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How to Write Creative Nonfiction

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March 2010
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What Writing Style is Best?

A good writing style is based on “simplicity.” In On Writing Well, a best selling classic on how to write creative nonfiction, the author William Zinsser wrote that simplicity is the basis of good writing. The writer must “strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

 Zinsser also said that clear thinking leads to clear writing. To write clearly, the writer needs to ask: What am I trying to say? After writing , the writer needs to ask: Have I said what I wanted to say?

But there are many other ways to improve your writing style when writing a personal essay, memoir, travel article, and so forth. This article defines the term “writing style” as it applies to creative nonfiction, and it provides 25 tips or suggestions that you can use to improve your writing style.

Definition of Writing Style

What is style as it applies to creative nonfiction? A writer’s style has many elements. First, there are no rules, only suggestions or guidelines of how to improve a writer’s style. Secondly, style begins with the diction used by the writer. What type of language does the writer use? Simple language? Complex language? Thirdly, it refers to the sentence patterns used by the writer. For instance, does the writer use short sentences, long sentences, or sentence fragments? Fourthly, it also includes the tone or attitude a writer has toward his/her readers. For instance, does the writer use a formal tone or humorous tone? Style is also the quality a writer adds to his/her writing. Quality has many elements, such as research and writing experience. And style includes the point of view of the writer. Does the writer express his/her thoughts using the first person “I” or the third person “he/she”? Style also includes the “voice” of the writer. For instance, the voice expressed by William Golding is different than the voice of Ernest Hemingway or Philip Roth or George Orwell or William Shakespeare.  Finally, style includes the element of “craftsmanship.”

How to Improve Your Style

There are many ways you can improve your writing style. Here are 25 suggestions on how to write good creative nonfiction:

  1. Be yourself when writing. In other words, use a genuine writing style. Write in a way that comes naturally. Don’t put on airs.”Don’t deliberately garnish your prose. Use your own language. Tell your reader something interesting using words that come naturally to you. Use the first person point of view. When the genre doesn’t permit “I”, imagine that you are telling a personal story. You can do this by sharing personal opinions, thoughts, emotions, and memories.
  2. Simplify your prose. Begin by making every word count. Each word should have a function. Eliminate the clutter. For instance: Replace a long sentence with a shorter sentence. Delete redundancies and nominalizations. Change the passive construction to the active voice. For more information, read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
  3. Use the active voice. To do this, the verb should perform the action for the subject. Example:Bobby  Bonds slugged the baseball out of the park.
  4. Use action verbs. These are verbs used to indicate an action, such as researched, wrote, edit, typed, and so on.
  5. Write with nouns and verbs. The noun is the subject of the sentence and the verb performs that action of the subject. Example: The professor instructed the class…The student wrote a personal essay….The employer hired the candidate.
  6. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Most adjectives and adverbs are unnecessary. They create clutter in your writing. Find the noun that accurately describes the subject rather than using adjective + noun combination. Use the adjective only when it is necessary. Find the verb that accurately describes the action rather than using a verb + adverb combination. Most adverbs are unnecessary and due to careless writing.
  7. Avoid using qualifiers. Eliminate words that qualify how you feel and think, such as “very, “quite”, “merely”, “extremely”, and so on. Qualifiers create clutter.
  8. Vary the length and pattern of your sentences. Use simple, compound, complex sentences. Use periodic, loose, and antithesis sentences. Use sentence fragments when required.
  9. Emphasize important ideas by placing them at the beginning or end of your sentence. Example: After completing the degree, he wrote poetry, short stories, and a novel.
  10. Place the most important idea in the independent clause.
  11. Use effective transitions between sentences and paragraphs. For instance, to create flow within a paragraph, you can use pronoun reference, repeat key words, use parallel structure, use transitional expressions, such as “also”, therefore, and “consequently.”
  12. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Use a topical sentence for each paragraph. It tells your readers what your paragraph is about. All other sentences within each paragraph need to provide support or relate to the topical sentence.
  13. Develop your paragraphs using the appropriate method of development. Your method of development will depend on the purpose of your paragraph. For example: If you are telling a story, use narrative. If you want to want to answer a question, use question and answer. If you want to describe something, use description.
  14. Organize your work. Popular methods include chronological order, logical order, and topical order. For example, a personal essay is often written in chronological order, while an article is usually written in topical order.
  15. Use dialogue to develop character, reveal a fact, or advance the narrative.
  16. When appropriate, you can begin a sentence with a coordinator conjunction (And, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), and end a sentence with a verb or preposition.
  17. Show, don’t tell your reader. To show the reader, dramatize the narrative. Use sensory language, write dialogue, and construct action scenes.
  18. Provide concrete and specific details. You don’t have to include all the details, just the important ones. Concrete details can be perceived by the senses. So, use language that appeals to the senses, such as the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch. Concrete details are also precise. They tell the readers exactly what they need to know. Example: He gave her one red rose for Valentine’s Day.
  19. Use the elements of fiction, such as setting, plot, and character to develop your narrative.
  20. Use literary techniques, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, and so forth to entertain and provide deeper meaning.
  21. Inject personality into your writing. Write about your opinions, thoughts, emotions, memories. Use the first person “I”. Use a friendly, conversational tone. Use contractions, such as “can’t”, “won’t, and “don’t.”
  22. Write with freshness and originality. Avoid clichés and hackney expressions. Write original similes and metaphors. Avoid jargon. Use a dictionary and thesaurus. Vary your sentence patterns. Develop your own voice.
  23. Choose proper diction. Avoid using foreign terms, sexist language, or words that are pompous, pretentious, or faddish. Prefer simple language to complex language. It is often the best diction. In essence, use language that your readers understand.
  24. Begin your essay or article with a lead, and finish with an ending. You lead needs to do three things: 1) It needs to grab your reader’s attention. 2) It needs to tell the reader the purpose of your writing. 3) It needs to tell the reader why the article/essay needs to be read.

 To finish your assignment, create ending that makes a final point and leaves the reader thinking. Your writing needs to provide a new insight or point of view. You can finish by emphasizing new information.

 Popular ways of ending a piece of creative nonfiction are with a reference back to the beginning, a recommendation, an opinion, a judgement,  a quotation or final quote. If your ending isn’t’ strong, your reader will say, “So what?”” What was the point?”

25. After writing, revise and rewrite. You will rarely get it right the first time. Often you must rearrange sentences and choose new diction to improve the first draft. Often you must clear the clutter by eliminating unnecessary phrases, adjectives and adverbs. Sometime you will need to replace clichés with original expressions. Sometimes you will need to delete grandiloquent language with simple language.

If you want to improve your writing and increase the chances of finding employment in writing, you ought to learn these suggestions and incorporate them into your writing.

For more information about “writing style” as it applies to creative nonfiction, I suggest that you read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please post them to my blog.

Next, I will write about “fact” and “truth” in creative nonfiction.


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