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The University of Southampton

HUMA3011 Narrative Non-Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Art

Module Overview

Writing is inherently an interdisciplinary art. From novelists to poets to narrative non-fiction writers, writers tend to delve into fields that are not their own. Ian McEwan shadowed neurologists for several years as he was researching Saturday; Hilary Mantel writes about Thomas Cromwell in her Wolf Hall trilogy; Seamus Heaney wrote about the “Troubles” in countless poems. In narrative non-fiction, this is almost exclusively the case. Truman Capote spent years researching four murders in a small town in Kansas for In Cold Blood. Antony Beevor delves into World War II to bring Stalingrad to life. Susan Sontag explores the art of the camera in On Photography. This module will offer you the chance to explore the world of narrative non-fiction, allowing you to research a field that you wish to investigate – be it art, medicine, history, biology or current events. At the same time, you will learn both how to conduct research (through documents, observations, interviews, etc.) as well as the fundamental techniques of telling a true story. You will also look at memoir, especially as it engages with the outside world. The module will consist of lectures that address techniques in narrative non-fiction as well as the structure and techniques in particular narrative non-fiction texts, while also including talks from lecturers in different disciplines who write about their work for an audience outside their own field. The seminars will consist of discussions of issues in creative non-fiction (such how to tell a story that creates characters, place and suspense without straying from the truth, when to use first person, the role of the writer as character, and whether it is ever acceptable to alter details to construct a story) as well as workshops in which your work is critiqued. While led by English faculty, the module will include lectures from other disciplines. It is aimed at both English students interested in creative writing, as well as students from disciplines across the university who might have an interest in writing about their own subject for a non-specialist audience. The skills required for writing creative non-fiction is helpful in any mode of creative writing and in any field, so this module will help you to develop as a writer whatever your plans and ambitions may be.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the work of particular non-fiction writers
  • the methods by which non-fiction writers work
  • the key elements of narrative non-fiction (including character, place, dialogue, imagery and structure in a non-fiction story)
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • be used to generating and developing ideas for non-fiction writing.
  • be able to think critically about your own creative non-fiction work
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • be able to successfully plan, structure, rewrite and edit your work.
  • have written two short narrative non-fiction pieces for assessment.
  • have practised working with the key elements of narrative non-fiction including character, place, dialogue, imagery and structure.
  • have practiced research skills.
  • be able to write critical commentaries of your own work.


You will look at how techniques of narrative non-fiction – research, narrative, structure, place and character – work together to create a successful piece of non-fiction. You will look closely at how these elements work in contemporary non-fiction both by reading short and book-length pieces of non-fiction and also hearing from writers in different fields – art, science, medicine – who will talk about how they tell their true stories. Having gained skills in the key elements of narrative non-fiction, you will be expected to write a longer piece for your final assignment. Reflecting and writing critically about your own methods and finished work is a key element of this module and you will be required to write a critical commentary to accompany the second narrative non-fiction assignment.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

You will have one double lecture and one double seminar each week. Lectures will focus on analysis of narrative non-fiction books as well as shorter pieces; discussion of key techniques in researching and writing narrative non-fiction; and visits from professionals – both writers and experts in field such as art, medicine and science – who will discuss how they go about researching and writing about their work for a general audience. The seminars will continue discussion of non-fiction techniques, and mainly focus on student writing through writing exercises and work-shopping of student pieces. You will be expected to bring drafts of your work to seminars prior to each deadline, and to offer feedback to your fellow students on their work. You will be able to see your seminar tutor in regular consultation hours and to ask for feedback on work in progress as well as on marked assignments. This is co-validated as an MA module, with the lectures meeting as one group, and separate seminars for MA and BA students. This module includes a Learning Support Hour. This is a flexible weekly contact hour, designed to support and respond to the particular cohort taking the module from year to year. This hour will include (but not be limited to) activities such as language, theory and research skills classes; group work supervisions; assignment preparation and essay writing guidance; assignment consultations; feedback and feed-forward sessions.

Completion of assessment task96
Preparation for scheduled sessions40
Follow-up work36
Wider reading or practice76
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Dave Eggers (2010). Zeitoun. 

Jesmyn Ward (2013). Men We Reaped: A Memoir. 

Roz Chast (2014). Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir. 

Oliver Sachs (2015). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. 

Atul Gawande (2014). Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End. 

Joan Didion (2006). We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order To Live: Collected Non-Fiction. 

Antony Beevor (2007). Stalingrad. 

Joan Didion (2009). The White Album. 

Lee Gutkind (2012). You Can't Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction--from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. 

Zadie Smith (2011). Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. 

Tobias Wolff (1999). This Boy’s Life. 

Susan Orlean (1998). The Orchid Thief. 

Rachel Carson (2000). Silent Spring. 

Tracy Kidder (2000). House. 

Ernest Hemingway (2000). A Moveable Feast. 

Susan Sontag (2002). On Photography. 

Philip Lopate (2013). To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. 

Tracy Kidder (2013). Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. 

William Zinsser (2016). On Writing Well, 35th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 

Helen MacDonald (2014). H is for Hawk. 

Truman Capote (2009). In Cold Blood. 

Atul Gawande (2008). Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance. 


Assessment Strategy

One or two pieces of narrative non-fiction (2,000 words) One longer piece of narrative non-fiction equalling 3,000 to 3,500 words; or two pieces of narrative non- fiction totalling 3000 to 3500 words, with one of those being at least 2000 words. Accompanied by a critical commentary on your work (1200 - 1500 words). Feedback Method Students will receive feedback both in workshops held during seminars, and through one-on-one meetings before assignments are due and when handed back Referral Method One or two narrative non-fiction pieces totalling 3000- 3500 words plus 1200-1500-word critical commentary as above


MethodPercentage contribution
Narrative non-fiction assignment  (3500 words) 70%
Narrative non-fiction assignment  (2000 words) 30%


MethodPercentage contribution
Narrative non-fiction assignment  (3500 words) 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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