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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Finding the Big Ideas to Write About

Dave Hood

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. 

  1. Define your focus. Is the place important? Is the person important? Or is the action important?
  2. Does your story have action? There must be action–a series of events—that make up the story.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. What does the subject learn about himself or herself? Does the person experience some epiphany?
  6. When would it be worth going deeper? Where is the close-up on a story? Where does mystery remain?
  7. What truism is being presented in the news? Does going in the opposite direction give you a new story from a different perspective?
  8. What is the big idea? A bid idea always includes a “universal truth.”
  9. Research the context of the story. Social conditions. History. Economics climate.
  10. 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:

  1. Find out what has already been written on the subject. How? Do some research on the Internet.
  2. Before writing the essay about a “big topic”, ask yourself: Why is this important to readers?
  3. Can the big idea be crafted around an narrative? In other words, are there a series of events that make up the story?
  4. Next, ask yourself: What is the universal truth?
  5. Do you have access to eye witnesses, victims, and subject matter experts? If you don’t, avoid writing the story.
  6. 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?

Resources

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.

Creating Your Blog

A few Suggestions on How to Create a Blog

You have decided to blog, but you don’t know how to go about doing it. In this article, I provide some suggestions.

Before you start blogging, the first thing you should do is find out what topics people are blogging about. You can use Technorati (  www.technorati.com  ), a blog search engine. Ideally, you will want to blog about something original or authentic. You also want to blog about something you are passionate about. Many people create personal blogs to write about their lives.

After you decided what to blog about, you need to choose the tool for creating your blog. There are many tools available on the Web. Some will cost you a monthly fee, such as  www.typepad.com . Others are free. Two free tools are Google Blogs (  www.googleblog.com  ) and WordPress (  www.wordpress.com ) .

Once you have chosen your your blog-building software or tool, you need to learn how to use it. For the most part, the software is user friendly—you can learn how to use its features in 30 minutes. First, you will be asked to choose a domain name, theme, login and password, and title for your blog. Then, you should learn how to post content, archive content, upload photos, and upload video. After you have learned how to use the tools, you are ready to build your blog.

Creating your blog is easy. For instance, with WordPress, all you need to do is choose your domain name, fill out some personal information, and then select a theme and a few features—and then you are ready to start blogging.

Popular features you should include on your blog are search functionality, which allows others to find content on your blog. You should also include the archive feature, which allows you to save content to different categories. Another feature you should include is the Page feature, which allows you provide information about your blog on a tabbed page. And you feature you should include is the RSS feed option (Really Simple Syndication), to allow others to get updates to their Blog reader (software for reading content on a blog)

Before you begin blogging, you should learn a few simple techniques for writing content to the Web. Because people scan or skim Web pages for interesting or useful information, you need to make your content scannable. Here is how: Use headings and subheadings. Break long paragraphs into short paragraphs. Highlight important words. Summarize the article in the first paragraph. Use bulleted and numbered lists.

Blogging can be a marvellous way to write creatively. All you need to do is select your blog-building tool, learn how to use the tool, create your blog, learn how to write for the Web, and then start blogging.

Writing for the Web

A Few Tips on How to Write Web Content

The Canada Press Stylebook (14th edition), states that “many people are now turning to the Internet to get news and information.” And most people who read content on the Web scan the text instead of reading each word. When something interesting is discovered, the person stops skimming and reads more closely, usually word for word.

Furthermore, reading Web content is not as easy as reading paper-based news and information. Reading is slower and often the reader’s eyes become tired.

As well, most people suffer from “information overload.” There is just too much information available in print and digital form for a person to read everything of interest.

Therefore, it is important that anyone who posts content to a blog or Website ensures that their content is easy to read. To do this, the content must be scannable.

Here are a few tips on how to write Web content:

  1. Use headings and subheadings to introduce information that follows. Your topic should have a heading or headline. Each subtopic should have a subheading.
  2. Introduce your topic with a summary. Before reading the topic, readers will often want to know what it is about. So, include a summary in the first paragraph. You can do this by using the inverted paragraph approach.
  3. Chunk information. In other words, break long paragraphs into short paragraphs. A paragraph shouldn’t be longer than five or six lines.
  4. Highlight key words. You can do this by using bold text. Be sure to highlight important terms, concepts, and information. And be sure that you use bold text for headings and subheadings.
  5. Use bulleted and number lists. To give instructions, use a numbered list. To provide information of related importance, use a bulleted list.
  6. Use a caption for each photograph.  A photograph is a splendid way of describing something that cannot easily be said in words. Yet, if you don’t make reference to the photograph in your text, the reader often doesn’t understand the significance of the photo. So, for each picture that you post to a Website or blog, use a caption or introduction to describe the content of the photograph.
  7. Write in a conversational tone. To do this, use contractions (can’t, don’t, won’t.). Also, use the “you” point of view. And use everyday language, or the language that your audience understands. Writing in a conversational tone is easier to read and the content is shorter than a formal “corporate speak” tone.
  8. Use hyperlinks for related material. This makes it easy for the reader to find related information. As well, you won’t need to include the related information in your Web content. All the reader needs to do is click the link. Be sure that the related information is of value to the reader.
  9. If your content includes related information that is not yours, be sure to “source” it. You can do this by making a reference to the website where the content is posted, or inserting a link to the related content, or by mentioning the name of the person who created the content. If the content was written by you, be sure that you add your name.

Next, I will provide you with some information on tools and resources that you can use to blog.

Blogging Terms

You have made the decision to start blogging, but you don’t understand many of the terms associated with blogs and blogging. Here are a few terms you should know:

  • Blog. A website used to post content in the form of a weblog, personal diary, or online journal.
  • Blogger. A person who posts content to a blog.
  • Blogosphere. Refers to all the blogs on the Web. Anybody who is blogging is part of the blogosphere. According to Technorati, the online blogging search engine, more than 184 million people were blogging in 2008.
  • Blogroll. A list of links posted on a blog to other admired and recommended blogs.
  • Citizen Journalism. A form of user generated content that Web users create with press tools to share news and information. Wikipedia defines citizen journalism as, the act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” Citizen Journalism is a specific form of citizen media as well as user generated content.”
  • Comment. Refers to any opinions published on the blog by anyone who responds to a post.
  • Domain Name. Refers to the name of the blog.
  • Micro blogging. A type of blogging in which the blogger is able to send only short text messages, photos and audio clips. Example: Twitter & www.twitter.com
  • Post. Means to write content to a blog, usually text information that can be read by anybody who visits the blog.
  • Social bookmarking. Allows Internet users to store, organize, search, and manage bookmarks of recommended Web pages. Two popular tools are www.delicious.com and www.digg.com .
  • Social Media. Describes the Web tools that people use to share content, profiles, opinions, insights, experiences, perspectives and media itself, thus facilitating conversations and interaction online between groups of people. These tools include blogs, podcast, Webcasts, micro blogs, social bookmarking, social networking networks, wikis, and video blogs.
  • Web 2.O. Refers to the dawn of the new Web that emerged after the dot.com crash in 2000. It includes social networking, wikis, micro blogging, user generated content, Webcasts, podcasts. Examples of Web 2.0 are www.flickr.com, www.facebook.com, and www.youtube.com .
  • User generated content (UGC). Any type of content, such as text, audio, and vide, created and published by web users who are not part of the mainstream media. Examples include blogging, podcasts, webcasts, photos, wikis, and video clips.
  • Widget. Refers to a third-party application that the user can embed on a blog or other social media tool, such as www.facebook.com .
  • Technorati. The most popular blog search engine. To find out more, visit www.technorati.com

What You Should Know About Blogging

Nine Tips On Blogging

So, you want to show off your writing skills and expertise by blogging, but you don’t know how to get started. Here are nine tips:

  1. Choose a niche that you are passionate about and interested in.  There are three types of blogs you can create: personal, professional, or corporate. Those who write personal blogs, write about their personal life and interests. Those who writer professional blogs, post topics related to their work. Those who write corporate blogs write about the company’s products and services. Most people who read this will be aspiring writers or established writers who desire to write a personal or professional blog, such as writing about a book you are publishing.
  2. Find out what others are blogging about. You can use several tools to search for blogs on what others are writing about. The most popular search engine is www.techorati.com . Another popular blog search engine is www.googleblog.com
  3. Read other blogs. After conducting your search, visit the blogs that are of interest to you, and then read the posted content to find out what topics bloggers are writing about.
  4. Define the purpose of your blog. Conduct a brainstorming session to determine what you are going write about. For instance, you might decide to write book reviews, provide tips on writing, or post your poetry.
  5. Determine what features and categories you want to include on your blog. In terms of features, most blogs include a search option that enables readers to search for content on your blog. Most blogs also include an RSS feed, which allows readers to be notified when you add new content to your blog. As far as content goes, most blogs include an archive for old posts, and a list of categories of topics the blogger is writing about, as well as the posts the blogger writes and the responses from readers.
  6. Select a domain name. This is the name of your blog, a name that users will need to type to view your blog. Some well known blog names include www.huntington.com. Be sure to select a domain name that grabs you reader’s attention and a name they can remember. For instance, I choose the domain name “Carpdiemblogger.com”
  7. Choose your blogging software. There are many tools available. Two of the most popular are www.wordpress.com and www.googleblogger.com. Both of these tools are free. Before deciding to build your blog with the blogging tools, be sure to find out what features. For instance, can they create a search function or RSS feed on your blog.
  8. Learn how to write for the Web. Before you write your first post, learn how to write for the web. It is different than writing paper-based content. Because readers scan news and information on the Web, you must write content that can be read quickly. Briefly, here is how: Write headlines that tell the reader what the content is about. Use bold text for headings and important information. Break long paragraphs into short paragraphs of four or five lines. Use bulleted and numbered lists. Summarize content in the introduction. Link to related information.
  9. Write your post. Each post should include a date and heading or headline. Use a format that includes an introduction, middle, and ending. Write in a friendly and conversational tone. Use language your readers understand. Keep it short.

Next, I will explain a few terms, related to blogging, that you should know.

Blogs and Blogging

What You Should Know About Blogs

Blogging on a blog has become a mainstream activity.  Blogs are pervasive and part of our everyday life. According to www.technorati.com , 95% of newspapers in the United States have reporter blogs. If you aren’t sure what I mean, then you should read this article. I will define what is a blog, identify a few of the common features of a blog, and list the types of content included on most blogs.

Definition

“A blogger blogs on a blog.”  What does this mean? A blog is a website that allows the blogger to write or post content to it, typically text information, such as opinions or commentary.  The person who posts content to the blog is called a “blogger.”  And the act of writing content for the blog is called “blogging. ”

As well, there are three main types of blogs. If the blog is personal, the blogger usually blogs about his/her life. If the blog is professional, the blogger blogs about his/her work. If the blog is corporate, the blogger blogs about the products and services that the company sells.

Features

Most blogs have the following features:

  • Search option, which allows the people who read the blog to find information.
  • Post section, which contains the content that the blogger writes and posts to his or her blog.
  • Comment section, which allows people who read the blog to post comments.
  • Widgets, which are third-part applications that you can be added to the blog.
  • Blogroll, which is a list of links to blogs that the blogger admires and links to.
  • RSS feed, which allows users to be notified when content is updated on the blog.

 Content

A blog can include several types of content, such as:

  • Text content or post. This is text information that the blogger writes to the blog.
  • Comments. These are opinions readers make about the post on the blog.
  • Photographs. Blogger can upload and embed pictures to the blog.
  • Video. Bloggers can upload and embed video to a blog.

 For more information, read the “State of Blogosphere” at http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/ 

In my next post, I will define some of the common terms about blogs and blogging.

 If you have any questions or comments, please post them to my blog. Or, you can send me a message via email at davehood59@gmail.com .

Types of Content

Q & As

Q What will my blog contain?

A I will write about poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and other topics related to writing, such as how to find inspiration to write a short story, or how to overcome writer’s block. As well, if I see an interesting poem, I will post it. If I read an entertaining magazine article, I will comment on it and provide the link. If I stumble across an interesting word or inspirational quote, I will post it.

 

Q What format will be used?

A I will write tips, Q & As (Question and Answers), definitions of terms, brief how-to-articles, short book reviews, comentaries about topics of interest, and opinions on poetry, fiction, magazine artices, and interesting books.

 

Q How often will content be posted to this blog?

A Initially, for the first couple of weeks, I will post content every day, so that you have something that might be interesting to read. Later, I will post only a couple of times per week.