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Aug 6 2013
By Dave Hood
Instead of writing a personal essay or memoir, creative nonfiction writers often craft literary journalism essays and reviews about popular culture, including film, art, photography, famous people, fashion, and music. For instance, the popular magazine, “The New Yorker,” publishes literary journalism essays as profiles of public figures, perspectives on current events, essays on topics in the news, as well as film, music, and book reviews. “Harper’s” and “The Atlantic” are other magazine that publishes literary journalism essays. As well, many literary journals publish literary journalism essays, including Tin House, Epiphany, Witness.
The literary journalistic essay, as it applies to writing about popular culture, involves writing true stories about people, places, events, film, books, music, photography, art, and so forth. Writers craft this category of essay by completing research and then writing the narrative using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. Writers usually narrate the story from the third person POV (“he/she”) and include scene, summary, and personal reflection.
Sometimes a creative nonfiction writer will play the part of a reviewer or critic, reviewing a film, concert, painting, or book. This review will include a description or summary, share the pros and cons, provide opinion and recommendation. For instance, a writer might write a literary review of a book that’s just been published, and the reader will use the review to decide whether to purchase the book.
The purpose of the literary journalistic essay and review of pop culture are always to inform, educate, and entertain readers.
In this article, I’ll discuss popular culture as it applies to writing literary journalism essays and reviews. The following will be covered:
• Defining popular culture
• Perspectives for writing about popular culture
• The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
• Gathering material by completing research
• Writing a review
• Writing a literary journalistic essay
• Tips for writing about popular culture
• Additional reading
Defining Popular Culture
There are many definitions of popular culture. Essentially, popular culture refers to the contemporary popular culture of a particular society, such as Western pop culture. It deals with the contemporary aspects of film, photography, art, sculpture, painting, cuisine, genre fiction, poetry, music, fashion, trends, fads, influential people, such as political leaders, rock stars, sports heroes, Hollywood starlets, video games, anything to do with the current popular culture.
From pop culture, we define our tastes, likes and dislikes, identities, fashion, leisure time, beliefs, values, norms, and much more. Pop culture includes many institutions, such as Hollywood, where many motion pictures are produced. An important element of pop culture is the mass media: television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, film, Internet. These institutions create brands that people can embrace and relate to. A particular “brand” can become an emblem of pop culture. For instance, anything Apple is now part of the pop culture of contemporary society in 2013. These institutions also shape our values, views, opinions, beliefs, and behaviour.
The physical artifacts of an era are an aspect of popular culture. Digital technologies play an important role in defining our current popular culture. Most people own either a smart phone, tablet, such as iPad, or digital music play, like the iTouch. Most people surf the Internet for work, or entertainment, or leisure. Many people use the computer to access social media, such as Facebook, to connect with friends and share their lives. Many use the computer to access YouTube to watch and post videos and Flickr to view and post photographs. It seems that young people now spend more leisure time surfing the web, text messaging, visiting Facebook than watching television. The masses have embraced digital photography, capturing an endless stream of snapshots with their smart phones or point-and-shoot digital cameras. Everyone is now a digital photographer. Digital technologies pervade the popular culture of 2013.
Serendipity often creates pop culture. Fads and trends happen by accident or chance. For instance, in the late 60s and 70s, long hair was fashionable for men. Now many men “crop” their hair as though they are enrolled in the army. Men and women adorn their bodies with a coloured tattoos. These trends arrived by accident, pure chance. At some point, the trends will depart, and be replaced by something new.
Influential people, such as Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, or Bono of U2 also create popular culture, and shape how we dress, think, and act. For instance, Steve Jobs was the “mastermind” of the digital technologies which pervade contemporary life, such as iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.
Any definition of popular culture most include Zeitgeist. It is a German word, which means “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time”, and refers to the cultural, political, ethical, intellectual, spiritual climate of a culture during a specific era or time frame. The spirit of a particular era will include the shared views, shared attitudes, shared feelings, shared tastes, shared morality, and shared preferences toward war and technology, political movements and religion, economic conditions and types of work, new scientific discovers, or anything that is part of society.
Think of zeitgeist as the “collective consciousness” of a particular generation. To understand it, you’ll have to conduct research on the Internet and in the library, uncovering the significant events and people and artifacts. Then you’ll have to analyze this popular culture and write the essay, providing examples, which illustrate the idea of collective consciousness. For instance, a decade from now, people will look back and see that digital technologies, such as the iPhone, iPad, Internet, social media, were important aspects of our collective consciousness.
To assist you understanding the “spirit of the time,” use the Google Search called Google Zeitgeist . It will tell you what is on the minds of people. For instance, in 2010, according to Google Zeitgeist, the iPad, Master Chef, Justin Bieber, were some of the most popular searches, and on the minds of millions of people around the world. You might then ask: Is there a spirit of hope or hopelessness, progress or regression, optimism or cynicism, alienation or inclusion?
Perspectives for Writing about Popular Culture
When writing a literary journalistic essay, writers use popular culture in several ways: They use popular culture to provide context to a story. They write as subject matter experts on some feature of popular culture, or as a witnesses to some aspect of popular culture, such as film, art, photography. Play the role of reviewer and write reviews on books, film, music, art, theatre, and more.
Pop culture can provide context to personal narrative or literary journalism essay. Often when writers craft essays that include setting, they allude to the music, film, fashion, values, beliefs of the time period. This provides context to the story. How does a writer find out what happened twenty or thirty years ago? Writers can use a timeline, which shows the significant events, popular culture, and influential people for a particular year. A good website to find context for a true story is http://www.history central.com
The writer, often a subject matter expert, writes a commentary or opinion on some an entertainment personality, film, music concert, event, issue.
The writer might write as a witness. For instance, the writer might craft a personal narrative about a visiting to the Art Gallery, such as the Museum of Modern Art or attending the Bruce Springsteen concert, or what it feels like to cheer for a losing football team, such as the Buffalo Bills.
The writer can play the role of reviewer or critic. For instance, experts in film write film reviews, ,experts in music write music reviews, experts on art write literary journalistic essays about painting, sculpture, photography. To review some “art form,” the reviewer must experience the art. For instance, if the writer is writing a book review, the writer must first read the book. If the writer is writing a film review, the writer must first watch the film. If the writer is writing a review on some painting or sculpture or installation or photograph, the writer must first attend the exhibition.
The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
Writing about pop culture requires that you follow the advice of Lee Gutkind’s “Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction:” He suggests the following:
• Write about real life, real people, actual events, real art forms, and actual places.
• Complete research, collecting facts from the library, interviewing experts, reading essays on the Internet, watching television or film, listening to music, immersing yourself in the “art form.”
• Write an essay or review about some feature of popular culture. Use immersion and other tools of research, facts, and fact checking to write the essay or review.
• Include personal reflection. Share your personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives about popular culture.
• Read widely and deeply. Read books, magazines, articles, essays, commentary, Internet blogs to understand to the topic, issue, event, or person.
Gathering Material to Write the Literary Journalistic Essay
If you intend to write about pop culture, you must stay informed and conduct research whenever you have a topic to write about.
Here are a few publications that will help you learn about pop culture and stay informed:
• Music. If you intend to write about the music scene, including singers, song writers, artists, bands, rock, pop, soul, rap, jazz, begin by reading “Rolling Stone” magazine.
• Art. If you desire to learn about modern or contemporary art and artists, read “Canadian Art”, “Art in America,” and “Artnews.”
• Film. If you want to learn and write about film, turn the pages of “Sight and Sound” magazine.
• Fashion. If you desire to become an expert on fashion, read “Vogue” magazine (for women) or “GQ” magazine (for men).
• General entertainment news. Stay informed by reading “Entertainment Weekly” and “The New Yorker” magazine, and by reading the entertainment section of your newspaper.
• Literary journals. These are specialized publications, illustrating the best of some an art form. For instance, to read short fiction and poetry, read the journals Granta, Epiphany, Witness, Tin House.
A literary journalism essay is based on facts, gathered from research. Writers can use different methods of research, including:
1. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
2. Immerse yourself in the story. Attend a music concert, or watch the film, visit the art gallery, and then make notes.
3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what has been written on the subject and where there are books, magazines, journals, subject matter experts.
5. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.
Writing a Review
Before writing a review, you should first experience the art form, such as viewing the painting or seeing the film. You should also have a good understanding of the genre. For instance, if you`re going to write a film review, you should have a good understanding of movie terms, concepts, film making techniques, movie stars, and history of film. Writer William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” provides some suggestions for completing a review:
1. Love the art form or medium you are reviewing. In other words, if you don`t like film, be sure not to write a review. It will be tainted.
2. Don`t tell the readers everything. For instance, if you`re writing a book review, don`t tell the readers the ending. Provide them with only enough detail to convince them to read or ignore the book.
3. Don`t use adjectives to exaggerate your impression of the art form
4. Use a minimal writing style to express what you think and observe.
As well, when writing a review, do the following:
• Summarize what you observed, heard, or experienced with your senses.
• Share pros and cons.
• Give you opinion. Tell readers whether you like it.
• Make a recommendation. Should the audience see the film or read the book or visit the art exhibition.
Writing a Book Review
There are many ways to write a book review. Just check out the Globe & Mail or The New York Times, and you will see that each newspaper includes them. Lovers of books desire to read them. All book reviews should include a summary of the book, identify the book’s strengths and weaknesses, specify the publishing information (title, author, page count, price), and determine whether the reader ought to read the book. Here is one method you can use to write a book review:
Before Reading the Book
Before reading, scan the book and make notes of the following:
• Title. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Preface. Does it tell you the purpose of the book?
• Table of Contents. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Glossary. Does the book include a glossary? Does it appear useful?
• Index. Does the book include an index? Is it useful?
After scanning through the book, jot down your impressions. Next, research the author to find out what his/her biases, views, expertise, and other books he/she has written.
Reading the Book
While reading the book, make notes on the following:
• Your impressions
• Author’s argument
• Author’s main points
• Facts and evidence
• Topics covered
• Strengths and weaknesses
Writing the Book Review
Your first paragraph needs a hook, which grabs your reader’s attention. You should also include the name of the author and title of the book. The body of your review requires a summary and should identify some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of the book. You should conclude with a recommendation.
Your book review also requires the following publishing information:
• Title of the book
• Name of the author
• Name of the publisher
• Page count
• Price of the book
Most book reviews include information about the author, such as the author’s views and biases, the author’s expertise on the subject, other books that the author has written. A good book review identifies the types of readers who will enjoy reading the book, and it indicates whether the information in the book is useful to the reader. Many good book reviews also state whether the book expands on the existing body of knowledge.
Writing the Literary Journalistic Essay
Writing about popular culture requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a witness? Are you writing as an expert? Or do you only want to use popular culture to provide context to a personal narrative essay or literary journalistic essay? Or are you writing about popular culture as a reviewer? Follow these suggestions:
Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.
Elements of Fiction
All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.
When you narrate a true story, use a narrative arc. It includes:
• Inciting incident
• Conflict, either internal or external
• Turning point or climax
• Resolution. End of the story.
If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue. Always answer the question: Who is this person?
Point of View
Write the literary journalistic essay on popular culture using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).
Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
If you’re writing a narrative, write one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happens. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain and tell readers background information. As well, use personal reflection to share your impressions and emotional truth (How does it feel to you?).
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
To reconstruct setting and events and impressions of people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.
Facts not Fiction
When writing true stories of popular culture or people of popular culture, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
Tips for Writing about Popular Culture
Popular culture is never static. It is always evolving. New things are continuously being introduced, such as film, music, art, and technologies. And so, to write about popular culture, you must stay informed. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule a “Creative Date” each month. Examples: Visit the art gallery, go to a concert, buy tickets to watch a movie.
2. Stay informed. Read the entertainment section of the newspaper to find out what is going on in your city or town; read pop-culture magazines, such as “Entertainment Weekly”; watch the news and listen to the radio; read articles on the Internet, including the blogs and websites; watch YouTube videos and connect to Facebook and other social media.
3. Keep a writing journal. Make regular entries about pop culture in a writing journal.
4. Become and expert. Enroll in a photography, art, poetry, film study, music course.
5. Consider writing a speculative narrative. For instance, you might see a piece of art in a gallery, and then write a description using sensory details, and then rely on your imagination to determine the meaning of the art.
6. Remain aware of the fads and trends. Regularly, Ask yourself: What are the fads? Trends? What’s popular in your culture? How does film, fashion, music, art influence you? How have books influenced your life? How has the smartphone, tablet, digital music player, or digital camera altered your lifestyle?
7. Make popular culture part of your life. Immerse yourself in film, art, literature, photography, music, and you will see view the world from a different perspective, a viewpoint that will enable you to write about popular culture.
For addition information about learning creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
• Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
• Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
• You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
• The Best American Essays Series 2012, edited by David Brooks and Robert Atwan
• The New Yorker magazine
A profile is not a biography or autobiography. The profile is a biography sketch, providing details of the person’s character, an overview of the person’s life story, and highlights of the person’s achievements and accomplishments. When the writer crafts a profile, the writer makes “some person” the focus of the story. The writer can profile a stranger or someone he/she knows well. The writer can also profile someone ordinary, such as a teacher, or priest, or police officer, or someone extraordinary, like Margaret Atwood, David Hockney, or Steve Jobs. For instance, in the November 11, 2011 edition of The New Yorker magazine, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a profile on Steve Jobs called “The Tweaker: the real genius of Steve Jobs.”
Before writing a profile, the writer must answer the question “Who is this person?” If the writer knows the person, the writer will rely on memory and observation and personal experience to write the profile. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile about his uncle called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner at his uncle’s home. If the writer doesn’t know the person, the writer will conduct research, interviewing the person, visiting various places where the person works, lives, socializes, observing the person in their daily life, reading books, articles, and other material on the person.
A good profile includes telling details, dialogue, and storytelling. The writer will also use scene, summary, and personal reflection. A good profile is also interesting, profiles someone new, encourages the reader to think more about the person. A good profile informs, educates, and entertains readers. Some profiles have a serious tone, and other have a humorous tone.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to write a profile or biography sketch. The following will be covered:
- Definition of a profile
- Types of profiles
- Gathering material to write the profile
- Writing the profile
- Additional resources to learn more about writing a profile
Definition of a Profile
A profile is not a book-length biography, which is an in-depth description of the life and times of another person. Nor is the profile a book-length autobiography, which involves writing about one’s own life. The profile is usually only a few pages and published in magazines or newspapers as an essay. The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. As well, the writer can profile someone ordinary or extraordinary. Sometimes the profile is about the good guy. The writer profiles a person who wants to achieve or accomplish something worthy. Perhaps the amateur athlete dreams about winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or the starving artist desires to achieve fame and fortune, or the writer aspires to write the next bestseller.
Some profiles are about “the villain.” In the September 24th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes a profile about child molesters called “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away with It.”” In the essay, Gladwell narrates two stories about pedophiles, to illustrate how the sexual predator uses “trust” to create the opportunity to abuse a child.
The writer will include details about the person’s private life, psyche, and public world. The inner world deals with the person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, views of other people. In writing about the outer world, the writer identifies some of the important setbacks and obstacles, as well as the significant accomplishments and achievements.
The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. If the person knows the person he/she will profile, the writer can create the profile from memories, observations, and personal experience. To write a profile about a stranger, the writer must have access to the person. Having access allows the writer to interview and to observe the person at work and at play. The writer will also interview family, friends, and work associates.
Sometimes a portrait isn’t based on an interview but a conversation. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner and evening conversation with his uncle. He includes humour, telling details, dialogue, scene and summary, and personal reflection to construct the portrait of his uncle.
The good profile of a public person answer several questions, including:
- Why is the writer profiling the person?
- What is unique about the person?
- What is significant about the person?
- What are the person’s achievements or accomplishments?
- What obstacles or setbacks did the person have to overcome?
- Why is the person in the news or public consciousness?
- Does the writer likes the person? Dislike the person? Why?
The best profiles answer the question ” Who is this person? Unfortunately, people perform many roles, such as husband, breadwinner, parent, and so the writer will not be able to write a complete profile. No matter how much research the writer completes, the writer will never know the person completely, because people have darks sides they don’t share and personalities traits that aren’t always revealed.
Types of Profiles
In “Telling True Stories,” writer Jacqui Banaszynski, in his essay “Profile,” identifies three types of profiles:
- Cradle-to-Current Profile. It is a profile about the person’s entire life, up to the present. The writer invests a great deal of time in researching, writing, and fact checking.
- Niche Profile. It is a profile that is 1,000 words or less, and can be written in a short period of time. The writer composes a profile about someone in the news. This type of profile includes relevant background information. For instance, if the writer is crafting a profile about a person who won a Pulitzer for Literature, the writer would include education and previously published works. But biography details about place of birth and early education would not be relevant. Instead the writer focuses on “telling details.”
- Paragraph Profile. This type of profile is brief, providing essential details about accomplishments or achievements, and the person’s significance to the story. It is a paragraph or two, and part of a larger story.
Gathering Material for the Profile
Before writing the profile, you must gather material about the person. Your goal is to answer the question “Who is this person?” Here are a few ways to answer the question:
Begin by searching the Internet to find out what else has been written about the person. Start by completing a Google search. By reading what other writers have written, you can obtain a general sense of the person, such as their level of education, work accomplishments, interests, tastes, reason for being in the news.
Interview the person you are profiling and other people who know the person, such as friends and family. As well, interview subject matter experts. For instance, to get related information about being a stunt pilot, writer Annie Dillard collected quotes from a pilot who as a crop duster
In the interview, what sorts of questions should you ask? Here are a few suggestions:
- What are the events or moments that shaped your life?
- What are your biggest accomplishments and achievements?
- What are you afraid of?
- What is your biggest regret?
- What setbacks or obstacles have you faced?
- What motivates you?
- What are your fears and worries?
- What do you value?
In addition, you should try to observe the person at work or in their natural habitat. For instance, before Anne Dillard wrote, “Stunt Pilot,” a profile about a stunt pilot. She watched the, Dave Rahm, the pilot fly his plane. She writes:”Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure eights, snap rolls, and hammerheads.” (You can read this profile in Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack)
If the person is deceased, you can sometimes uncover their inner world of the person by reading their diaries, journals, letters, Facebook profiles and other social media.
Immerse yourself in the experience. Before writing the sketch about Dave Rahm, the stunt pilot, Dillard immersed herself in the experience of flying by taking a seat in the plane and flying as Rahm’s passenger. She writes: “Later I flew with Dave Rahm; he took me up…We flew from a bumpy grass airstrip near the house…We were over the clouds at five hundred feet and inside them too…”
If the person is a well-known public figure, you can read a biography about the person. If the person has written their own autobiography, make sure you read it.
How do you know when to stop researching? You must continue to research until you have sufficient “telling details” to write a profile that’s compelling. Your goal is to create a revealing, interesting, and entertaining profile.
Writing the Profile
Many of the best profiles are written as narratives. The writer crafts true story involving a central character. For instance, Charles Simic, In “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” profiles his uncle, writing a story about a dinner conversation. Annie Dillard, in “The Stunt Pilot,” profiles a pilot flying a stunt plane.
To write a profile, follow these suggestions:
Structure the profile using the narrative arc. It includes:
- Inciting incident
- Conflict, such as setbacks or obstacles
- Turning point and climax
- Resolution or end of the story
To reveal character, use the fictional methods of characterization. These include:
- Dialogue. Use interviews or immersion to capture interesting quotes of the person you are profiling. Use these quotes in your profile.
- Description of Appearance. Observe the person you are writing about. Make note of their physical appearance, including hair style, clothing, gestures, hygiene, and so forth. Use concrete, particular, significant details to describe the person.
- Dramatic action. Show what the person does, their actions and reactions, in the narrative.
Point of View
Use both the first person POV(“I”) and third person (“he/she”). For instance, in the profile “The Stunt Pilot,” Dillard uses third-person POV to write the narrative of the pilot flying in the sky, performing his daredevil stunts, and to provide narrative summary. She begins: “Dave Rahm lived in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle…Dave Rahm was a stunt pilot.” She shifts to first person POV (“I”) to share personal reflections about the stunt pilot.
Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
Use a scene to recreate important events. A scene always includes setting details, dramatic action, vivid description, dialogue, and POV. Use summary to “tell” or explain. Use personal reflection to express your views about the person, sharing your own thoughts, feelings, opinion, emotional truth.
To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensory details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.
Facts not Fiction
Don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, complete fact-checking.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. As well, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Pricilla Long.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
A Few Tips for Writing a Profile
Here are a few tips for writing a profile or biography sketch:
- Select a person to profile, and then begin with an interesting question you want to answer. If you are going to profile someone you know, mine your memory, observe the person in real life, and write about some significant event. (In Dillard’s profile, she answers “what it is like to be a stunt pilot?”) If the person is unknown, collect your material by researching the person.
- Before interviewing, have a list of open-ended questions you want to ask. These require the person being interviewed to respond with more than just “yes” or “no.”
- After doing the research, decide on an approach. How are you going to begin? With a scene? With a quotation? With a question? Before writing, outline your story. making a list of all the important points you want to write about.
- Always focus on what is significant or compelling. What is surprising? What is important? Any secrets? Oddities? Peculiarities? Contributions to society? What is their legacy?
- Show and tell your reader. You tell the reader by explaining and summarizing. You show the reader by writing in scenes. For any significant event, write a scene.
- Include dialogue. A good profile includes dialogue, revealing some personality trait.
- Include telling details. A good profile includes vivid description, revealing some personality trait.
- Don’t create one-dimensional portraits or profiles. Every person has a dark side. Every person has attributes you don’t admire. Share these telling details with the reader.
- Your subject is living an epic. In other words, the profile fits into a larger story about life. Consider the larger story as you write.
- Every story has a theme, a universal truth, shared meaning. For instance, Steve Jobs was one of the great inventors and innovators. He was a visionary who reshaped communication, use of leisure time, and everyday life with digital technologies.
For more information on writing a profile or biography sketch, read the following:
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, (2nd Edition) by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
- Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- The Writer’s Personal Mentor by Priscilla Long
By Dave Hood
Much of creative nonfiction is serious. Writers craft essays about depressing or controversial topics, illness, disease, war, famine, gun control, murder, child abuse, rape, and more. And yet,
many creative nonfiction writers use the techniques of humour to write interesting personal essays and entertaining memoirs. Jeanette Walls, author of the memoir, “The Glass Castle,” shares humorous anecdotes about her life growing up, even though the story is disheartening. David Sedaris, author of many bestselling books, writes self-depreciating humour in the form of anecdote about his personal life and family. Mary Karr’s, “Lit: A Memoir,” includes several humorous parts. For instance, she writes, “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” (Page 97/Lit)
Most magazines and newspapers and popular Internet sites of creative nonfiction include humour columns, or articles, or essays. For instance, regularly, The New Yorker magazine publishes essays that have a humorous tone. In The New Yorker’s anthology of “Humour, Disquiet Please, ” writer Ian Frazier uses exaggeration in his essay “Thin Enough.” He writes: “After four or five glasses of wine, I am able to overcome my usual food-finickiness and eat half a crock-pot of whatever my wife has made for dinner, and then a couple of baskets of leftover Easter candy. (Page 234).” People enjoy reading a good story, when the writer combines humour and an appealing writing style.
In this chapter, I’ll discuss how to use humour in creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
• Power of humour
• Humour versus comedy
• Techniques of humour
• Suggestions for using humor
The Power of Humour
In his bestselling book, “On Writing Well,” author William Zinsser, writes that “humour is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” It is often the best tool and only tool for making an important point. (Page 206) Usually, the writer uses humor in nonfiction to make a serious point and also to generate a laugh or amusement. The writer must find the right humour technique or techniques to disguise his/her serious point. Read the books by David Sedaris, a humorist writer, who uses exaggeration to make a serious point. Writers also use many other types of humour techniques, satire, irony, satire, exaggeration, joke, truth, and more.
And yet, the writer doesn’t always write humour to make a serious point. Sometimes the writer only desires to share a funny story with readers, with the intention of generating a comic effect. Sometimes writers use nonsense to make readers laugh. Frequently, all that is required of the writer is to exaggerate the truth. Sometimes the truth is funny, especially when the writer uses absurd facts or ludicrous quotations by people. The humorist writer must be an active observer, noticing amusing incidents, events, fleeting moments, funny conversations and people, making mental notes of sensory details that are amusing or funny.
Zinsser, in the text “On Writing Well,” provides some useful advice to writers who aspire to write humorous prose. First, the writer should never strain for laughs. Instead, the writer should focus on surprising the reader. Secondly, the writer should write about the truth, real people, places, events, experiences, not make things up. Thirdly, before writing humour, the writer must learn to write well, using familiar rather than unfamiliar words, proper grammar, sentence variety, a humorous tone, different paragraph types. (To help you write better, read and master “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale)
Writers should use the techniques of humour subtly, and not overuse humour, especially when it is directed at real people. Otherwise readers will see the humour as an attack. Writers must also be aware that humour is subjective. Not all readers will laugh at the same things. And so, the writer should focus on first writing the story, including the facts, and then adding humour. Humour should be secondary to a good story that is well written.
Humorists are the rogues and mavericks of creative nonfiction. They often write what some people don’t want to hear. They often write what the collective consciousness is thinking but afraid to discuss publically. Yet people want to read the stories of humorists. Good humour writing makes readers laugh.
Humour Versus Comedy Writing
What are the similarities and differences between humour and comedy writing? The terms “humour and “comedy” are often used interchangeably. Both terms have elements in common. Both are also different.
Humour writing and comedy writing are often based on truth. Both frequently use the same humour devices, such as irony, satire, exaggeration. Both use the anecdote and storytelling. Both use the joke, which requires a setup and punch-line. Both use wordplay and the one-liner. Both tend to write about subject matter that is funny. Both writers write about serious topics, with the intention of making them funny. The intention of both is to create a comic effect.
Despite the similarities, comedy writing and humour writing are different in certain respects.
Usually, the humorist writes an essay or article or filler that is amusing or funny. The humorist’s material is intended to be read. Most humour writing is done for print publications, such as newspapers, magazines, or books. On the other hand, most comedy writing is done for TV sitcoms, comedy films, comedy sketches, and stand-up comedy. The comedy writer writes material to get laughs, usually in front of a viewing audience. Comedy writers are best known for writing material for situation comedies, comedy films, stand-up comics, and sketch comedy. Most comedy writing is intended to entertain by provoking laughter, while most humour writing is more subtle and cerebral, intending to amuse, inform, educate, and persuade the audience to change its opinion. The humorist won’t use profanity or shock humour, which is popular in comedy, especially by the stand-up comic.
Unlike the comedy writer, humour writing can take the form of “filler.” This filler can be a joke, quote, or short anecdote that is used to fill space at the end of a column or page. There is no formula for filler.
Techniques of Humour
Writers use humour to make a serious point and to evoke amusement or laughter in the reader. Unfortunately, humour is subjective. One person will laugh at the writer’s humour, while another person won’t find the joke or parody or exaggeration funny. To make their point and generate a comic effect, writers use several techniques of humour, including:
- Satire. The writer mocks another person’s mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Incongruity. The writer juxtaposes two different things not normally associated with each other. The incongruity of speech, character, behavior, or situation can result in a comic effect. For instance, the exterior of a mansion might be awe-inspiring, but the interior is like a home owned by a hoarder. A man might be dressed like a model in GQ magazine, but talk as if he’s uneducated.
- Irony. A figure of speech. There are several types, including verbal irony and situational irony. Verbal irony is writing that means something other than its literal meaning, with the intention of creating a comic effect. Sometimes, irony can be misconstrued as sarcasm by the reader. Irony is not sarcasm. Sarcasm means what is intended, while irony is a trope in which the intended meaning of words is different than the literal meaning. Situational irony occurs when the expected outcome is different than the actual outcome. Many true stories involve situational irony. For instance, the groom goes to the church, expecting to get married, but the bride-to-be runs from the church at the last moment.
- Exaggeration. Writers can use overstatement, embellishing what they hear and see and experience, to generate laughs. When using exaggeration, writers focus on exaggerating the attributes of a person, place, thing, event, experience, and so forth.
- Understatement. The writer makes a situation seem less important as it really is.
- Self-deprecation. Writers mock their own mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Anecdote. A short and amusing story about a person or incident.
- Nonsense. Sometimes writers use the technique of nonsense to write a humorous piece. This technique defies logic. It is an unrealistic representation, intended to amuse or stir a laugh.
- Truth. Sometimes absurd facts and ludicrous quotations by people can be humorous.
- Parody. Occasionally, the writer imitates the artistic work of another writer or artist, mocking artistic style, the author, or topic, intending to generate a comic effect, such as amusement or laughter.
- Joke. Sometimes writers incorporate jokes into their writing. The joke includes a set-up and punch-line. The set-up provides the premise and background. The punch-line is the line that generates a laugh or amusement. When telling a joke within a personal narrative, the writer must use the element of surprise. The writer should not notify the reader that a joke is coming. Example: “Here’s a joke..” This type of humour technique should be incorporated into the essay or memoir.
To study and learn from the humorist writers, read “Disquiet Please,” an anthology of personal essays by some of the best writers of humour, published by The New Yorker magazine.
A Few Suggestions
If you’d like to write humor, follow these suggestions:
- Don’t be mean-spirited or sarcastic. Instead evoke amusement or laughter with subtle humour, such as exaggeration.
- Observe the world in which you live, searching for humour events, incidents, people. Read the newspaper and watch television to unearth humour. Look at your own life for a humorous story. If an experience seems funny to you, write about it. Write about what makes you laugh, and so become an observer. This means you must be aware of the world around you, paying attention to the sensory details of each day. Make not of what you find humorous. Jot down a few notes in your journal.
- Use the techniques of humour to write a humorous personal essay, including exaggeration, satire, juxtaposition, irony, anecdote, and so forth. However, humour should be secondary to narrating a good personal essay.
- Write about humorous people who have passed in and out your life. Ask yourself: What makes them funny? Write the story or anecdote.
- Read the columns or books of humor writers, including David Sedaris. He often uses anecdotes to tell amusing stories about himself and family. By reading and analyzing humour writing, you will learn how to write it.
- Always focus on collecting the facts, and then writing the humorous essay.
- Use humorous figures of speech to amuse, such as similes and metaphors.
- Mine your memory for humorous stories. What are some of most amusing moments in your life? Why are they remembered? What is the significance? What is funny or amusing?
- Never make racial or religious slurs.
- Sometimes truth can be funny. Consider incorporating ludicrous facts and absurd quotations by people you didn’t expect would say such things.
To write humour, you must learn the techniques of humor, such as exaggeration, satire, incongruity. Start by reading humorous writing by Mark Twain, Stephan Leacock, David Sedaris, and The New Yorker. Read their essays once for enjoyment, and then reread them to learn how these writers crafted their humorous essay. Focus on structure, writing style, techniques, and tone. Practise using the techniques of humor by writing in your journal, and by using the techniques of humor to write your own personal essays. Instead of forcing humour into the story, become an active observer, and notice humour unfolding each day, then write a story, based factual truth.
For more information on using humour in creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Writing Creative Nonfiction, Edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerald
• Naked by David Sedaris
• When Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
• Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
• Disquiet Please: More Humour Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder
• Comedy Writing by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser
By Dave Hood
The opinion essay (also called a commentary) is a form of creative nonfiction writing. It is part of the category of personal essay, along with the personal narrative essay, the meditative essay, the lyrical essay, and collage essay. As an aspiring creative writer, you’ll want to share your life stories and your opinions about events, topics, issues, and people. The opinion essay or commentary allows you to do this. You don’t have to prove your point conclusively, or state the other half of the argument, but you must present a logical argument, which is based on evidence, facts, and reasons. The more evidence you provide for your opinion, the more powerful your argument.
The opinion essay provides you with a way to share your opinion about any topic. For instance: Does God exist? Is capital punishment cruel and unusual punishment? Do you support abortion? Do you agree with the war on terror? You can read opinion pieces or social commentaries in the newspaper, magazines, periodicals, Websites, and blogs. They often reflect the mood of the public consciousness on topics or issues making news. The opinion essay is intended to “sways hearts and changes minds.”
Many publications include opinion essays, such as newspapers, anthologies, magazines, and the Internet. Consider reading The New Yorker magazine, Time magazine, The Atlantic, and The Walrus. You can also read less mainstream publications, such as http://www.Slate.com, Mother Jones, Adbusters, and Unte Reader. As well, many bestselling books are based on the opinion essay, including “God is Not Great” by the late Christopher Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.
In this article, I’ll discuss the opinion essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition of an opinion essay
• How to write an opinion essay (lead, argument, ending)
• Writing style
• Suggestions for writing an opinion essay
Definition of an Opinion Essay
Writing an opinion essay requires that you state your opinion about a topic or issue or person, and then support it with an argument, evidence that supports your opinion. First, you must find a topic to write about. Next, you might have to collect evidence or facts to support your opinion. Then, you can create an outline. Finally, you’ll write the opinion essay.
Finding a Topic or Issue
Creative nonfiction writers often write about social issues, such as gun control, suicide,abortion, depression, addiction, unemployment, global warming, terrorism, war, right to privacy. Another popular topic is politics. Writers often give their opinion on why they support or disapprove a policy or action of the government. Popular culture is another place to unearth a topic, and then share an opinion. Writers share their views on art, film, music, fashion, photography, and more.
You can write an opinion essay about any topic. The most important point to remember is that you are sharing your opinion with readers, who might have a different opinion. And if you are not an expert, you’ll need to do some research before writing the opinion essay. You can read a book, conduct a Google search, visit your library, immerse yourself in what you are researching. For instance, if you want to write about Buddhism, you could read a few books and engage in the practise of Buddhism, then write about what you have learned from the experience.
As well, you can mine your memory for topics. Many past experiences reveal universal truth. You have an opinion about that time in your life. Perhaps you got married and thought you were going to live happily for the rest of your life. Now you’re separated, divorced, or a widow. What are your memories of the experience? What is your opinion now? Write about them in an opinion essay.
In an opinion essay, your goal is to share your opinion with readers, with the purpose of explaining your view and educating others. To change a person’s mind or at least motivate the person to think of a new perspective, you’ll need to present a good argument. To do this, you must include real life examples, facts, evidence. The stronger your argument, the more apt you are to alter another person’s opinion.
Sometimes, you will have to conduct research, at the library, on the Internet, by interviewing, or by immersion. You might also have to rely on personal experience, including mining your memory, and using your skills of observation. Before writing the opinion essay, determine what information you require. If you don’t understand the topic or issue, do some research. There are several methods of research:
• Library. Visit the library, where you can read and take notes from books, magazines, articles, and microfilm.
• Internet. Conduct a Google search, the most popular search engine in the world. Use Google to find out what has been written and to discover where you can unearth facts and other evidence to support your argument.
• Immersion. Consider immersing yourself in the experience before you write about it. Suppose you’d like to write an opinion about golf, but you’d never played a game. It would be best if you rented some golf clubs, took some lessons, and played a game of golf before writing an opinion essay about why you don’t like golf.
• Interview. Some writers like to collect quotes from subject matter experts or eye witnesses.
• Observation. Sometimes you can observe the story. For instance, you’re gathering information about the joys of cooking. You could observe a chef in his kitchen, watching how he prepares and cooks the food.
• Reading. As a writer, you must continually learn. Read biographies, essays, articles, newspapers. A good creative nonfiction writer is always reading about different people, places, events, experiences, and so forth. Incorporate the memory of facts into your opinion.
Writing the argument involves sharing facts, evidence, examples, personal experiences, anecdote that support your opinion. The best opinions sway hearts and change minds. You need present facts or evidence that supports your view. But you don’t have to prove it. You must support your opinion with evidence, reasons, and facts. Unlike a university essay, you are not required to present the other side of the argument. But many writers do provide the opposing argument or view, as they desire to be viewed as an expert who is credible.
I often read the personal essays by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, a newspaper published in Toronto, Canada. She writes about any topic you can think of. The other day she argued that environmentalism is ‘dead’ in an opinion essay called ‘The Agony of David Suzuki’. You can read it here:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/margaret-wente/the-agony-of-david-suzuki/article2401816/ . After reading her essay, I could understand her point of view–and agreed with her. Not only did I gain an education, but I also acquired ammunition for my own opinion.
Before you write your opinion, make sure you have three or four important points to support your argument. Jot down these important points in an outline. Use this outline to guide you in writing the opinion essay. The more evidence you provide, the stronger your argument.
Writing the Opinion Essay
Your opinion essay requires a beginning, middle, and ending. In the beginning, identify the topic and state your opinion. Consider grabbing the attention of your readers by making a provocative statement, stating a fact, sharing an anecdote. In the body of the opinion essay, write your argument. For each major point, include a paragraph or more. End by making an important point, one that readers can take away and ponder.
Writing the Lead
Your lead should grabs readers’ attention and compels them to read on. This is called a hook. Your lead should tell readers why you are writing the opinion, why they should read your opinion essay, and introduce what you are making an opinion about. There is no rule about the length of a lead. Some leads are short, only a few sentences. Some are only a sentence in length. Other leads are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your lead will depend on the type of genre and the audience you are writing for.
There are several techniques you can use to write the lead for your opinion essay. Here are the most popular methods:
1. Ask a question. Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment?
2. Make a thought-provoking statement. This type of lead makes begins with an important point. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
3. Write an anecdote. It is a short story that reveals a truth or makes an important point.
4. Use a quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research.
5. Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences.
6. 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.
7. When writing your lead, you can also answer a few questions: who? what? when? why? how?
Writing the Argument
In the body of your opinion essay, write the reasons or evidence for your opinion. Some evidence will come from research; others evidence will be based on observation, personal experience, and memory. An easy way to write an argument is to identify all the important points of your opinion. For each important point, include two or three reasons or facts or other evidence. Use an outline to guide you in writing the argument. As well, use the following argument structure:
This is not a five paragraph essay, because you might have additional important points to make, depending on the required length of your opinion essay.
Types of Paragraphs to Use
Author Priscilla Long, in “The Writer’s Portable Mentor,” identifies four types of paragraphs to use in any creative nonfiction:
The direct paragraph. It begins with a topical sentence, which identifies what the paragraph is about. Each sentence that follows will provide a reason or example or fact to support the topical sentence.
I believe in capital punishment. It’s a deterrent.. It protects society. It punishes the victim.
The climatic paragraph. Begin with a series of facts or evidence, and end with the topical sentence, which identifies what the paragraph is about.
The tee-off cost $100. I had to wait between holes. I lost 6 golf balls, and it rained, cancelling the game. I don’t like golf, and will never golf again.
Turn about paragraph. Begin on one place (the opposing evidence). Halfway through the paragraph, move in a new direction, providing your reasons or evidence. When you change direction, signal to the reader with words such as “and yet,” ” but,” or “nevertheless”
The film critic stated that the acting was superb and the special effects were awesome…And yet, during the film, I fell asleep from boredom….
Statement Paragraph. Make a statement, and support it with evidence, reasons, and facts. The second sentence expands on the first, the third sentence expands on the second, and the fourth sentence, expands on the third….
Writing the Ending
Once you finish writing your opinion essay, write a good ending. It should make a final point. In the text “On Writing Well, author ” William Zinsser suggests the following: “Knowing when to end…is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.” Zinsser goes on to say that a good ending is a sentence or two, or paragraph in length, but not any longer. It should take the reader by surprise and seem like the correct place to stop. Zinsser writes that when you are ready to stop, stop.
Here are a few things to consider when writing your ending:
1. Don’t summarize your essay or article.
2. Your ending should encapsulate the central idea of your opinion.
3. Your ending should finish with an important point. Otherwise the reader will think “So what? What was the point?”” Zinsser suggests that this sentence should jolt the reader with “unexpectedness.”
A popular way to end your piece is with a quotation. Another method is to restate the beginning. Other popular methods include:
• An opinion
• Call to action
To write the opinion essay, use the following writing style:
• Write with the active voice, and not the passive voice.
• Write with concrete and specific nouns and action verbs.
• Use adjective and adverbs sparingly.
• Use sentence variety, such as simple, compound complex sentences. If you don’t know what these are read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and “The Writer’s Personal Mentor” by Priscilla Long.
• Consider using rhetorical sentences, including the periodic sentence, the loose sentence, the balanced sentence, the antithesis sentence.
• Use literary devices, such as simile and metaphor, to make comparisons.
• Use appropriate diction or word choice. Use language readers will understand. Don’t use clichés or jargon. Use fresh and original language.
• Eliminate needless words. In other words, make each word count or perform something important.
• Follow the advice of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale
Suggestions for Writing an Opinion Essay
Here are a few suggestions to help you write an opinion essay:
1. The best topics to write about are issues or events that are important to you. As well, write about what you know or have experienced.
2. Before you write an opinion essay, make sure you understand the topic or issue you are intending to comment on. Therefore, read articles, essays, books, search for personal experiences that support your opinion.
3. Create an outline before writing the opinion essay. This might involve jotting down the main points of your argument. You can this outline to guide you in writing the opinion essay.
4. The more facts, evidence, statistics, reasons you have, the stronger your argument.
5. In the beginning, state your opinion. In the body, write your argument. End with an important point.
6. Always revise your first draft. It is never your best work. To revise, complete a macro-edit (Structure and argument) and micro-edit (spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence patterns, paragraphs, figurative language.)
If you want to learn more on how to write an opinion essay, read the following excellent resources:
• Elements of Style by Strunk and White
• One Year to a Writing Life by Susan M. Tiberghien
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser
• Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
• The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
• The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
• God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens