama or poetry.

We still need to ask the key questions of:

  • what is this text about?
  • how has the author chosen to write about it?
  • what is the purpose in writing it?

Here are some forms of non-fiction writing you might encounter:

  • the essay
  • autobiographical or biographical writing
  • diaries
  • documentaries
  • journalism.

Now look at the following extract. It is taken from Testament of Youth, the autobiography of Vera Brittain. She left Oxford University in 1916 and volunteered to go to France as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). Here she describes her arrival at a camp hospital at Etaples.

A heavy shower had only just ceased as I arrived at Etaples with three other V.A.D.s ordered to the same hospital, and the roads were liquid with such mud as only wartime France could produce after a few days of rain.

Leaving our camp-kit to be picked up by an ambulance, we squelched through the littered, grimy square and along a narrow, straggling street where the sole repositories for household rubbish appeared to be the pavement and the gutter. We finally emerged into open country and the huge area of camps, in which, at one time or another, practically every soldier in the British Army was dumped to await further orders for a still less agreeable destination. The main railway line from Boulogne to Paris ran between the hospitals and the distant sea, and amongst the camps, and along the sides of the road to Camiers, the humped sandhills bristled with tufts of spiky grass.

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all. Never, in any time or place, had been so appropriate the lament of ‘James Lee’s Wife’;

To draw one beauty into our heart’s core,
And keep it changeless! Such our claim;
So answered, - Never more!

Whenever I think of the War to-day, it is not as summer but always as winter; always as cold and darkness and discomfort, and an intermittent warmth of exhilarating excitement which made us irrationally exult in all three. Its permanent symbol, for me, is a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, the tiny flame flickering in an ice-cold draught, yet creating a miniature illusion of light against an opaque infinity of blackness.

from Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Progress check

Look at the extract carefully and answer the following questions:

  • What techniques does Brittain use to give the reader an impression of her surroundings?
  • Do her methods have anything in common with those of the novelist?
  • Are there any differences?


Brittain uses vivid and detailed description to give the reader an impression of her surroundings. Note how she brings in the various senses to strengthen the impression of the place – ‘The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing’. Clearly she is using here the same techniques as a novelist would to set the scene and create a sense of atmosphere. As far as this extract is concerned there are no differences between her writing and that of a novelist or short-story writer. We know that Brittain was writing from first-hand experience here but it could equally be a piece of prose written in the first person and created purely from the writer’s imagination.

KEY POINT - The techniques of the non-fiction writer can have many things in common with those of the novelist or short-story writer.

Progress check

If you are studying a non-fiction text answer the following questions:

  • What kind of non-fiction text is it?
  • In what ways are the writing techniques used similar to those of the novelist?
  • In what ways are they different?

Text and context

Some examination boards test your knowledge of the context and background against which prose texts were written and performed. It is a good idea to know something about the writer who wrote the prose text you are studying and about the historical period in which they lived and worked. This aspect of the examination will be dealt with in detail in Chapter 5.

Approaches to your text

There are a number of things you can do to help yourself prepare your prose text for the examination. Here are some suggestions.

  • Make sure that you have read your text several times and know your way around it in detail – don’t skimp that final read before the exam.
  • If there is a film, DVD or video recording of your text it is worth watching it. Remember, though, the storylines are often altered for film or television so make sure you are aware of this. In the exam you should be writing about the text, not the film.
  • Make notes on your impressions right from the first reading. You may change your mind later but those initial impressions can be important.

Some key areas

Think about relationships between the various elements of the text and how together they present a ‘whole’. Here are some areas to think about and make notes on.

  • Characterisation: information about how we learn about characters; indications of characters changing or developing; significant new information about a character; views on what the writer is trying to achieve in the presentation of character; look at key speeches, look for shifts in focus, different ways of interpreting what they do and say.
  • Themes: look for various possible ‘meanings’ in the text; the development of any themes; introduction of new thematic elements; moral problems or issues raised for the characters or the reader.
  • Narrative technique: the ways in which the writer manipulates the narrative; narrative voice and perspective; narrative intrusion or comment; think about the pace and variety of the action. • Structure: think about the overall shape and structure of the text and the impact that this could have on the reader.
  • Tone: is it familiar or formal, personal or impersonal? Who is being addressed?
  • Language use: look at the vocabulary and syntax; is imagery or symbolism used? If so, what is its effect?
  • Speech and dialogue: what kind of speech is used, direct or indirect? Do characters speak for themselves or does the narrator intrude or comment? Is the dialogue realistic? What function does it perform – development of character, plot, themes, introduction of a dramatic element?
  • Setting and description: what is significant about where the action takes place? How is the setting described?
  • Your own response.

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