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November 26, 2012
by Dave Hood
How do you end a poem, short story, novel, personal essay—or any other type of creative writing? Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening…You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening.” This is the advice William Zinsser shares in “On Writing Well.
There are many ways to end a piece of creative writing, such as with a relevant quotation, with a recommendation, with a call to action, by referring back to the beginning. Often the genre you are writing and the idea you are writing about will dictate how to end.
The ending should provide a sense of closure to your writing. To write an ending, you should know when to end and how to end a piece of writing. Different genres, such as a short story, personal essay, or poetry, have different suggestions for writing an ending.
In this article, I’ll explain what an ending must accomplish and provide some general suggestions on how to end a narrative or poem.
What Must Your Ending Accomplish
In the “Handbook of Magazine Article Writing,” it is suggested that the ending of an article should do one of the following:
- Leave readers with the idea that they have learned something.
- Leave readers with the idea that they have gained some insight.
- Show reader how the information in the article impacts or relates to their lives
- Encourage readers to conduct research or additional investigation.
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:
- “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
- “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
- “What usually works best is a quotation.”
Zinsser also tells readers not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”
Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.
When you end, you must have answered all questions posed in the story or article or personal essay. Otherwise, the reader is left wondering, and feels your writing is incomplete. As well, the essay or narrative should be brought to a close. In other words, the reader knows that the narrative is complete. For instance, if you are writing about a journey, the end might be when the character reaches his/her destination. If you are writing a meditative essay, you might leave the reader with some final point to ponder. If you are writing an opinion essay, you might end with a final point. Writer Elizabeth Anderson, in her essay “IF God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” (The Portable Atheist, selected and introduced by the late Christopher Hitchens), ends her essay with the following judgement: “The moralist argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”
A great ending, in my view, leaves the reader with something to ponder or meditate about after he puts down the piece of writing. Sometimes the writer shares an epiphany or a lesson learned or words of wisdom.
There are no rules on how to end a piece of creative writing, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Your end should make some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.
How to Write An Ending
There are several ways to end. It all depends on the genre. A personal-narrative essay usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. In a poem, the last line often makes some emphatic final point, some idea the writer can take away and ponder. In a short story or novel, the ending can be closed or open. In a closed ending, the story ends, and nothing else happens. In an open ending, the reader is left to imagine what might happen in the future. Trilogies end with an open ending. A popular technique for ending a story is to use a “cliff hanger.” Sometimes the writer ends a short story or novel ends with dialogue from the protagonist. Some writer’s end articles or personal essays or meditative essays by referring back to the beginning. Other writers begin with a question, explore the question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quotation.
Check out most literary journalism essays in the New Yorker, and you’ll discover that most writers end their writing with a final quotation from someone they’ve interviewed. In the essay, “Slackers” (July 30th, 2012), writer, Malcolm Gladwell, ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes.” He was back on the track nine days later.” Clearly, there are many methods you can use to end a piece of creative writing. The decision is yours to make. It is a creative choice of the writer.
David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”
You often read true and fictional stories about a calamity or disaster. The writer opens the story by describing a setting of normalcy. And then, the bomb is dropped, or the hurricane destroys the quiet life of the living, or the earthquake obliterates a town. The writer describes the cause and effects, and the struggles to survive and cleanup. In this sort of narrative, writers often end by “returning to the state of normalcy.”
Some writers end with a telling anecdote, or by pointing to what will happen next in the story, or tell readers where to find additional information. Other writers end with an epilogue, which tells what happens to the characters later and how their stories continue.
Other ways to end a piece of creative writing include:
- With a judgement
- With recommendation
- With a prediction
- With an insight
- With a hope or wish
There are no rules for ending a piece of writing, only suggestions. And every form of writing–whether a personal essay, poem, short story, article—has its own suggestions for ending. The final decision about how to end a piece of writing is the writer’s. It is one of the creative decisions of writing. Often the writer relies on a “gut feeling” or “intuition” or “sixth sense.” The worst thing a writer can do is overwrite or write a double ending. The best way to end is to leave your reader satisfied while giving the reader a sense of closure. William Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and seem exactly right.”
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
- Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, edited by Michelle Ruberg and Ben Yagoda
- The New Yorker, “Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the Art of Exhaustion” by Malcolm Gladwell (July 30, 2012)
By Dave Hood
The beginning of a poem, short story, personal essay, article must arouse readers curiosity and inspire them to read your work. Otherwise, readers will quickly become bored and stop reading.
In the splendid book “On Writing Well,” a text on how to write creative nonfiction, William Zinsser, suggests that when writing creative nonfiction “the most important sentence is the first one. According to Zinsser, a good lead or beginning does the following: It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook. And it tells the reader what the writing is about. It also tells the reader why the piece is important to read.
In this article, I’ll explain what a beginning must accomplish and how to write it. This will apply to poetry, short stories, personal essays, and articles. Keep in mind that for each genre, there are countless ways to begin. And so, I will identify some, but not all, of the most common techniques.
What Must the Beginning Accomplish
Many writers get stuck when they begin writing. Essentially, they don’t know how to write a good opening. I often find it the most difficult part of writing. Frequently, I am unsure about the method to use. Should I begin with a question? Fascinating fact? In the middle of the action? Usually, the type of writing determines how to begin. For instance, to write a meditative essay, I usually begin with a question, and then answer this question in the body of the essay or article.
If you desire to find a way to write an opening, following these suggestions: First, it must introduce the topic you are writing about, whether a poem, short story, personal essay, article. In other words, it must tell the reader what you are writing about–life, death, winter, summer, a person, place, thing, event, experience. Secondly, the beginning must tell the reader why the topic is important. (This does not apply to poetry.) Otherwise, the read might believe that the story or article or essay is not worth reading—It won’t satisfy their informational needs. Thirdly, you must capture the reader’s attention–inspire them to read your piece of writing.
There are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and article. Each of these genres has its own methods. For instance, a narrative poem might begin at the beginning of the story, a short story might begin in the middle of the action, a meditative essay might begin with a question.
Sol Stein who wrote the splendid book, “Stein On writing,” suggests that the first sentence and paragraph must do the following:
- Excite the reader’s curiosity
- Introduce the setting
- Lend resonance to the story
To achieve these purposes, a short story or novel must often begin by shocking, such as someone getting murdered; surprising, such a character doing something strange or bizarre; or sharing something unusual, such as the character making an odd comment. The writer can also share surprise, something unusual, something shocking by beginning the story in the middle of the action, with a scene, with dialogue, and much more.
Here`s how fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, begins his short story, The Veldt:
“George, I wish you`d look at the nursery.”
“What`s wrong with it.”
” I don`t know.”
Here`s how, fiction writer, Raymond Carver begins Cathedral: This blind man, an old friend of my wife, he was on his way to spend the night.
Here`s how writer Adriana Barton begins the article, “The Habits of Resilient People,” in the November 19th edition of the Toronto Globe and mail: Among the thousands of people whose houses were destroyed, some are already bouncing back.
In each of these examples, the writer arouses the curiosity of the reader.
There are no rules about what type of beginning to use. Nor are there any rules how long the beginning should be. Some beginnings are short, only a few sentences. Other beginnings are only a sentence in length. Still, others are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your beginning and the method you use to begin will depend on whether you are writing a poem, short story, novel, personal essay, or article.
How to Write the Beginning
In journalism, many writers use the inverted pyramid. In the opening, they write the lead, followed by important points, and then less important points. The lead includes the conclusion and omits background information and context. This is often confusing for readers.
In creative writing, you don’t use the inverted pyramid to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and so on. Instead you can use other methods or techniques.
A beginning should tell the reader what the piece of writing is about, why your piece of writing is important to the reader, and inspire the reader to continue reading. Essential, a beginning introduces your writing and gives it focus.
How to Write an Opening for Creative Nonfiction: There are many ways to begin writing a meditative essay, personal essay, or opinion essay. William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” identifies a few of them:
- Ask an intriguing question. Begin with a question that answers `What is the article about. `Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment? Basically, you are asking a rhetorical question–because you already know the answers.
- Make a thought-provoking statement. Example: The owners have locked the players out because of “greed.”
- State a compelling or fascinating Fact. This type of beginning shares a provocative fact or figure. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
- Write an anecdote. Write a vignette or story that is related to your topic in the first paragraph. In the second, tie the story or vignette to your topic.
- Use a provocative quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research. Where to find a quotation? The Internet is one place. I like to use “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.”
- Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences. Tell the reader what your article is about, summarizing the main points.
- Use a combination lead. This method requires you to use a couple of methods. For instance, you might begin with a question, and then add a quotation from a well-known person.
There are other ways write an opening for a piece of creative nonfiction, such as an essay. Often a personal-narrative essay, for instance, begins with an angle, or controlling idea that tells the writer how to focus and tells the reader what the personal essay is about. This angle is an approach or perspective. It is a way for the writer to approach the subject, to find a path in. There are many types of angles, such as a contrast of points of view, an unlikely comparison, a dream versus reality, contrast of people or categories.
How to Begin Writing an Opening for a Fictional or True Story: Writer/Instructor Laura Oliver, in her splendid book, “The Story Within,” provides several other suggestions to begin a fictional or true story. Here is what she suggests. You can begin:
- With a list. Example: Here are the reasons why President Obama won the election.
- With a personal reflection. Example: As I recall….
- With a reminiscence. Example: I have fond memories of my childhood.
- With something you didn’t know. Example: Prior to reading the article, I didn’t know how use the comma. This learning experience taught me…………
- With a portrait in words. Example: When I image dad, I see a man who is smiling and laughing…
- With an assertion. Example: I don’t believe that God exists.
- With a mystery. Example: I don’t know how I crashed the car…
Asking Journalistic Questions: You can also begin by asking journalistic questions. You can also use these questions to explore an idea or topic, and to organize your work. Before I write a beginning for a piece of writing, I like to pose and answer these journalistic questions:
Answering these questions often provides me with the answer for how to begin. These answers also tell me how to organize and explore what I will be writing about.
How to Write an Opening for a Poem: There are many ways to begin a free-verse poem. It all depends on the language of poetry you intend to use. If, for instance, you are writing a blank verse poem, your first sentence would require iambic pentameter–five feet of unstressed/stressed units. If you are writing a meditative poem, you might begin with a scene. If you are writing a narrative poem, you might begin with an observation, event, image. Or a provocative comment by the speaker. Here`s how poet, Charles Bukowski begins `The Way it Is Not as follows: “I tell you, I`ve lived with some gorgeous women..” There are countless ways to begin a poem, such as a description of a setting, person, event.
The Epigram: Many writers begin by an epigram. It is a statement or brief saying in prose or poetry, in which there is an apparent contradiction. It might be a very short, satirical, witty poem. It can also be a compelling, provocative, short quotation by some famous person. Example: “What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity, and wit its soul.”(Samuel Coleridge) I have read where writers have used the epigram as an opening for poetry, fiction, personal essay, and articles. The epigram gives a piece of writing some context and helps to introduce the topic.
Final Words: I’ve learned that there are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, or article. Most often, the genre you are writing and the nature of the piece of writing determines how to begin. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, or articles, the beginning must grab the reader`s attention and introduce the idea you are writing about. It should also tell the reader why your piece of writing is important to read. The first sentence and first paragraph must surprise, show, or arouse curiosity in the reader, or you risk having have your piece tossed away like an old newspaper.
For more information on how to write a beginning, read the following:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within by Laura Oliver
- Writing Your Way: Creating A Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
Friday, November 16, 2012
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
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
- 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
Perhaps, you’ve purchased a writing journal and some pens, and have decided to embrace the art and craft of creative writing. Or, you’ve decided to write a poem, short story, personal essay, but you don’t know what to write about. Perhaps, you want to write your life story, but don’t know what to write. There are countless ideas that you can dig up, dust off, and write about. You just have to know where to search.
And once you have an idea to write about, you require a few techniques on how to explore and expand the idea into a poem, short story, personal essay.
You’ll also require a few essential creative-writing techniques to transform the idea into a piece of imaginative or creative writing, something original and authentic, that others will be motivated to read and praise you for. If you are fortunate, you might even be able to publish your work.
In this article, I’ll explain how to find inspiring ideas to write about and how to write about them. The following will be covered:
- Techniques for finding inspiration
- Asking journalistic questions
- Using creative-thinking techniques
- Writing imaginatively or creatively
How to Dig Up Ideas to Write About
As a creative writing, there are countless ideas you can write about. No idea or topic is off limits. You can transform any idea into a poem, short story, personal essay, literary journalistic essay. However, before you can write the draft, you must first find some worthy idea that inspires you to write about. Here are 12 ways to find ideas to write about:
Dreams. A dream can be a source of inspiration. You must be able to recall the content of the dream. So, keep a notebook on your beside table. If you wake up, remembering a dream, write down as much as you recall. I have never written about a dream.
Memories. Many writers write about their memories of abuse, childhood, adversity, and so forth. In “Tell It Slant,” Brenda Miller write about the five senses of memory. What are the memories associated with sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. When you recall a memory, ask yourself: Why do I remember it? What is the significance? Another way to look at memory is to ask yourself: What are my saddest and happiest childhood memories? There are many ways to explore memory. I have often written about memories of my childhood, illness, unemployment, people that have crossed my path, and more.
Imagination. Imaginative writing involves inventing a poem, short story, novel by using the imagination to invent. An easy way to invent is to ask the question,” What if?” What if you were robbed walking home? What if you were diagnosed with a serious disease? What if your son or daughter died?
Observations. Observing the world around you is an is a useful way to write about setting, people, places, objects, things. Make note of significant details, telling details. Make not of what you see, hear, feel. Make not of the sensory images—sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch, hearing. Afterwards, write about your observations.
Overheard Conversations, Snippets of dialogue, Inspiring quotations From Famous People. Some instructors suggest you can write about an overheard conversation. I guess this is possible. I have never used it as inspiration for writing. I prefer to use dialogue in relation to its context. For instance, I`ll write about what I heard at the bar, or in the mall, or at the funeral. The dialogue will only be important because of where I heard it. Another important aspect of dialogue is who said it. Was it someone unknown or someone famous or in the public eye? Often inspirational quotes by philosophers, writers, musicians, political leaders can be a great source of inspiration.
Reading. We write for pleasure, to be transported to another place, to escape the banality of daily life. As well, a writer reads to learn the art and craft of writing. You can find inspiration by reading published creative writing by recognized journalists, poets, fiction writers, essayists. By reading, you learn what others have written about and are writing about. This knowledge can provide you with your own ideas to write about. Read stories in newspapers, magazines, journals, periodicals, and then make note of any interesting ideas, concepts, inventions, stories you uncover.
Your dark side. Each of us has a hidden self and public persona. Some call it your shadow or “dark side.” The shadow remains asleep until we are stressed, or wronged, or humiliated, or embarrassed, or dishonoured, or face a life and death situation, or are threatened by an event or another person. The shadow is often something we don’t like about ourselves. Perhaps we get angry, or procrastinate, or abuse alcohol, or are racist, or prejudice, or intolerant, or like kinky sex. Perhaps we have cheated on a loving partner, or broken the law, or done something that is taboo. How do you write about these topics? You ignore the “inner voice” that tells you not to write about the topic, and then you write the words that you hear in your mind. You must give yourself permission to write about anything.
First experiences. Write about your first job, first kiss, first sex, first love, first car, first home, first experience with death or grief, and so forth. Write about anything that is a first.
Celebrations. Write about holidays, vacations, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, happy occasions, anything that makes you happy.
Adversity. Write about setbacks, obstacles, challenges, such as illness, disease, obesity, handicap, unemployment, discrimination, abuse, failure. Write about any hurdle or obstacle you have faced and had to overcome.
Artist’s Date. Julia Cameron, in” The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you should schedule some artistic or creative date with yourself once or twice a month. Perhaps, you’ll visit the bookstore, see a movie, attend poetry reading, visit the art gallery, take a trip to see a theatre production. The purpose of the “artist’s date” is to refill your mind with inspiration to write about.
Ideas from your personal journal. Keep a personal journal. Include stories from newspapers, interesting quotations, inspiring lyrics, poetry, photos. Write in it each day. Write about what you’ve read, heard, observed. Write about fleeting moments that were important. Write about events, experiences, people that have passed through your life, touching you in some way. Write about small moments. We you require an idea, turn to your writing journal.
There are many other techniques you can use to write about, such as death, grief, anxiety, depression, addiction, mental illness. Writer Lois Daniel, the author of “How to Write Your own Life Story,” has written a book of ideas on how to write your life story. She explains how to write about inventions, courtship, turning points, animals, family traditions, achievements, accomplishments, and more.
Asking the Right Questions
After you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by asking questions. Journalists often ask these questions. These are:
- Where ?
The question “who?” refers to the person or group of people who the story is about. The question “what?” refers to what happened. The question how refers to “how it happened?” The question “when” refers to when it happened. And the question “why?” refers to why it happened.
You can use these journalistic questions to explore an idea or topic. Furthermore, by answering these questions, you can grow the seed of idea into something larger, like a story about the maple tree. You can also use these questions to organize your work. For instance, you could write a beginning, then have one section for each of who, what, when, where, why, how, and then an ending. Often by answering these questions, you have sufficient material to write a story
Using Creative Thinking Techniques
Once you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by using creative thinking techniques. There are many. I’ll identify some of the popular techniques. Most people use brainstorming–but not enough. Often when there’s a setback or problem or obstacle, many people react with emotion–without personal reflection, without first brainstorming ways to react or respond. How do you brainstorm? Simply by making a list of all possibilities. For instance, suppose you wanted to change jobs, but need to write a new resume. You desire to identify all of your skills. You’d brainstorm by creating a list of all of your skills, both minor and major skills you have. Then you’d select the ones that are most advantageous or beneficial. Once you have a few ideas, write about them.
Another technique is to ask why? Then why not? This is a good way to develop answers to a question or problem. It can be used to develop both positive and negative answers to an outcome. For instance, why did your marriage end? Why did you not graduate from university? Why did you graduate? Why did you criticize your friend? Why did you not criticize your friend? Once you have ideas, write about them.
You can change your perspective. See the experience, or event, or person from another point of view. Most of the time, we see the world from our own eyes. For instance, we walk down the street, pass a panhandler who asks for money. We think “He is lazy.” And so, we refuse to provide charity. What if this man was homeless and hungry and down on his luck? To feel some compassion, we’d have to see the world from his point of view. How? You’d have to walk in the shoes of the homeless guy, by imaging you were homeless, without food, and out of work. What is it like to be a beggar on the street? What is it like to be homeless? What is it like to be poverty stricken, to go hungry? Write from a different perspective.
Or, you can challenge assumptions. For instance, most people believe in God. What if God is just an illusion, a human construct? Write about your assumptions–and alternative possibilities.
Some writers begin freewriting. Start by posing a question to yourself, and then answering it. Write down whatever pops into your mind. Afterwards, read what you wrote. Did you find anything interesting? Inspirational? And idea to expand into a poem, essay, some project to accomplish.
Do some mind-mapping or clustering. It is like brainstorming but more controlled. It is a good way to explore possibilities or generate ideas. How to cluster? Begin with a white piece of paper and coloured pens or pencils. In the center of the paper, draw a circle. Inside the circle, write a word or phrase that represents the idea your desire to explore. For instance, suppose you wanted to take photographs, but didn’t know what to capture. You could use the word “photograph.” Then, think of those possibilities or things associated with the idea.
When you something comes to mind, draw a line from the circle, then create another smaller circle, and jot down the idea. If you had a new idea, you’d create another line and circle from the main idea. For instance, you could have lines and circles for travel, sports, landscape, fashion, close-up, portrait. If you had a related idea to your first answer, you draw a line from the second circle, and write down another idea. For instance, suppose you wanted to capture still life, you could write a line and circle for each of beer and glass, journal, books, food to the circle with “close-ups.”
An easy way to think creatively is to ask “what if.” It is a great technique for fueling the imagination. For instance, what if a meteor crashed into the earth? What if you died? What if you won the lottery? What if you were fired from your job? What if you become rich and famous?
Another way to be more creative is to look for ambiguity in the world. Yet, most people don’t like ambiguous situations. They cause communication problems and are confusing. And so, most people have learned to “avoid ambiguity.” However, there are times when ambiguity can light the flame of imagination. Next time, you are immersed in a confusing situation, instead of just reacting, ask yourself: What is going on here? What else could this mean? How else can this be interpreted? For instance, suppose your friend splits up with her husband–and you’d don’t know why. You’re immediate reaction might be to blame the husband who always flirts. This is when you could ask “What else is going on here?” Perhaps the wife has found a new lover. Perhaps she believes that she can meet someone who is more interesting or romantic. When you discover something ambiguous, explore it and write about it.
We are socialized to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” answers. This can limit possibilities or options. Clearly, there are times when right and wrong answers are your only option, such as following the speed limit or answering a multiple-choice exam. However, during the creative process, “to error is not wrong.” Instead, if you make a mistake or error, use it as a stepping stone to another idea you might not have discovered. For instance, suppose you take a photograph, and the light turns out to be incorrect, you could shift the angle of light, or add additional lights, or take the photograph in a different place. What’s the point here?
The mistake or error is an opportunity for you to attempt something else, to think of something else. Another approach to errors or mistakes: Suppose you want to do something new. First, you consider all the positive outcomes, the rewards, the benefits. But this is limiting. You should also consider how you’d respond if something bad happened, if a setback occurred, if there was some obstacle. By thinking in this way–you expand the ideas, the possibilities, the solutions. Write about the outcome of an err or mistake, and the alternative path or journey you took.
Writing Imaginatively or Creatively
What does it involve? You will use the techniques of creative writing to write a poem, personal essay, short story. You might also use them in other types of writing, such as journal writing, letter writing, commentaries, emails.
The purpose of writing creatively is to create word pictures in the mind of the reader–by showing the reader a person, place, event, experience.
Once you have selected an idea, you should use the essential techniques of creative writing to craft your piece of writing. You can use these techniques to write in your journal, a poem, a short story, a novel, a personal essay—or any other writing.
Here are a few important techniques of creative writing that you can use for any writing:
Show your reader the person, the event, the experience, the place, the thing. You can show you reader with vivid descriptions, with concrete and significant details, and with imagery–language that evokes the senses.
Scenes and Summary. When you use a scene, “you are showing the reader what happened. Write in scenes for all important events. A scene include setting details, action (something happens), dialogue (conversation between characters in the story), imagery, concrete and significant details.
When you write in summary, you are telling the reader what happened. Use summary to write about unimportant events or to compress time.
Use concrete, particular, and significant details. Whether you write prose or poetry, you must add meaningful details. Otherwise, your writing will be ordinary, non-descriptive. Concrete details are not abstract. They refer to specific things. Particular details refer to some attribute or attributes of the thing. Significant details means that you want to share only those “important details,” the details which enable the reader to imagine what you are seeing and describing. Writing concrete and significant details allows you to evoke emotion, stir the spirit, touch the soul of the reader. When you add detail, you are showing the reader what happened, what the person looks like, what you are seeing, feeling, tasting, and so forth. When you recall a memory or observe an object, person, place or thing, you don’t need to share all details with the reader, only those that enable the reader to visualize the person, thing, place, you are writing about.
Imagery. This is about writing in words that invoke the sense in the reader. You can write about what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Example: Coming to the ledge, I could see an old pair of shoes. I knocked on the door, faded from neglect. An old woman, with disheveled, grey hair and no teeth, opened it. When she talked, I could smell the stench of decaying teeth.
Figurative language. These include personification, symbolism, allusion, and so forth. Two of the most important are simile and metaphor. A simile compares one thing to another by using “like” or “as.” Example: Her home is like a garbage dump. A metaphor suggests that one thing is another. Example: Her home is a garbage dump.
Personal Reflection or Self-Reflection
It involves the discovery of self and acquiring self-knowledge. You find out how you felt about something. What do you value. What is important in your life? What is the meaning? What is the purpose? What makes you happy? Why is the memory important to you? Why do you want to write about it? How does something feel to you? How did you reacted? With fear? Anger? Did you like it? Why? Did you dislike it? Why?
Personal reflection involves self-discovery, self-knowledge, and then sharing your thoughts, feelings, opinions, views, perspective. You can ponder an idea, event, experience, topic, issue, and then write about it. What does it mean to you?
Personal reflection is about exploring the emotional truth. In other words, how does it feel to you.
For more information on finding ideas to write about and how to write about them from a creative writing perspective, read the following:
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind
- How to Write Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.
By Dave Hood
Your “writer’s voice” is about writing style. It is what makes you authentic, original, different from other writers. It is the voice you use to write a poem, personal essay, short story or novel. It is what readers hears when they read your words.
Read a poem by Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or any other memorable poet, you’ll quickly discover their compelling and authentic voice. Read the short stories of Poe, Atwood, Munro, and you will hear different voices expresses as you read. Read an personal essay by E.B. White or Joan Didion–you’ll discover other voices.
A writer’s voice is their “public persona, which is revealed on the page when you read. Reading enable you to hear the writer speak. The writer speaks by writing down words on a page.
You can express your voice on the page in many ways. In my opinion, the most important components of a writer’s voice are word choice/diction, sentence variety, and the writer’s tone.
In this article, I’ll explain how a writer’s voice is revealed, suggest the type of voice to use, and explain how to develop your “writer’s voice.”
How is a Writer’s Voice Revealed to the Reader?
The writer’s voice is expressed on the page by word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, and imagery, and the types of sentences or syntax the writer chooses to craft a piece of writing.
Word choice has to do with the type of language the writer uses, such as simple, everyday words or grandiloquent words. Memorable writers avoid clichés. Instead they use language in a fresh and original way. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a meaningful word that has power, that is accurate, that is precise. For instance: This morning, I met a curmudgeon at the supermarket. Instead of writing: “This morning, I met an old man…”
Tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward his readers and subject. A writer can have many types of tone. It often depends on the genre and type of writing. Tone is a big part of a writer’s voice. Tone refers to your attitude to the reader and about what you are writing about. For example, when you read the essays of David Sedaris, you hear a humorous tone. When you read the poetry of Charles Simic, you often hear a “whimsical” tone.
Two popular types of tones are humorous and serious. A person writing an essay about “death” will often use a serious, respectful tone. A humorist might write with an ironic or witty tone. Writers should strive to use a conversational tone. You write as though you are having a conversation with a friend. You must never write as though you are preaching or acting as though you are superior to the reader, unless you want the reader to toss your work in the garbage.
Writing style refers to syntax or sentence variety, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences and sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence. Use of the active voice or passive voice. Use of powerful verbs. Writing with nouns and verbs–or verbose writing.
A writer’s voice, especially in creative writing, is expressed by the writer’s ability to write imaginatively. Memorable poets, short story writers, novelists, essayists are able to use literary devices skillfully. Imaginative language has to do with the tools of creative writing–using simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and more. Some writers use few similes and metaphors–others them a great deal. Great writers make every word count–serve some purpose.
What Type of Voice to Use
We like particular poems, have favorite short stories, read essays, and experience delight by reading other works of certain writers for many reasons. One of the reasons has to do with “the writer’s voice.” How the voice sounds as we read the words on the page. How the ideas are presented to the reader on the page. The actual content of the work, and so forth.
In the splendid book about writing by Constance Hale called “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft a Wickedly Effective Prose,” she writes: “A strong voice is conversational. The writer leaves us with a sense that we are listening to a skilled raconteur rather than passing our eyes over ink on paper. This involves more than just write the way you talk.”
The writer must pay attention to the sound of words, the rhythm of sentences, the word choice and its connotation, sentence variety. Most importantly, the writer must revise his work, perhaps many times, before the writing is complete. The first draft is never the final draft, unless you are not a passionate writer.
The voice of a writer is determined by many things, including life experience, education, beliefs, values, interests, and passions—everything the writer brings to the experience of writing.
The best voice to use is conversational, informal, friendly–as though you are having conversation with a friend over coffee.
How Can You Develop Your Own Writing Voice?
Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several paths. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by “putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your head.” In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.
Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Write using stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.
Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference.
Next, read poetry, short stories, and essays of writer’s you admire. Analyze how they have written their work. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.
Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.
Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.
Learn to the major types of sentence styles and then use sentence variety in your work. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice? Pick up a copy of Sin And Syntax by Constance Hale or The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark.
The language choices a writer makes important ingredient of the writer’s voice. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas or knowledge or wisdom.
If you aspire to become a creative writer, you should also learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.
Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.
A few final points: It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind or in your head, using your own words.
Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.
To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
- The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
- Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
By Dave Hood
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
― Pablo Picasso
Often, the writer must sit some place with a blank page and pen or a white screen staring back, and attempt to find something interesting, compelling, illuminating, entertaining to write on the page or type on the screen. It can be a daunting experience. The esteemed Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, writes in her introduction,” Negotiating with the Dead”, that writing is too often like “walking into the labyrinth….like groping through a tunnel..like being in a cave…like wading through a deep river at dawn or twilight.” She goes on to write: “Virginia Woolf said that writing a novel is like walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room. “Given the obstacles in unearthing a story or the difficulty dusting off an inspiring idea that can be expanded into a poem, short story, personal essay, article…why would anyone desire or aspire to write?
There are many reasons why people desire to write. Some want to express their creative spirit. Some believe it is the ideal career. Others want to write in a particular field, such as journalism, technical writing, medical writing. Many writers who take up creative writing–crafting poetry, fiction, short stories, novels—combine writing with teaching. I would guess that all teachers of creative writing in MBA programs are published writers. And most could not survive without teaching. In other words, they’d be starving artists, like most of you reading this article/blog post. You will not make a living writing poetry. And if you read the biographies of any poet, most had day jobs. Popular American poet, Wallace Stevens, who crafted many memorable poems, worked by day in the insurance industry. When Stevens died, many of his work colleagues didn’t know that he was a poet in his leisure time. Here’s a favorite poem of his:
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I write to express my creative spirit, to share something important, to fulfill my need to create, to express, to illuminate others with universal truths about life, to be recognized, to be published. This is why I write. And you will have your own reasons why you write or desire to write. There is no right or wrong reason. Writing creatively—using metaphor, simile, alliteration, symbolism, showing people what happened, not telling them, vivid details, imagery, and other literary devices— elevates good writing into an “art form.” A memorable poem, compelling short story, personal essay that illuminates a truth about the human condition is art.