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The Writing Process: The First Draft

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dave Hood

Writing is a process, and yet many beginning writers ignore the process of writing, preferring to dive into the art and craft of writing without much preparation. And when they finish their first draft, they believe that it is the final version. I have done this–and it is a waste of time and results in chaos.

The best way to write is to follow the process of writing. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, articles, you first begin with an idea. Next, complete your research by gathering relevant material, information that allows you to understand your idea. (Different forms of writing require different types of research.)This might involve an interview, taking a trip to the library,  doing research on the Internet, checking your writing journal, and so forth.

Next, organize your material and read through it. Your purpose is to understand the research you ‘ve collected. You’ll also answer two questions: 1) What are you going to write about? In other words, what is your topic.  2) What points do you want to make about your topic? You can use this approach to write a poem, short story, personal essay, article, and more.  You can list them or create an outline or make a mental note.

After organizing your work, begin writing the first draft. The first draft is just a blue print, the scaffolding, the foundation for the finished piece of writing.  The first draft is never your best work. It is an initial attempt.

Once you write the draft, set it aside for a day or more, then take a break from the work of writing. When you return, begin to revise your draft. You are revising to improve on your first attempt at writing something memorable and superb. All great writers write and revise their work many times—to make it the best they can.

In this article, I discuss how to write a first draft. The final decision on how to write a draft is yours. Some writers follow the process; other writers just begin–without much planning or organization or research.

Organizing Your Material

Let’s assume you have selected your idea to write about and completed your research. What’s next? Many writers start writing. But this results in unfocused writing, and so you’re wasting time. Unfocused writing at the draft stage can lead to mental confusion, which can stress you out.

A better way to write a first draft is to organize your material, determine what you want to say, and then write the draft. Organizing your material enables you to create a structure. How do you do this?

At the organization stage, do the following:

  • Learn your research material by reviewing your notes
  • Decide what you want to write about
  • Decide what points you want to make
  • Decide on a possible beginning and ending

The best way to organize your work is to have a map of how to proceed or to begin the journey of writing the draft. Essential your map is a plan for writing the draft.

Types of Writing Plans

I have learned that there are four types of plans to write the draft. In school, you are were taught to write a formal outline. It included various sections and points to make. Each section was identified with a roman numeral or number. Each roman numeral identified a first paragraph or section.  Under each section heading, you identified the important points. I don’t know anyone who uses this formal outline. I never did. It is like wearing a straight jacket and trying to write. It stifles creativity and the discovery through writing.

Some writers begin with a list of important points to make, and then start writing. I’d call this a impromptu or scratch outline. It is informal. You can use this approach to compose a poem, short story, personal essay.  I have used this approach many times. (It also works for writing letters, emails, poetry, personal essays.) The scratch outline allows you to put your thoughts on paper and allow you to remember important points to make.

Some writers use an organic approach to organizing  material. The structure is unknown. It will be discovered by writing. You can use this method of organizing for writing a poem, short story, essay, novel.  Essential, writers who use this approach rely on trial and error, because they don’t know how the story, the poem, the essay begins, develops, and ends until they start to write. Writing is an act of discovery. The details are revealed to the writer by writing.

Many writers, especially those who write poetry and fiction begin a story without  knowing how it will begin or end. They write a section, and then another, and another. They might begin in the middle, with a character, conflict, setting, and so forth.  Or, they freewrite or write to discover. Afterwards they cut and paste the various sections or parts together. Many writers use this organic approach. It is essentially writing to discover. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this approach. However, it is time consuming.

Many writers prefer to create an informal plan. It provides a structure.  It includes the following:

  • Beginning-Introduces what you are writing about and why it is important
  • Section–related points
  • Section–related points
  • Section-related points
  • Ending-Give the reader a sense of closure.

If you are going to write an article, opinion essay, segmented essay, lyrical essay, I should consider using this approach.

Another approach is to create a narrative arc. If you are writing a personal-narrative essay or short story, you’d use the narrative arc as your plan. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Rising action-Setbacks and obstacles
  • Crisis–conflict intensifies
  • Climax
  • Resolution

A simpler way is to identify the conflict, climax, and resolution.

If you are writing a personal essay or short story, I find that an informal plan or outline is a good way to create structure for your writing. It  provides a map on how to begin the journey of writing the first draft. It is a way to evoke the creative muse–and find other material in your mind to write about. You won’t become lost or forget to write about an important point.

Required Tools for Writing the Draft

What do you require to write a draft? Ideally, you need a computer to type the draft. It should include word-processing software, such as MS Word. You’ll be able to add, delete, copy, cut and paste, do spell-check, and so forth. Having access to a computer also enables you to link to the Internet, where you can conduct research, send e-mail, post to a blog or online website.

You’ll also require a notebook and one or more pens. Use the notebook to  make notes on your draft. Perhaps an idea pops into your head as you write the draft. Perhaps, while writing the draft you discover that you’ll need to do more research, and make note of it in your notebook.

You should also own a dictionary and thesaurus. Refer to your dictionary to check the spelling of words and look up their meaning. Use a thesaurus to find a word with the right shade of meaning. I suggest you also have a book of quotations. A quote can add depth and a new perspective to a piece of writing, especially when it is a quote from a sage, philosopher, great writer.

Once you have a notebook, pen, dictionary, thesaurus, and computer, you are ready to write the draft.

Writing the Draft

For years, I’d write a first draft by writing and revising as I wrote. I’d write a sentence, or a paragraph or a section, then reread what I wrote. Then I’d edit and revise before moving on. But I have learned that this approach slows down the writing process and blocks creative thinking.

A better approach is to write the entire draft without editing or revising. For instance, write the complete poem, short story, essay–without revising.  Why? You are creating flow and tapping into your memories and inventing by using your imagination–writing what you hear in your head. As you write, refer to your plan. This plan guides your writing process. You might begin in the middle, at the end, or at the start. It doesn’t matter. The important point is to get the draft down on paper.

Here are a few things to consider as you write the draft:

Beginning the Draft. Your beginning should tell the reader what you are writing about and why your piece of writing is important to read. The beginning should also grab the reader’s attention, compelling them to read on. A few ways you can begin: with a quote, with a question, with a fascinating fact, with an anecdote, with a list,  in the middle of the action.

Writing the content. Your content will depend on the form and genre you are writing.  For instance, if you are writing an opinion essay, the middle should identify your argument, share important points. In a more formal literary journalistic essay, the middle might include several sections and points for each section.

If you are writing a collage essay or lyrical essay, you’ll create subsections with asterisks or roman numerals. For each section, you’ll might write a quote, anecdote, description, and so forth.

If you are writing a meditative essay, you’ll write about your main points, those that investigate your question you are pondering.

If you are writing an opinion essay, you’ll share your argument with the reader.

If  you are writing a short story or personal essay, you’d tell the story by using a narrative arc. The middle will include conflict, setbacks and obstacles, climax, and falling action. You might end with an open ending, closed ending, lesson learned, epiphany.

Writing Creatively. When writing the first draft, you want to make an attempt at writing creatively. You’ll make a first attempt at:

  • Showing and telling your reader
  • Writing vivid descriptions
  • Writing significant details or telling details
  • Writing imagery that evoke the senses.
  • Use literary devices of simile and metaphor

As well, write in scenes. You write in scenes when writing a poem, fiction, and creative nonfiction.  A scene includes:

  • Setting details
  • Action. Something happens
  • Dialogue
  • Imagery
  • Vivid Descriptions

Writing the ending. You end by creating a sense of closure. Before ending, you make sure you’ve answered all questions raised in the writing. The best ending is memorable. The writer makes one final point that the reader can take away and ponder. For instance, many writers of creative nonfiction end with a final quote from someone they’ve interviewed.

Revising Your Draft

Once you have written the draft, what happens? You’ll put the piece of writing away for a night, a day, few days, or longer. Essentially, you’re take a break from writing. Taking a break enables you to see your work from a fresh perspective. It is like relaxing after a long day at work. Taking a break will refresh your creative spirit. When you return from your sojourn, you’ll begin revising your draft. The purpose is  to make it better–to transform your draft into a splendid piece of writing.

Revision is about doing a macro-edit and micro-edit. A macro-edit involves revising “the big picture.” You’ll focus on setting, characterization, plot, theme, point of view, and so forth. You might add, delete, change the form and content of your work. If you are writing a personal essay, you might add a scene or details or imagery. If you are writing a short story, a macro-revision involves looking at setting, plot, character, POV, theme, and so forth.

Revision also involves a micro-editing or copyediting. It is a line-to-line edit, and involves checking grammar, spelling, and punctuation, active or passive voice, sentence variety, word choice. To learn more about editing, read “The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell.

A good writer writes and revises. Read the biography of any great writing, and you’ll discover that they created a memorable poem, short story, personal essay by relying on writing as a process. Writing the first draft is part of the process.  Good writers know that the initial draft is never their best work. It is just a blueprint. Ernest Hemingway revised the ending to “Farewell to Arms” 39 times. You’ll need to revise your work to make it the best you can.  Drafting and revising creates order from chaos. It improves on a first attempt. It polishes your work until it shines.

To learn more about the writing process and drafting, read the following:

  • Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
  • Where Do You Get Your Ideas: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives by Fred White
  • The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
  • Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, edited by Constance Hale
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Stein On Writing by Sol Stein
  • The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio
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The Writer’s Life: Finding Inspiration to Write About

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:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where ?
  • Why?
  • How?

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.

The Writer’s Life: Developing Your Writing Voice

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

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Voice and Style

Dave Hood

Your writer’s voice and writing style are developed as you learn, as you experiment, as you master the art and craft of writing. The more you read, the more you experiment, the more you learn about writing, the more polished your writing becomes. Your voice and style emerge as you become a polished writer.

All great writers have a distinctive voice and style, which they learned, developed, and polished over time. For example, fiction writer Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is like minimalism art. His style is sparse. He uses short sentence, and write with nouns and verbs, applies adjectives and adverbs sparingly. His voice is conversational. Many fiction writers aspire to write like Hemingway. Why? Because they like his voice and style of writing.

If you don’t like the tone, or the voice, or the style of writing, you are likely find a personal essay, memoir, or any other creative nonfiction or fiction writing dull. When a work is judged to be dull, the reader will not proceed to read it.

In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it applies to creative nonfiction. (The same definition of voice and style applies to fiction and poetry.) The following will be covered:

  • How to analyze the voice and style of writer’s you like
  • Voice of the creative nonfiction writer
  • Writing style of the creative nonfiction writer
  • How to develop your voice and style

Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers

To become a great writer, you must not only write on a regular basis, but also read like a writer. What does reading like a writer mean? It means analyzing the prose of the writers you enjoy reading, learning what sorts of sentences, diction, tone, voice, point of view they use.

In the July 30th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes a piece of creative nonfiction called ” Slackers.” He begins the literary journalism essay as follows: “Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parent’s home, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago……” From Gladwell’s beginning, we get a glimpse of his writing voice and style. He uses everyday language, the first- person point of view (“I”), and has a friendly, conversational tone.

In the next section, Gladwell introduces us to Alberto Salazar, the great long-distance runner of a bygone era. Gladwell shifts point of view to third-person, referring to Salazar as “he”, and then begins to profile Salazar. We see that Gladwell makes use of the simile, writing “Salazar shuffled like an old man.” We see that he makes use of the short sentence with “Distance runners tend to be elfin.” We learn that Gladwell is speaking to the reader using everyday language, sentence variety, and the active voice.

You can improve your style and develop your voice by analyzing the prose of writers you like reading. Once you learn how they constructed their essays or memoirs, you can use their techniques, such as syntax or diction in your own writing.

The Writer’s Voice

What is voice? It is a confusing term, often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by those who aspire to become creative writers. One of the best definitions of “voice” is written by author, Jack Hart,  in Story Craft. He suggests that voice is the personality of the writer revealed in the  words on the page. For Hart,  voice has two components:

  • The persona of the writer. A writer has many personas. Some public. Others private. A woman can be a mother, wife, friend, artist, and so on. For each of these personas, the woman as a writer can express a different voice. To understand persona, ask yourself, what kind of personality is revealed on the page? Happy? Sad? Serious? Humorous? Friendly? Sophisticated? Condescending?
  • The position or narrative distance of the writer in relation to the true story. If I tell a story using “I”  or first-point of view, then I am close to the story, probably directly involved or a close observer. On the other hand, if I tell a story using “He/She” or third-person point of view, then I am telling the story from some distance, like a spectator watching a football match from the sidelines.

The writer’s voice is also revealed in the thoughts, feelings, reflections shared on the page with the reader.  This is especially true for creative nonfiction, which relies on the building blocks of scene, summary, and personal reflection, to tell a true story, whether a personal essay or memoir or literary journalism.

Why is voice important? Often, we make a decision to read to its completion a piece of creative nonfiction because we like the voice of the writing. Jack Hart writes that “voice plays a key role in attracting and holding readers, regardless of their subject.

In creative writing, the writer’s voice is an important quality of the writing, especially in personal essays and memoir. And yet, ” the “voice of the writer”  is excluded in so many types of writing. This is true for business writing, technical writing, academic writing.  It is formal writing, laced with jargon, clichés, and written in the third person. In essence, the writing doesn’t reveal the personality of the writer, nor does the writer use “I” or first person point of view. Hart refers to writing that excludes persona as  the ” institutional voice.”

When writing any type of creative writing, you must discard the “institutional voice.” Instead, work to develop a friendly, conversational voice, using everyday language.

The Writer’s Style

What is style? Hart, in Story Craft, suggests that style is different than voice. For Hart, style is the expression of the writer’s personality on the page. How does a writer express his style? There are many components of a writing style. In a general sense, style is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing–views, prejudices, biases, expertise, wisdom, knowledge, and so on.  But this does not enable us to understand a writer’s style as it applies to the writing itself. What, then, are the important components? Most instructors of creative writing will tell you that writing style includes:

  • Word choice or diction. Each word that the writer selects has a dictionary meaning (denotation) Does the writer use educated language, such as ten-dollar words or simple language, everyday language? Most words also have a connotation (implied meaning.) Many words have more than one meaning, depending on the context As well, a writer must strive to use language in a fresh and original way, which means that clichés should not be used. What are clichés? They are warn-out words or phrases that have become dull like old paint on a wall.  A clichés just makes for dull writing. As a writer, you must be cognizant of diction, connotation, and clichés.
  • Syntax or sentence variety. This refers to the length and types of sentences the writer uses–an intentional fragment; simple, complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence; periodic sentence or loose sentence; Declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory sentence; Parallel structure; items in a series. (If you don’t understand these different types of sentences, you ought to learn them and use them.  Sentence variety also refers to the length of the sentence. The writer can select a single word, a phrase, or a longer sentence. Short sentences speed up the pace; long sentences slow down the pace.
  • Figurative Language. You have many choices: metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, symbolism. Figurative language gives an infinite number of possibilities to develop your style. Figurative language is like different colours of paint you use to paint a memorable landscape.
  • Tone. It refers to the attitude of the writer towards the subject and the audience who will read the work. Some writer’s write in a friendly, intimate tone. Other writer’s write with authority and expertise. (There are many types of tone that a writer can use. Never use a condescending tone.) Humourist David Sedaris writes with a humourous tone.

How to Develop Your Writing Style

Writing Style evolves as you write. If you don’t write on a regular basis, If you don’t learn how to write, if you don’t study the writing of great writers, your style will stagnate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can develop your writing style:

  • Expand your vocabulary. If you read a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning in the dictionary. As well, if you don’t have a strong vocabulary, start by learning a new word each day, and then use it in your daily conversations and writing.
  • Read and learn the rules and principles and guidelines On Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
  • Read and internalize the advice in ” On Writing Well” by of William Zinsser.
  • Learn to read like a writer. Not sure how? Pick up a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. How do you read like a writer?  You read good writing in the New Yorker or some other publication.  You analyze the style, word choice, and structure of the writing, learning how the writer constructed the piece of creative writing.
  • Get in the habit of writing each day.  How? Keep a personal journal. The easiest way is to buy a pen and notebook of paper, then begin to write each day.  Write about what is important to you, such as a memory, interesting observation, “important moment.”The act of writing makes you a writer. When you write, experiment with your writing. Learn how to write a loose and period sentence. Learn how to write an inverted sentence. Learn how to write metaphors and similes and use personification. The more often you write, and experiment with your writing, the more original your style will become.
  • When you write, always be yourself. Don’t write in a breezy manner. Don’t use grandiloquent language. Don’t use inflated language. Don’t write as if you are someone else, like creative nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, or fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. Begin by writing like you speak. Use the language that you use in daily conversation. Relax and write as yourself.

A Few Tips

Here are a few easy ways to improve your writing style and develop your voice:

  • Use the active voice. The verb performs the action of the subject. Examples: You composed a poem about summer….He hit the ball with the tennis racket…I pressed the shutter release, capturing a memorable photograph of a happy moment on the trip.
  • Write with concrete nouns and verbs.
  • Write with verbs that express some action. Examples: Jumped, climbed, punched……….
  • Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. By selecting the best “verb”, a writer can find a word in the dictionary or thesaurus that best expresses the meaning of the adjective and adverb.
  • Use sentence variety—long and short, simple, compound, compound, complex, loose, periodic, and so forth.
  • Write in a friendly, conversational tone. Start by using “contractions.” Image that you are writing to a friend.
  • Use everyday language.

If you want to learn more about voice and style, I suggest you read and learn from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. These are the best books for the lowest price on learning how to write. If you read, learn, and master the rules and guidelines in these books, if you also write every day, and if you read something interesting, like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, even the newspaper, you’ll become an excellent writer. Perhaps you’ll even publish your work of writing art.

Resources

  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale

Creative Writing: The Techniques of Showing and Telling

By Dave Hood

If you dream of becoming a successful creative writer, meaning that you desire to have your writing work published, read,  and talked about, then you must learn and master the techniques of creative writing.   There are many techniques that you must learn and master.  One of the most important is “showing and telling.” When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay, or fiction, or poetry, such as a narrative poem, you must both show and tell your readers what has happened. And you must either show or tell the inner worlds of characters and the outer world that they see. Showing and telling breathes life into a story and shifts its pace to slow or high gear.

The technique of “showing” means to create a scene, to expand time,  and to dramatize the story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.

You will stretch the details into a vivid description, or a larger scene. A scene includes the setting, dialogue, action from a particular character, imagery with word pictures.  By showing your readers what happened or how a character is dressed or conducts himself or herself, you create significance to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction. You also make your readers believe the story and produce an entertaining read. And only work that is entertaining will get published and purchased.

The technique of “telling” your reader means that you summarize and compress description of character and  events in the story, reducing or eliminating the concrete and specific details, reducing or eliminating sensory images, erasing the scene of a story. In other words, sometimes you will compress the details of a character or event into a summary. Summarizing enables you to speed up the pace of the story, explain inner thoughts of character or significance of events that cannot be explained in scenes, provide a backdrop, or write about exposition/background of the story.

In this post, I’ll explain how to use the techniques of ” showing and telling” when writing poetry, short fiction, or creative nonfiction.

Showing the Reader (Writing a Scene)

As an aspiring writer, you desire to create compelling, believable, entertaining, even memorable prose or poetry. By deploying the technique of “showing” your readers,  writing in scenes,  you are able to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader.  This technique is used to evoke an emotional response. Moreover, showing the reader makes the story believable, as you are able to “recreate the scene with words.”  If you are unable to entertain or make the story believable,  readers will put down your piece of creative writing before finishing it.

Instead of summarizing or compressing details, the writer shows readers by constructing a scene for each important event that unfolds or to develop a character. The scene in prose or poetry is just like the scene in a movie, which has a beginning, middle, and end. Writing a scene instead of a summary brings the story to life, creates a dream in the mind of the reader, and entertains them, inspires them to turn the page, to discover what happens next. You can only create memorable prose or poetry with scenes. And all great poets, like Charles Simic, or memorable writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, write scenes for their fictional stories or poems.  Here is an example from writer Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil…

When should you show readers what happened ?

You ought to create a scene for any of the following situations:

  • Conflict in the mind of the character or with another character or society
  • Setbacks or obstacles that prevent the character from achieving his or her goal
  • Turning point, such as an illness, marriage break up, job loss
  • Crisis, such as when you or the character runs out of options and must make a painful and stressful decision.

As well, when developing a character, you construct the character sketch or profile with vivid details, concrete and particular description, describing the behaviour of a character within a scene. In fiction, you rely on the character sketch or profile to compose your imaginary character. In a personal essay, you share important details, such as personality traits,  about yourself.

How can you show your readers a character or what happened?

There are many techniques. The most important are  to write down important details, use concrete and particular descriptions, use sensory images that create word pictures in the mind of your readers.  Here is a list of ways to show your reader:

  • Sensory imagery-use language that appeals to the sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing
  • Vivid details that are concrete, specific, particular
  • Concrete and specific descriptions
  • Metaphor and simile
  • Symbolism-something or some object that represents more than its literal meaning.
  • Personification-using descriptions, traits, adjectives applied to human beings to describe things that are not human. Example: The rock growled at us as we walked past.

As well, remember to use the active voice. It performs the action of the verb. Example: Rocky, the boxer, closed his fist, “punched” his wife in the face.

How do you show your readers by constructing a scene?

You can craft a scene with the following characteristics:

  • Setting-time and place and context.
  • Dialogue-what is said by characters in the story, both the main character and supporting cast.
  • Action-describing the conduct of the character with significant details.
  • Sensory imagery-language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.
  • Details-significant and particular details; sensory images.
  • Descriptions–Concrete and specific descriptions.

As well, remember that a scene has a beginning, middle, and end—just like a scene from a movie. And always use the active voice, which performs the action of the verb. Example: Eddie Ruth, the baseball player, smacked the pitch with the heavy bat, over the centerfield fence for a home run.

Telling Your Readers (Writing a Summary)

Sometimes, you’ll be required to tell your readers what happened by compressing time and leaving out many of the important, particular details. Essentially, you’ll summarize what happened. Here’s an example:

First, I purchased money from the ATM machine, then I bought groceries, then I cooked dinner, then I watched television…When the night descended, I drifted off to sleep.

This is a summary of how the person carried out their day. It is not detailed description or series of scenes.

When should you tell your readers what happened? There are many suggestions or guidelines that you can use to help you determine when to show and when to tell. You can tell your readers when you are writing:

  • Backdrop of the story– setting of the story, such as time and place and context
  • Exposition-The writer provides the reader with background details about plot, setting, character, theme.
  • Interpret ting an experience or event. Sometimes you will need to explain the significance of a scene.
  • Repeated experiences , such as daily rituals or events.

Jane Burroway in Writing Fiction suggests that there are two ways to write a summary:

  • Sequential summary-The writer tells the reader what has happened with a condensed and compressed version of the story. Significant details are omitted.  Instead, the story is summarized.
  • Circumstantial summary-The writer uses summary to describe the circumstances for  repeated details or what has happened, such as time, place, cause, effect, reasons for occurrence.

When writing a summary, the writer can also include vivid details–but not a scene. Writing a summary is most important in short fiction and narrative poetry.

As well, a summary can be used by the writer within a scene. Remember, a scene includes setting details, dialogue, action, imagery, concrete and specific description. Often this summary explains the significance of the scene.

Read any edition of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, and you will see that all writers use the techniques of showing and telling in poetry, short fiction, book reviews, film reviews, essays, profiles, literary journalistic essays, commentary.

Summary

Showing and telling are two of the most important techniques you can learn and apply in your creative writing, whether you desire to write prose or poetry. To “show” means to write in scenes, and to use vivid, concrete, particular, significant details. “To tell” means to compress and to summarize the character sketch and  the events that have happened.

Showing and telling is a balancing act. Too much generalization leads to boredom. Too much detail also leads to boredom.

The successful poet, fiction writer, creative nonfiction writer both “shows and tells” his/her readers, and knows when to use each technique to compose a poem, short story, novel, personal narrative essay, memoir, or any other type of creative writing.

Resources

For additional explanation on showing and telling, you can read:

  • Writing fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Words  Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
  • Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show & Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, by Laurie Alberts.

Opening the Door to Memory

 By Dave Hood

How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of  the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography.  And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.

In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.

What is the Importance of Memory?

“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)

Memory also constructs the self– who you are.  The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.

Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.

A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll.  You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as  writing prompts, to tap into  memories filed away in your mind.

And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.

The Five Senses

We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.

Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit.  To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.

Our sense of taste is often acquired.  Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.

The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.

The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.

The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant.  The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen?  Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.

What Memories to Write About?

Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:

  • First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
  • Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
  • Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
  • Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
  • Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.

Tools for Mining Your Memories?

There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.

The easiest way to tap into your memory  is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.

Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.

Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.

 Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how:  Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting.  Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.

Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.

A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?

Tools for Writing About Memory

Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader .  You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.

When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:

  • Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
  • When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes  and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
  • Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
  • Write vivid descriptions.

Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.

In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories.  Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.

Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.

Resources

To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:

  • How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
  • A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
  • Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
  • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Reading as a Writer

By David Hood

The art of the short story is to share truth about the human condition or human nature. It is also to entertain and provide pleasure to the reader. A well written short story fulfills these dual obligations.

So the aspiring writer needs to be able to write a short story that shares a truth about the human condition and is also entertaining.

To do this, the aspiring writer needs to learn the craft of writing fiction. One of the ways to learn the craft is by reading as a writer.

How do you read like a writer? You must read like a writer by analyzing the short story or novel, understanding how the writer employs the elements of fiction, like setting, character, plot.

Reading like a writer also enables you to learn how the writer begins and ends a story, and uses dialogue, figurative language, and much more to tell the story. These are the techniques of fiction.

Reading like a writer also enables you to learn the writing style of great writers, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro. You can learn how to use a sentence fragment, how to create a periodic sentence, a loose sentence.

Only by reading and analyzing lots of short stories will you be able to write a good short story, perhaps a great short story, that entertains your readers. Entertaining fiction gets published.

Here are 15 short stories that you should read and analyze:

  1. Eveline by James Joyce
  2. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
  3. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
  4. The Lady with the Pet Dog by Anton Chekhov
  5. To Build a Fire by Jack London
  6. Death by Landscape by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
  8. Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe.
  9. A Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin
  10. Lust by Susan Minot
  11. Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
  12. It’s Hard to Find a Good Man by Flannery O’Connor
  13. Alaska by Tom Franklin
  14. Bullet to the Brain by Tobias Wolf
  15. The Swimmer by John Cheever

You can read these short stories in the following anthologies:

  • The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn
  • On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey
  • The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction

Reading Like a Writer

You can also learn how to read like a writer by reading Francine Prose bestselling book “Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them.”

This book should be read by everyone that wants to write a short story or novel.

Additional Resources

To help you learn the craft of writing a short story or novel, you should read the following:

  • On Writing Short Stories, Edited by Tom Bailey
  • Writing Fiction by Jane Burroway
  • Writing Fiction from Gotham Writer’s Workshop
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
  • Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor
  • The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed [Hardcover] by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
  • Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
  • The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

To become a successful fiction writer, you must learn the craft of writing fiction. Learning the craft of fiction allows you  to use the various fictional techniques of storytelling. One of the best ways to learn the craft of fiction, is not by enrolling in an MFA Program in Creative Writing or taking a fiction writing workshop, it is by reading and analyzing the classics and other good fiction. In other words, you must learn to read like a writer.