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A profile is not a biography or autobiography. The profile is a biography sketch, providing details of the person’s character, an overview of the person’s life story, and highlights of the person’s achievements and accomplishments. When the writer crafts a profile, the writer makes “some person” the focus of the story. The writer can profile a stranger or someone he/she knows well. The writer can also profile someone ordinary, such as a teacher, or priest, or police officer, or someone extraordinary, like Margaret Atwood, David Hockney, or Steve Jobs. For instance, in the November 11, 2011 edition of The New Yorker magazine, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a profile on Steve Jobs called “The Tweaker: the real genius of Steve Jobs.”
Before writing a profile, the writer must answer the question “Who is this person?” If the writer knows the person, the writer will rely on memory and observation and personal experience to write the profile. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile about his uncle called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner at his uncle’s home. If the writer doesn’t know the person, the writer will conduct research, interviewing the person, visiting various places where the person works, lives, socializes, observing the person in their daily life, reading books, articles, and other material on the person.
A good profile includes telling details, dialogue, and storytelling. The writer will also use scene, summary, and personal reflection. A good profile is also interesting, profiles someone new, encourages the reader to think more about the person. A good profile informs, educates, and entertains readers. Some profiles have a serious tone, and other have a humorous tone.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to write a profile or biography sketch. The following will be covered:
- Definition of a profile
- Types of profiles
- Gathering material to write the profile
- Writing the profile
- Additional resources to learn more about writing a profile
Definition of a Profile
A profile is not a book-length biography, which is an in-depth description of the life and times of another person. Nor is the profile a book-length autobiography, which involves writing about one’s own life. The profile is usually only a few pages and published in magazines or newspapers as an essay. The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. As well, the writer can profile someone ordinary or extraordinary. Sometimes the profile is about the good guy. The writer profiles a person who wants to achieve or accomplish something worthy. Perhaps the amateur athlete dreams about winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or the starving artist desires to achieve fame and fortune, or the writer aspires to write the next bestseller.
Some profiles are about “the villain.” In the September 24th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes a profile about child molesters called “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away with It.”” In the essay, Gladwell narrates two stories about pedophiles, to illustrate how the sexual predator uses “trust” to create the opportunity to abuse a child.
The writer will include details about the person’s private life, psyche, and public world. The inner world deals with the person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, views of other people. In writing about the outer world, the writer identifies some of the important setbacks and obstacles, as well as the significant accomplishments and achievements.
The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. If the person knows the person he/she will profile, the writer can create the profile from memories, observations, and personal experience. To write a profile about a stranger, the writer must have access to the person. Having access allows the writer to interview and to observe the person at work and at play. The writer will also interview family, friends, and work associates.
Sometimes a portrait isn’t based on an interview but a conversation. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner and evening conversation with his uncle. He includes humour, telling details, dialogue, scene and summary, and personal reflection to construct the portrait of his uncle.
The good profile of a public person answer several questions, including:
- Why is the writer profiling the person?
- What is unique about the person?
- What is significant about the person?
- What are the person’s achievements or accomplishments?
- What obstacles or setbacks did the person have to overcome?
- Why is the person in the news or public consciousness?
- Does the writer likes the person? Dislike the person? Why?
The best profiles answer the question ” Who is this person? Unfortunately, people perform many roles, such as husband, breadwinner, parent, and so the writer will not be able to write a complete profile. No matter how much research the writer completes, the writer will never know the person completely, because people have darks sides they don’t share and personalities traits that aren’t always revealed.
Types of Profiles
In “Telling True Stories,” writer Jacqui Banaszynski, in his essay “Profile,” identifies three types of profiles:
- Cradle-to-Current Profile. It is a profile about the person’s entire life, up to the present. The writer invests a great deal of time in researching, writing, and fact checking.
- Niche Profile. It is a profile that is 1,000 words or less, and can be written in a short period of time. The writer composes a profile about someone in the news. This type of profile includes relevant background information. For instance, if the writer is crafting a profile about a person who won a Pulitzer for Literature, the writer would include education and previously published works. But biography details about place of birth and early education would not be relevant. Instead the writer focuses on “telling details.”
- Paragraph Profile. This type of profile is brief, providing essential details about accomplishments or achievements, and the person’s significance to the story. It is a paragraph or two, and part of a larger story.
Gathering Material for the Profile
Before writing the profile, you must gather material about the person. Your goal is to answer the question “Who is this person?” Here are a few ways to answer the question:
Begin by searching the Internet to find out what else has been written about the person. Start by completing a Google search. By reading what other writers have written, you can obtain a general sense of the person, such as their level of education, work accomplishments, interests, tastes, reason for being in the news.
Interview the person you are profiling and other people who know the person, such as friends and family. As well, interview subject matter experts. For instance, to get related information about being a stunt pilot, writer Annie Dillard collected quotes from a pilot who as a crop duster
In the interview, what sorts of questions should you ask? Here are a few suggestions:
- What are the events or moments that shaped your life?
- What are your biggest accomplishments and achievements?
- What are you afraid of?
- What is your biggest regret?
- What setbacks or obstacles have you faced?
- What motivates you?
- What are your fears and worries?
- What do you value?
In addition, you should try to observe the person at work or in their natural habitat. For instance, before Anne Dillard wrote, “Stunt Pilot,” a profile about a stunt pilot. She watched the, Dave Rahm, the pilot fly his plane. She writes:”Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure eights, snap rolls, and hammerheads.” (You can read this profile in Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack)
If the person is deceased, you can sometimes uncover their inner world of the person by reading their diaries, journals, letters, Facebook profiles and other social media.
Immerse yourself in the experience. Before writing the sketch about Dave Rahm, the stunt pilot, Dillard immersed herself in the experience of flying by taking a seat in the plane and flying as Rahm’s passenger. She writes: “Later I flew with Dave Rahm; he took me up…We flew from a bumpy grass airstrip near the house…We were over the clouds at five hundred feet and inside them too…”
If the person is a well-known public figure, you can read a biography about the person. If the person has written their own autobiography, make sure you read it.
How do you know when to stop researching? You must continue to research until you have sufficient “telling details” to write a profile that’s compelling. Your goal is to create a revealing, interesting, and entertaining profile.
Writing the Profile
Many of the best profiles are written as narratives. The writer crafts true story involving a central character. For instance, Charles Simic, In “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” profiles his uncle, writing a story about a dinner conversation. Annie Dillard, in “The Stunt Pilot,” profiles a pilot flying a stunt plane.
To write a profile, follow these suggestions:
Structure the profile using the narrative arc. It includes:
- Inciting incident
- Conflict, such as setbacks or obstacles
- Turning point and climax
- Resolution or end of the story
To reveal character, use the fictional methods of characterization. These include:
- Dialogue. Use interviews or immersion to capture interesting quotes of the person you are profiling. Use these quotes in your profile.
- Description of Appearance. Observe the person you are writing about. Make note of their physical appearance, including hair style, clothing, gestures, hygiene, and so forth. Use concrete, particular, significant details to describe the person.
- Dramatic action. Show what the person does, their actions and reactions, in the narrative.
Point of View
Use both the first person POV(“I”) and third person (“he/she”). For instance, in the profile “The Stunt Pilot,” Dillard uses third-person POV to write the narrative of the pilot flying in the sky, performing his daredevil stunts, and to provide narrative summary. She begins: “Dave Rahm lived in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle…Dave Rahm was a stunt pilot.” She shifts to first person POV (“I”) to share personal reflections about the stunt pilot.
Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
Use a scene to recreate important events. A scene always includes setting details, dramatic action, vivid description, dialogue, and POV. Use summary to “tell” or explain. Use personal reflection to express your views about the person, sharing your own thoughts, feelings, opinion, emotional truth.
To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensory details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.
Facts not Fiction
Don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, complete fact-checking.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. As well, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Pricilla Long.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
A Few Tips for Writing a Profile
Here are a few tips for writing a profile or biography sketch:
- Select a person to profile, and then begin with an interesting question you want to answer. If you are going to profile someone you know, mine your memory, observe the person in real life, and write about some significant event. (In Dillard’s profile, she answers “what it is like to be a stunt pilot?”) If the person is unknown, collect your material by researching the person.
- Before interviewing, have a list of open-ended questions you want to ask. These require the person being interviewed to respond with more than just “yes” or “no.”
- After doing the research, decide on an approach. How are you going to begin? With a scene? With a quotation? With a question? Before writing, outline your story. making a list of all the important points you want to write about.
- Always focus on what is significant or compelling. What is surprising? What is important? Any secrets? Oddities? Peculiarities? Contributions to society? What is their legacy?
- Show and tell your reader. You tell the reader by explaining and summarizing. You show the reader by writing in scenes. For any significant event, write a scene.
- Include dialogue. A good profile includes dialogue, revealing some personality trait.
- Include telling details. A good profile includes vivid description, revealing some personality trait.
- Don’t create one-dimensional portraits or profiles. Every person has a dark side. Every person has attributes you don’t admire. Share these telling details with the reader.
- Your subject is living an epic. In other words, the profile fits into a larger story about life. Consider the larger story as you write.
- Every story has a theme, a universal truth, shared meaning. For instance, Steve Jobs was one of the great inventors and innovators. He was a visionary who reshaped communication, use of leisure time, and everyday life with digital technologies.
For more information on writing a profile or biography sketch, read the following:
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, (2nd Edition) by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
- Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- The Writer’s Personal Mentor by Priscilla Long
November 26, 2012
by Dave Hood
How do you end a poem, short story, novel, personal essay—or any other type of creative writing? Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening…You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening.” This is the advice William Zinsser shares in “On Writing Well.
There are many ways to end a piece of creative writing, such as with a relevant quotation, with a recommendation, with a call to action, by referring back to the beginning. Often the genre you are writing and the idea you are writing about will dictate how to end.
The ending should provide a sense of closure to your writing. To write an ending, you should know when to end and how to end a piece of writing. Different genres, such as a short story, personal essay, or poetry, have different suggestions for writing an ending.
In this article, I’ll explain what an ending must accomplish and provide some general suggestions on how to end a narrative or poem.
What Must Your Ending Accomplish
In the “Handbook of Magazine Article Writing,” it is suggested that the ending of an article should do one of the following:
- Leave readers with the idea that they have learned something.
- Leave readers with the idea that they have gained some insight.
- Show reader how the information in the article impacts or relates to their lives
- Encourage readers to conduct research or additional investigation.
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:
- “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
- “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
- “What usually works best is a quotation.”
Zinsser also tells readers not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”
Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.
When you end, you must have answered all questions posed in the story or article or personal essay. Otherwise, the reader is left wondering, and feels your writing is incomplete. As well, the essay or narrative should be brought to a close. In other words, the reader knows that the narrative is complete. For instance, if you are writing about a journey, the end might be when the character reaches his/her destination. If you are writing a meditative essay, you might leave the reader with some final point to ponder. If you are writing an opinion essay, you might end with a final point. Writer Elizabeth Anderson, in her essay “IF God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” (The Portable Atheist, selected and introduced by the late Christopher Hitchens), ends her essay with the following judgement: “The moralist argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”
A great ending, in my view, leaves the reader with something to ponder or meditate about after he puts down the piece of writing. Sometimes the writer shares an epiphany or a lesson learned or words of wisdom.
There are no rules on how to end a piece of creative writing, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Your end should make some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.
How to Write An Ending
There are several ways to end. It all depends on the genre. A personal-narrative essay usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. In a poem, the last line often makes some emphatic final point, some idea the writer can take away and ponder. In a short story or novel, the ending can be closed or open. In a closed ending, the story ends, and nothing else happens. In an open ending, the reader is left to imagine what might happen in the future. Trilogies end with an open ending. A popular technique for ending a story is to use a “cliff hanger.” Sometimes the writer ends a short story or novel ends with dialogue from the protagonist. Some writer’s end articles or personal essays or meditative essays by referring back to the beginning. Other writers begin with a question, explore the question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quotation.
Check out most literary journalism essays in the New Yorker, and you’ll discover that most writers end their writing with a final quotation from someone they’ve interviewed. In the essay, “Slackers” (July 30th, 2012), writer, Malcolm Gladwell, ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes.” He was back on the track nine days later.” Clearly, there are many methods you can use to end a piece of creative writing. The decision is yours to make. It is a creative choice of the writer.
David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”
You often read true and fictional stories about a calamity or disaster. The writer opens the story by describing a setting of normalcy. And then, the bomb is dropped, or the hurricane destroys the quiet life of the living, or the earthquake obliterates a town. The writer describes the cause and effects, and the struggles to survive and cleanup. In this sort of narrative, writers often end by “returning to the state of normalcy.”
Some writers end with a telling anecdote, or by pointing to what will happen next in the story, or tell readers where to find additional information. Other writers end with an epilogue, which tells what happens to the characters later and how their stories continue.
Other ways to end a piece of creative writing include:
- With a judgement
- With recommendation
- With a prediction
- With an insight
- With a hope or wish
There are no rules for ending a piece of writing, only suggestions. And every form of writing–whether a personal essay, poem, short story, article—has its own suggestions for ending. The final decision about how to end a piece of writing is the writer’s. It is one of the creative decisions of writing. Often the writer relies on a “gut feeling” or “intuition” or “sixth sense.” The worst thing a writer can do is overwrite or write a double ending. The best way to end is to leave your reader satisfied while giving the reader a sense of closure. William Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and seem exactly right.”
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
- Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, edited by Michelle Ruberg and Ben Yagoda
- The New Yorker, “Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the Art of Exhaustion” by Malcolm Gladwell (July 30, 2012)
Perhaps, you’ve purchased a writing journal and some pens, and have decided to embrace the art and craft of creative writing. Or, you’ve decided to write a poem, short story, personal essay, but you don’t know what to write about. Perhaps, you want to write your life story, but don’t know what to write. There are countless ideas that you can dig up, dust off, and write about. You just have to know where to search.
And once you have an idea to write about, you require a few techniques on how to explore and expand the idea into a poem, short story, personal essay.
You’ll also require a few essential creative-writing techniques to transform the idea into a piece of imaginative or creative writing, something original and authentic, that others will be motivated to read and praise you for. If you are fortunate, you might even be able to publish your work.
In this article, I’ll explain how to find inspiring ideas to write about and how to write about them. The following will be covered:
- Techniques for finding inspiration
- Asking journalistic questions
- Using creative-thinking techniques
- Writing imaginatively or creatively
How to Dig Up Ideas to Write About
As a creative writing, there are countless ideas you can write about. No idea or topic is off limits. You can transform any idea into a poem, short story, personal essay, literary journalistic essay. However, before you can write the draft, you must first find some worthy idea that inspires you to write about. Here are 12 ways to find ideas to write about:
Dreams. A dream can be a source of inspiration. You must be able to recall the content of the dream. So, keep a notebook on your beside table. If you wake up, remembering a dream, write down as much as you recall. I have never written about a dream.
Memories. Many writers write about their memories of abuse, childhood, adversity, and so forth. In “Tell It Slant,” Brenda Miller write about the five senses of memory. What are the memories associated with sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. When you recall a memory, ask yourself: Why do I remember it? What is the significance? Another way to look at memory is to ask yourself: What are my saddest and happiest childhood memories? There are many ways to explore memory. I have often written about memories of my childhood, illness, unemployment, people that have crossed my path, and more.
Imagination. Imaginative writing involves inventing a poem, short story, novel by using the imagination to invent. An easy way to invent is to ask the question,” What if?” What if you were robbed walking home? What if you were diagnosed with a serious disease? What if your son or daughter died?
Observations. Observing the world around you is an is a useful way to write about setting, people, places, objects, things. Make note of significant details, telling details. Make not of what you see, hear, feel. Make not of the sensory images—sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch, hearing. Afterwards, write about your observations.
Overheard Conversations, Snippets of dialogue, Inspiring quotations From Famous People. Some instructors suggest you can write about an overheard conversation. I guess this is possible. I have never used it as inspiration for writing. I prefer to use dialogue in relation to its context. For instance, I`ll write about what I heard at the bar, or in the mall, or at the funeral. The dialogue will only be important because of where I heard it. Another important aspect of dialogue is who said it. Was it someone unknown or someone famous or in the public eye? Often inspirational quotes by philosophers, writers, musicians, political leaders can be a great source of inspiration.
Reading. We write for pleasure, to be transported to another place, to escape the banality of daily life. As well, a writer reads to learn the art and craft of writing. You can find inspiration by reading published creative writing by recognized journalists, poets, fiction writers, essayists. By reading, you learn what others have written about and are writing about. This knowledge can provide you with your own ideas to write about. Read stories in newspapers, magazines, journals, periodicals, and then make note of any interesting ideas, concepts, inventions, stories you uncover.
Your dark side. Each of us has a hidden self and public persona. Some call it your shadow or “dark side.” The shadow remains asleep until we are stressed, or wronged, or humiliated, or embarrassed, or dishonoured, or face a life and death situation, or are threatened by an event or another person. The shadow is often something we don’t like about ourselves. Perhaps we get angry, or procrastinate, or abuse alcohol, or are racist, or prejudice, or intolerant, or like kinky sex. Perhaps we have cheated on a loving partner, or broken the law, or done something that is taboo. How do you write about these topics? You ignore the “inner voice” that tells you not to write about the topic, and then you write the words that you hear in your mind. You must give yourself permission to write about anything.
First experiences. Write about your first job, first kiss, first sex, first love, first car, first home, first experience with death or grief, and so forth. Write about anything that is a first.
Celebrations. Write about holidays, vacations, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, happy occasions, anything that makes you happy.
Adversity. Write about setbacks, obstacles, challenges, such as illness, disease, obesity, handicap, unemployment, discrimination, abuse, failure. Write about any hurdle or obstacle you have faced and had to overcome.
Artist’s Date. Julia Cameron, in” The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you should schedule some artistic or creative date with yourself once or twice a month. Perhaps, you’ll visit the bookstore, see a movie, attend poetry reading, visit the art gallery, take a trip to see a theatre production. The purpose of the “artist’s date” is to refill your mind with inspiration to write about.
Ideas from your personal journal. Keep a personal journal. Include stories from newspapers, interesting quotations, inspiring lyrics, poetry, photos. Write in it each day. Write about what you’ve read, heard, observed. Write about fleeting moments that were important. Write about events, experiences, people that have passed through your life, touching you in some way. Write about small moments. We you require an idea, turn to your writing journal.
There are many other techniques you can use to write about, such as death, grief, anxiety, depression, addiction, mental illness. Writer Lois Daniel, the author of “How to Write Your own Life Story,” has written a book of ideas on how to write your life story. She explains how to write about inventions, courtship, turning points, animals, family traditions, achievements, accomplishments, and more.
Asking the Right Questions
After you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by asking questions. Journalists often ask these questions. These are:
- Where ?
The question “who?” refers to the person or group of people who the story is about. The question “what?” refers to what happened. The question how refers to “how it happened?” The question “when” refers to when it happened. And the question “why?” refers to why it happened.
You can use these journalistic questions to explore an idea or topic. Furthermore, by answering these questions, you can grow the seed of idea into something larger, like a story about the maple tree. You can also use these questions to organize your work. For instance, you could write a beginning, then have one section for each of who, what, when, where, why, how, and then an ending. Often by answering these questions, you have sufficient material to write a story
Using Creative Thinking Techniques
Once you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by using creative thinking techniques. There are many. I’ll identify some of the popular techniques. Most people use brainstorming–but not enough. Often when there’s a setback or problem or obstacle, many people react with emotion–without personal reflection, without first brainstorming ways to react or respond. How do you brainstorm? Simply by making a list of all possibilities. For instance, suppose you wanted to change jobs, but need to write a new resume. You desire to identify all of your skills. You’d brainstorm by creating a list of all of your skills, both minor and major skills you have. Then you’d select the ones that are most advantageous or beneficial. Once you have a few ideas, write about them.
Another technique is to ask why? Then why not? This is a good way to develop answers to a question or problem. It can be used to develop both positive and negative answers to an outcome. For instance, why did your marriage end? Why did you not graduate from university? Why did you graduate? Why did you criticize your friend? Why did you not criticize your friend? Once you have ideas, write about them.
You can change your perspective. See the experience, or event, or person from another point of view. Most of the time, we see the world from our own eyes. For instance, we walk down the street, pass a panhandler who asks for money. We think “He is lazy.” And so, we refuse to provide charity. What if this man was homeless and hungry and down on his luck? To feel some compassion, we’d have to see the world from his point of view. How? You’d have to walk in the shoes of the homeless guy, by imaging you were homeless, without food, and out of work. What is it like to be a beggar on the street? What is it like to be homeless? What is it like to be poverty stricken, to go hungry? Write from a different perspective.
Or, you can challenge assumptions. For instance, most people believe in God. What if God is just an illusion, a human construct? Write about your assumptions–and alternative possibilities.
Some writers begin freewriting. Start by posing a question to yourself, and then answering it. Write down whatever pops into your mind. Afterwards, read what you wrote. Did you find anything interesting? Inspirational? And idea to expand into a poem, essay, some project to accomplish.
Do some mind-mapping or clustering. It is like brainstorming but more controlled. It is a good way to explore possibilities or generate ideas. How to cluster? Begin with a white piece of paper and coloured pens or pencils. In the center of the paper, draw a circle. Inside the circle, write a word or phrase that represents the idea your desire to explore. For instance, suppose you wanted to take photographs, but didn’t know what to capture. You could use the word “photograph.” Then, think of those possibilities or things associated with the idea.
When you something comes to mind, draw a line from the circle, then create another smaller circle, and jot down the idea. If you had a new idea, you’d create another line and circle from the main idea. For instance, you could have lines and circles for travel, sports, landscape, fashion, close-up, portrait. If you had a related idea to your first answer, you draw a line from the second circle, and write down another idea. For instance, suppose you wanted to capture still life, you could write a line and circle for each of beer and glass, journal, books, food to the circle with “close-ups.”
An easy way to think creatively is to ask “what if.” It is a great technique for fueling the imagination. For instance, what if a meteor crashed into the earth? What if you died? What if you won the lottery? What if you were fired from your job? What if you become rich and famous?
Another way to be more creative is to look for ambiguity in the world. Yet, most people don’t like ambiguous situations. They cause communication problems and are confusing. And so, most people have learned to “avoid ambiguity.” However, there are times when ambiguity can light the flame of imagination. Next time, you are immersed in a confusing situation, instead of just reacting, ask yourself: What is going on here? What else could this mean? How else can this be interpreted? For instance, suppose your friend splits up with her husband–and you’d don’t know why. You’re immediate reaction might be to blame the husband who always flirts. This is when you could ask “What else is going on here?” Perhaps the wife has found a new lover. Perhaps she believes that she can meet someone who is more interesting or romantic. When you discover something ambiguous, explore it and write about it.
We are socialized to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” answers. This can limit possibilities or options. Clearly, there are times when right and wrong answers are your only option, such as following the speed limit or answering a multiple-choice exam. However, during the creative process, “to error is not wrong.” Instead, if you make a mistake or error, use it as a stepping stone to another idea you might not have discovered. For instance, suppose you take a photograph, and the light turns out to be incorrect, you could shift the angle of light, or add additional lights, or take the photograph in a different place. What’s the point here?
The mistake or error is an opportunity for you to attempt something else, to think of something else. Another approach to errors or mistakes: Suppose you want to do something new. First, you consider all the positive outcomes, the rewards, the benefits. But this is limiting. You should also consider how you’d respond if something bad happened, if a setback occurred, if there was some obstacle. By thinking in this way–you expand the ideas, the possibilities, the solutions. Write about the outcome of an err or mistake, and the alternative path or journey you took.
Writing Imaginatively or Creatively
What does it involve? You will use the techniques of creative writing to write a poem, personal essay, short story. You might also use them in other types of writing, such as journal writing, letter writing, commentaries, emails.
The purpose of writing creatively is to create word pictures in the mind of the reader–by showing the reader a person, place, event, experience.
Once you have selected an idea, you should use the essential techniques of creative writing to craft your piece of writing. You can use these techniques to write in your journal, a poem, a short story, a novel, a personal essay—or any other writing.
Here are a few important techniques of creative writing that you can use for any writing:
Show your reader the person, the event, the experience, the place, the thing. You can show you reader with vivid descriptions, with concrete and significant details, and with imagery–language that evokes the senses.
Scenes and Summary. When you use a scene, “you are showing the reader what happened. Write in scenes for all important events. A scene include setting details, action (something happens), dialogue (conversation between characters in the story), imagery, concrete and significant details.
When you write in summary, you are telling the reader what happened. Use summary to write about unimportant events or to compress time.
Use concrete, particular, and significant details. Whether you write prose or poetry, you must add meaningful details. Otherwise, your writing will be ordinary, non-descriptive. Concrete details are not abstract. They refer to specific things. Particular details refer to some attribute or attributes of the thing. Significant details means that you want to share only those “important details,” the details which enable the reader to imagine what you are seeing and describing. Writing concrete and significant details allows you to evoke emotion, stir the spirit, touch the soul of the reader. When you add detail, you are showing the reader what happened, what the person looks like, what you are seeing, feeling, tasting, and so forth. When you recall a memory or observe an object, person, place or thing, you don’t need to share all details with the reader, only those that enable the reader to visualize the person, thing, place, you are writing about.
Imagery. This is about writing in words that invoke the sense in the reader. You can write about what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Example: Coming to the ledge, I could see an old pair of shoes. I knocked on the door, faded from neglect. An old woman, with disheveled, grey hair and no teeth, opened it. When she talked, I could smell the stench of decaying teeth.
Figurative language. These include personification, symbolism, allusion, and so forth. Two of the most important are simile and metaphor. A simile compares one thing to another by using “like” or “as.” Example: Her home is like a garbage dump. A metaphor suggests that one thing is another. Example: Her home is a garbage dump.
Personal Reflection or Self-Reflection
It involves the discovery of self and acquiring self-knowledge. You find out how you felt about something. What do you value. What is important in your life? What is the meaning? What is the purpose? What makes you happy? Why is the memory important to you? Why do you want to write about it? How does something feel to you? How did you reacted? With fear? Anger? Did you like it? Why? Did you dislike it? Why?
Personal reflection involves self-discovery, self-knowledge, and then sharing your thoughts, feelings, opinions, views, perspective. You can ponder an idea, event, experience, topic, issue, and then write about it. What does it mean to you?
Personal reflection is about exploring the emotional truth. In other words, how does it feel to you.
For more information on finding ideas to write about and how to write about them from a creative writing perspective, read the following:
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind
- How to Write Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.
By Dave Hood
Your “writer’s voice” is about writing style. It is what makes you authentic, original, different from other writers. It is the voice you use to write a poem, personal essay, short story or novel. It is what readers hears when they read your words.
Read a poem by Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or any other memorable poet, you’ll quickly discover their compelling and authentic voice. Read the short stories of Poe, Atwood, Munro, and you will hear different voices expresses as you read. Read an personal essay by E.B. White or Joan Didion–you’ll discover other voices.
A writer’s voice is their “public persona, which is revealed on the page when you read. Reading enable you to hear the writer speak. The writer speaks by writing down words on a page.
You can express your voice on the page in many ways. In my opinion, the most important components of a writer’s voice are word choice/diction, sentence variety, and the writer’s tone.
In this article, I’ll explain how a writer’s voice is revealed, suggest the type of voice to use, and explain how to develop your “writer’s voice.”
How is a Writer’s Voice Revealed to the Reader?
The writer’s voice is expressed on the page by word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, and imagery, and the types of sentences or syntax the writer chooses to craft a piece of writing.
Word choice has to do with the type of language the writer uses, such as simple, everyday words or grandiloquent words. Memorable writers avoid clichés. Instead they use language in a fresh and original way. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a meaningful word that has power, that is accurate, that is precise. For instance: This morning, I met a curmudgeon at the supermarket. Instead of writing: “This morning, I met an old man…”
Tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward his readers and subject. A writer can have many types of tone. It often depends on the genre and type of writing. Tone is a big part of a writer’s voice. Tone refers to your attitude to the reader and about what you are writing about. For example, when you read the essays of David Sedaris, you hear a humorous tone. When you read the poetry of Charles Simic, you often hear a “whimsical” tone.
Two popular types of tones are humorous and serious. A person writing an essay about “death” will often use a serious, respectful tone. A humorist might write with an ironic or witty tone. Writers should strive to use a conversational tone. You write as though you are having a conversation with a friend. You must never write as though you are preaching or acting as though you are superior to the reader, unless you want the reader to toss your work in the garbage.
Writing style refers to syntax or sentence variety, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences and sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence. Use of the active voice or passive voice. Use of powerful verbs. Writing with nouns and verbs–or verbose writing.
A writer’s voice, especially in creative writing, is expressed by the writer’s ability to write imaginatively. Memorable poets, short story writers, novelists, essayists are able to use literary devices skillfully. Imaginative language has to do with the tools of creative writing–using simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and more. Some writers use few similes and metaphors–others them a great deal. Great writers make every word count–serve some purpose.
What Type of Voice to Use
We like particular poems, have favorite short stories, read essays, and experience delight by reading other works of certain writers for many reasons. One of the reasons has to do with “the writer’s voice.” How the voice sounds as we read the words on the page. How the ideas are presented to the reader on the page. The actual content of the work, and so forth.
In the splendid book about writing by Constance Hale called “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft a Wickedly Effective Prose,” she writes: “A strong voice is conversational. The writer leaves us with a sense that we are listening to a skilled raconteur rather than passing our eyes over ink on paper. This involves more than just write the way you talk.”
The writer must pay attention to the sound of words, the rhythm of sentences, the word choice and its connotation, sentence variety. Most importantly, the writer must revise his work, perhaps many times, before the writing is complete. The first draft is never the final draft, unless you are not a passionate writer.
The voice of a writer is determined by many things, including life experience, education, beliefs, values, interests, and passions—everything the writer brings to the experience of writing.
The best voice to use is conversational, informal, friendly–as though you are having conversation with a friend over coffee.
How Can You Develop Your Own Writing Voice?
Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several paths. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by “putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your head.” In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.
Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Write using stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.
Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference.
Next, read poetry, short stories, and essays of writer’s you admire. Analyze how they have written their work. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.
Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.
Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.
Learn to the major types of sentence styles and then use sentence variety in your work. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice? Pick up a copy of Sin And Syntax by Constance Hale or The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark.
The language choices a writer makes important ingredient of the writer’s voice. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas or knowledge or wisdom.
If you aspire to become a creative writer, you should also learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.
Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.
A few final points: It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind or in your head, using your own words.
Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.
To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
- The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
- Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
By Dave Hood
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
― Pablo Picasso
Often, the writer must sit some place with a blank page and pen or a white screen staring back, and attempt to find something interesting, compelling, illuminating, entertaining to write on the page or type on the screen. It can be a daunting experience. The esteemed Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, writes in her introduction,” Negotiating with the Dead”, that writing is too often like “walking into the labyrinth….like groping through a tunnel..like being in a cave…like wading through a deep river at dawn or twilight.” She goes on to write: “Virginia Woolf said that writing a novel is like walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room. “Given the obstacles in unearthing a story or the difficulty dusting off an inspiring idea that can be expanded into a poem, short story, personal essay, article…why would anyone desire or aspire to write?
There are many reasons why people desire to write. Some want to express their creative spirit. Some believe it is the ideal career. Others want to write in a particular field, such as journalism, technical writing, medical writing. Many writers who take up creative writing–crafting poetry, fiction, short stories, novels—combine writing with teaching. I would guess that all teachers of creative writing in MBA programs are published writers. And most could not survive without teaching. In other words, they’d be starving artists, like most of you reading this article/blog post. You will not make a living writing poetry. And if you read the biographies of any poet, most had day jobs. Popular American poet, Wallace Stevens, who crafted many memorable poems, worked by day in the insurance industry. When Stevens died, many of his work colleagues didn’t know that he was a poet in his leisure time. Here’s a favorite poem of his:
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I write to express my creative spirit, to share something important, to fulfill my need to create, to express, to illuminate others with universal truths about life, to be recognized, to be published. This is why I write. And you will have your own reasons why you write or desire to write. There is no right or wrong reason. Writing creatively—using metaphor, simile, alliteration, symbolism, showing people what happened, not telling them, vivid details, imagery, and other literary devices— elevates good writing into an “art form.” A memorable poem, compelling short story, personal essay that illuminates a truth about the human condition is art.
What are big ideas? They are topics or issues that are important to a country and the world. They are also in the public consciousness. As a creative nonfiction writer, not only can you write about personal experiences, such as a personal essay or memoir, you can also write about public experiences— events, issues, topics–that are important to humanity. Popular topics include terrorism, war, the economy, the environment, social justice, medicine, well-being.
Pick up a major newspaper or popular magazine, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and you’ll be able to reader essays about big ideas. Each week, The New Yorker publishes one or more literary journalism essays that deal with “big ideas,” important topics or issues that the public is aware of. In this week’s edition of the New Yorker (October 1st, 2012), Jerome Groopman, writes an interesting piece called “Sex and The Superbug,” in which he illuminates the reader about gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease, and how it has become resistant to antibiotics.This week’s cover of Time magazine has a portrait of former President Bill Clinton and a title that reads: 5 ideas that are changing the world.
As well, check out the latest literary journal publications, such as Witness, Epiphany, Granta, you’ll read literary journalism essays about “big ideas.” For instance, Granta’s summer issue has a theme about “medicine.” It’s winter issue deals with “war.” The spring issue of Witness deals with “disaster.”
The goal is to educate, inform, and entertain by writing a compelling narrative. When writing about big ideas, the form is usually an article or literary journalism essay, structured as a narrative. In “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, author Lee Gutkind writes: “The ideal creative nonfiction piece is one where the pendulum stops somewhere in the middle—a public subject with an intimate and personal spin.”
How do you go about finding the big ideas to write about? Here are a few suggestions.
The Idea Notebook
The best way to find ideas to write about is to stay informed. You can do this by reading the newspaper, by reading popular magazines, such as Time and the New Yorker, by reading popular creative nonfiction books, by watching the news, conducting research on the Internet.
Once you find an interesting idea, make note of it in an idea notebook. If the article is in a newspaper, clip it out, and save it in the Idea Notebook. Always answer the question? Why is the article interesting. Also, write a summary or identify the significant points the writer makes in the article. If the essay is published in a magazine, save the edition of the magazine. GutKind, In You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, suggests that you also write down “what angle interests you” and “what the big idea is.” When you run out of topics to write about, refer to your Idea Book.
Finding Good Stories to Write About
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. In the text, Telling True Stories, Jan Wallin explains how a writer can identify good topics to write about.
- Define your focus. Is the place important? Is the person important? Or is the action important?
- Does your story have action? There must be action–a series of events—that make up the story.
- You must have access to the person who are important players in the narrative, so you can conduct an interview. Otherwise, you should find another story to write about.
- Define the time frame. Do you intend to write a narrative based on a short time, such as a day, or a long time, such as many weeks, or a year or more?
- What does the subject learn about himself or herself? Does the person experience some epiphany?
- When would it be worth going deeper? Where is the close-up on a story? Where does mystery remain?
- What truism is being presented in the news? Does going in the opposite direction give you a new story from a different perspective?
- What is the big idea? A bid idea always includes a “universal truth.”
- Research the context of the story. Social conditions. History. Economics climate.
- What are the enduring topics in the public consciousness? The recession? Unemployment? Poverty? Racism? Discrimination? War? Social Justice? Crime? Gun control? Sexual Abuse?
A few Tips
Before deciding to research and write about a big idea, answer these questions:
- Find out what has already been written on the subject. How? Do some research on the Internet.
- Before writing the essay about a “big topic”, ask yourself: Why is this important to readers?
- Can the big idea be crafted around an narrative? In other words, are there a series of events that make up the story?
- Next, ask yourself: What is the universal truth?
- Do you have access to eye witnesses, victims, and subject matter experts? If you don’t, avoid writing the story.
- Understand the “emotional truth” of the story. How do people feel about the big idea? Does he/she agree? Disagree? Have some other view than the prevailing wisdom of the day?
For more information on how to write about “big ideas”, read the following:
- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, by Lee Gutkind.