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How to Write Creative Nonfiction

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March 2010
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Before you can write good creative nonfiction, you must first learn the techniques. Then you need to use these techniques to craft your personal essays, memoir, journalistic essays, and so forth. In the next few posts, I will discuss the techniques that are important to writing creative nonfiction—the literature of fact. The following topics will be covered:

  • Writing details and description
  • Writing about place
  • Revealing characters through dialogue and action
  • Writing dramatic scenes, like a Hollywood film scene
  • Expressing your writer’s voice
  • Choosing your point of view
  • Writing as a method of discovery

Writing Details and Description

Details and description are powerful technique for writing creative nonfiction. You will use them to write personal essays, travel pieces, a memoir, and other types of creative nonfiction.

Writing down the details is a two step process: First, you need to observe those details that are important. Secondly, you need write down these details in a way that is interesting to your reader.

Observing the Details of the Event or Experience

Observing the world around you is the key to writing details and descriptions. You need to observe the event, what took place. You need to observe the human element, how people react, what they said. You need to observe your own memories. Often these details are discovered after careful reflection. With each recalled detail, you will usually discover another detail. Sometimes you can recall a memory by talking with other people, friends and family who also experienced the event. Or you can read an old diary or journal. Or you can look through an old photo album or visit the place where the event took place. Afterwards, you need to be able to observe your own thoughts, feelings, an opinions.

Once you have observed the details of the event or experience, or you have remembered it, you need to make notes, so that you can retell your story. A good way of making notes is to keep a personal journal. Another way is to keep a notebook with you at all times. Some writers carry a tape recorder.

Next, you need to think about what you have seen or experienced or recalled. After careful reflection, ask yourself: What is the significance? Why is this event or experience important? Then make notes.

How to Express the Details of Your Experience

Only after observation and reflection will you be able to recreate the experience by writing details and descriptions. What do we mean by details? Details are concrete and specific pieces of information. They are sensory images—sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. You must avoid writing abstractions, which express qualities or complex ideas, and aren’t associated with a person, place, or thing. You must also avoid using generalizations, such as emphasizing general characteristics or attributes. As a creative writer, your goal is to recreate the experience or event. You can do this by adding specific details, like an artist paints a picture on the canvas. Without the details, the painter has no work of art.

Importance of Details

Writing the details of an event or experience is important for several reasons. First, as mentioned above, including the details helps  you recreate the experience in the mind of the reader. Secondly, the details of your experience can reveal meaning or significance, an underlying meaning or universal truth. Thirdly, providing details of the event transform a summary or exposition into a piece of creative writing. Fourthly, adding details can provide the reader with a new insight or different perspective. Fifthly, providing details often allows you to reveal the “important points” and “theme.”

What details should you include? You don’t need to include every detail that you observed. You need to include only the relevant details. These include:

  • Important or significant details about the event or experience or person.
  • Details that allow your reader to visualize the people and events.
  • Details that help the reader feel and think about the event or person.



Summary or exposition with few details:

We ate celebrated my grandmother’s 100th birthday with a sumptuous dinner.

Adding the details to recreate the experience:

We celebrated my grandmother’s 100th birthday by giving her a 34 inch digital TV as a gift and a chocolate birthday cake with 100 candles, and by cooking her favourite meal, a turkey dinner, with mashed potatoes, garden salad with French dressing, spicy stuffing, freshly cut and cooked carrots, with buttered corn, fresh from the farmer’s market.

The first example is a summary with few details. The second example provides concrete and specific details which help to paint a picture of the scene.

How can you go about adding details to make your experience realistic in the mind of the reader? You have four popular techniques:

  1. Use a simile. It is a technique that enables the reader to make a comparison between two different things by using “like” or “as.” Example: Dave is like a rock. He has no emotion, no feeling.
  2. Use a metaphor. It is a technique that enables the reader to make a comparison between two different things without using “like” or “as.” Example: Dave is a rock.
  3. Use imagery. It is language that appeals to the reader’s senses, the sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. Example: The policeman entered the home. There was garbage strewn everywhere. The unwashed dishes were piled in the sink. The place smelled like a garbage dump.
  4. Use symbolism. It is a word that has a meaning other than its literal meaning. Example: I kept a photograph of my daughter on my desk… I collected old albums of rock ‘n roll bands… We adorned our home with modern art, such as a print by Picasso and another by Klimt.

Whether you want to write a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalistic essay, you must be able to recreate the experience or event in the mind of your reader. To help you achieve this, you will need to write concrete and specific details and use sensory images. These details must be important or significant. These details will also help you reveal to your readers the underlying story or universal truth or deeper meaning.

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

In the next post, I will discuss the technique of writing about place.


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