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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Opinion Essay

Wednesday, July-17-13
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.

Research

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.

Argument

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:

Argument Structure:
Point #1
• Reason
• Reason
• Fact

Point#2
• Reason
• Evidence
• Fact

Point#3
• Reason
• Evidence
• Fact

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.

Example:
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.

Example:
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”

Example:
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
• Judgement
• Recommendation
• Call to action

Writing Style

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.)

Additional Reading

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

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The Writer’s Life: Writing a Beginning or Lead

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:

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

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

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Beginning and Ending

By Dave Hood

The most important sentence is often the first one. It is often called the hook or lead.  If it doesn’t inspire the reader to proceed to the second sentence, and then the third….your personal essay, or memoir, or any other form of creative writing is dead. That is what William Zinsser tells us in “On Writing Well”, a how-to guide for writing creative nonfiction.

Your opening must capture the reader’s attention and motivate them to read your entire piece of writing. You do this by writing a compelling lead, opening, or entry point.

There are many ways to create an entry point, or lead, or beginning for a piece of creative nonfiction. One way is to just begin “telling the story.” Sometimes writers begin with a “quotation” or “interesting fact.” Another way is to ask a question. For instance: More than 20 million people have purchased Fifty Shades of Gray. What does this suggest about women?

And once you’ve written your piece of creative nonfiction, you must end with a bang.  Otherwise, the reader is inclined to be disappointed. The lousy ending is like a film that ends poorly. And so, you’ll want to end with a one final point, which the reader can take away and ponder.

In this article, I’ll discuss the following:

  • How to write an opening or lead or entry point into a story
  • How to end a piece of creative nonfiction

Writing an Opening

As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to begin writing a piece of creative nonfiction. Some writers begin by telling a story. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote “Slackers” for the New Yorker magazine. (July 30th, 2012)

William Zinsser, author of the splendid writing-advice book, “On Writing Well”, identifies a few other ways. You can begin with:

  • A question
  • A quotation
  • A fascinating fact
  • An Anecdote

Laurie Oliver, author of the how-to book, “The Story Within,”  identifies many other ways to begin:

  • With a list
  • With a memory
  • With a scene
  • With a reminiscence
  • With a reflection
  • With an assertion
  • With a diagnosis
  • With a general statement

One of the simplest ways to begin is by asking a question. For instance, what made Andy Warhol a fascinating artist? What was his contribution to the world of art?

Another easy way to begin is with a list. For example, here are the reasons why I write…

Another is to begin with a quotation. For instance, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”—St. Augustine.

An interesting fact can also introduce a good piece of creative writing. Writer David Remnick, the author of the profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (July 30th, 2012) begins with an interesting fact:

Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around New Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles.

Usually, the form of creative nonfiction you are sitting down to write will define the how to begin. For instance, a personal-narrative essay will usually begin at the beginning of the story. A meditative essay often begins with a question. For instance, What is the meaning of life? A travel essay can begin with a memorable scene. A literary journalism essay often begins with an interesting fact, generalization, assertion.

Writing the Ending

Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening. You need to know when to end and how to end a story. You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening. That is what William Zinsser tells us. There are several ways to end. The personal narrative usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. Some writer’s end by referring back to the beginning of the story.  If your entry point into the essay is a question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quote.

In the essay, “Slackers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he 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.

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!”

Other ways to end are to make a judgement or recommendation or share an insight.

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:

  1. “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise.”
  4. “What usually works best is a quotation.”

Zinsser also tells us 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.

There are no rules on how to end, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Whatever methods you choose, be sure to capture your reader’s attention when you begin. A good beginning draws your readers into the writing like a magnet.  And end your work with some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.

Resources

  • 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

Organizing a Personal Essay

In the last post, I defined the personal essay. In this post, I explain how to structure your personal essay. Remember that there are two types of personal essays. The first is a personal narrative in which you tell a story about an event or experience that had significant meaning to you, and resulted in a lesson that you learned. The second type is a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is of interest or importance to you.

There is no one method of structuring a personal essay. However, your essay does require a beginning, middle, and end.  After you have decided on a topic and determined what you are going to say, you can organize/structure your personal essay. Here is how:

Introduction or Lead

The introduction includes a hook that captures the reader’s attention, tells the reader what your personal essay is about, and why he/she should read your personal essay.

1. The hook: This is a sentence or more that grabs the reader’s attention.  It can be a:

  • Personal anecdote
  • Question
  • Quotation
  • Controversial statement
  • Fact or statistic

2. Your introduction also needs to introduce your personal experience or topic and how it is important to you.

Body

If you are writing a personal narrative, the body of your essay should include several paragraphs that narrate your story. You can include the following:

  • Narrative
  • Anecdote
  • Thoughts, feelings, opinion
  • Scene building

If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your body paragraphs will explain the problems or the issue, state the facts provide evidence, and perhaps possible solutions.

Whether you write a personal narrative or a personal opinion piece, each paragraph should include:

  • A topical sentence that introduces the paragraph.
  • Support for the topical sentence. Each supporting sentence must relate to the topical sentence.
  • Transitional words between sentence and paragraphs.

 

Conclusion or Ending

In On Writing Well, author William Zinsser states that  “the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right…For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when your ready to stop, stop.”

If you are writing a personal narrative, your conclusion should include the following:

  • What you learned from the experience or the personal meaning of the experience
  • A main point. It should answer the question “So what?” This makes your personal experience relevant to your reader.
  • You personal experience must provide a universal truth. That is why including the lesson that you learned or the insight you gained is important. The universal truth allows your readers to learn from your experience.

Give your readers a reason why your personal essay is relevant to his or her life by providing a universal truth. For instance, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your conclusion can include your recommendations, judgment, prediction, warning, final opinion or final thought. The key is to leave your reader with one final point to ponder.

Zinsser writes in On Writing Well: “It takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and concludes with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness.”

In summary, your personal essay must begin with a hook that inspires your readers to read your essay, and you must introduce your topic. In the middle, tell your story or provide support for your views on a topic. You can expand on your personal essay with evidence, action, dialogue, scene-building, and so forth. In your conclusion, you reveal the lesson that you learned from the experience or make your final, important point. Throughout the personal essay, you weave your theme.

In the next post, I will explain the techniques for writing a personal essay.

How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

Literary journalistic essays are a popular form of creative nonfiction. Their purpose is to inform and enlighten. Publications such as The New Yorker , The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s publish this type of writing. It is writing about facts that are external to the writer’s own life. The writer uses literary devices, such as dialogue, setting, characterization, and plot structure to tell a true story about a person, place, event, experience, or to write about a big idea, like counterterrorism.  The writer can choose any topic, so long as it can be researched. Most universities offer courses on how to write a literary journalistic essay, and many creative nonfiction textbooks include the topic of writing literary journalistic essays. Most published writers of creative nonfiction are experts on writing this type of  genre. Therefore, if you are going to write creative nonfiction, you ought to know what is a literary journalistic essay and how to write it.

This article defines the term “literary journalistic essay” and briefly explains how to write one. It also provides some tips on writing a literary journalistic essay,  and it identifies several good books to help you learn more.

Definition of a Literary Journalistic Essay

What is a literary journalistic essay? It is the “literature of fact.” The writer can compose an essay on any topic, such as drug addiction, rape, unemployment, spirituality, or crime. Whatever the topic, the writer needs factual and true information to write about a person, place, event, or idea. These facts must be verifiable. In fact, every important fact must be verifiable.

Most often, the literary journalistic essay requires that the writer complete some research, often extensive research, in order to uncover the facts. Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is based on the writer’s own life, a literary journalistic essay is based on another person’s life, or events, or experiences external to the writer’s own life.

Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is written from the first-person “I” point of view, the literary journalistic essay is written from the third person “he/she” point of view.

The writer’s goal is to dramatize the story or events by using dramatic scenes. A scene includes a location/setting, passage of time, details and descriptions, action of by the people in the story.

The writer also uses other literary devices to craft an interesting story. Popular literary techniques include simile, metaphor, and imagery.

The intention of the writer is to inform the readers and to also enlighten them with new information.

But the writer must do more than enlighten; the writer must also entertain by recreating the scene. The writing accomplishes this by using the elements of fiction, such as the use of characterization, dialogue, narrative structure, and so on.

The New Yorker magazine and the Best American Essays, a book that is published each year, includes many good literary journalistic essays.

How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

Unlike the formal essay taught in univesity history courses or english courses, there is no single way to write a liteary journalisitic essay. However, the writer does need to follow certain guidelines. For instance, the subject must be well-researched. The essay must include a lead that grabs the readers attention and tells the reader what the essay is about. The content of the essay must include interesting and informative facts, information that enlightens the reader about the topic. The content of the essay must also support the writer’s point of vew. And in writing the essay, the writer must use the literary devices. To close, the writer makes a final point. He/she  leaves the reader with one final point about the subject.

Breifly, to write the literary journalistic essay, do the following:

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Conduct Research.
  3. Write a dramatic story.
  4. Include a lead, facts/content, and ending.

Choosing a Topic

You can write about anything. Popular topics include:

  • Adventure
  • Biography
  • Business
  • Crime story
  • Family saga
  • History
  • Popular culture
  • Science and technology
  • Sports
  • Travel

Choose a topic that allows you to write intimately and to dramatize the story.

Before writing, ask yourself the following:

  • What type of lead do I wish to use?
  • What is the story about?
  • What are the themes?
  • What major points do I wish to make?
  • What facts do I have? What facts do I still need?
  • Are my facts verifiable?
  • Who have I interviewed? Who must Istill  interview?
  • How do I want to organize the essay? By topic? Chronological order? Logical order?
  • What are my own views on the topic? How do I wish to incorporate my views into the essay?

Research Your Topic

A literary journalist is based on fact. Therefore you will need to collect the facts for your story. The best approach is to use personal reportage. Here is how:

  1. Observe the person, event, or experience. Afterwards, make notes.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Immerse yourself in the story. In other words, live the experience. For instance, writer George Plimpton lived as a football player for a while to write Paper Lion.
  4. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
  5. Conduct a search of your topic using Google. Start by conducting a search on the Web to see what has been written on the subject.
  6. 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.

Observe Your Subject

A good way to learn about the person or topic is often by observation. Find out the following:

  1. What is your subject wearing?
  2. What is your subject saying?
  3. How is your subject behaving?

You can also immerse yourself in the story by becoming a participant.

Conducting an Interview

An interesting quotation from a subject matter expert or witness to the events can turn a dull story into one that captures the interest of the reader. If you are going to write good creative nonfiction, you must know how to interview. Here are a few tips:

  1. Make a list of questions to ask.
  2. Take a pen and paper, or tape record.
  3. Interview the subject matter experts.
  4. Ask the person you are interviewing to stop talking while you are attempting to take notes.
  5. After the interview, type out your notes.
  6. Save the toughest questions for last.
  7. Don’t quote a subject matter expert out of context.
  8. Don’t fabricate quotations.

Use Dramatic Scenes

To write the essay, incorporate the technique of “scene building” into the essay. To do this, show the reader, don’t tell them, what happened. Scene building isn’t a narrative summary, which includes generalizes time, collapses events, provides a brief descriptions and mentions people. Scene building isn’t an exposition, which explains and analyzes. Scene building isn’t a voice over, which interprets the experience. What, then, is scene building?

The writer recreates the event or experience in the mind of the reader. Scene building creates a dream in the mind of the reader. It is like a scene from a film. A scene takes place in a specific place at a particular time. It includes action and dialogue. It includes concrete and specific details, not abstract language and generalizations. It also includes details that appeal to the senses, such as the sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. It creates a sense of movement.

To summarize,  a scene includes the following elements:

  • Time. A scene takes place at a particular time.
  • Place. A scene takes place in a particular place. It provides context and creates a mood.
  • Details. A scene always includes important details. These details are concrete and specific, not general or abstract. A scene also includes scensory details, which appeal to the readers sensese, the sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
  • Action. A scene includes action, such as a confrontation, crisis, or the action and reaction of people.
  • Dialogue.  Not always, but often a scene include important comments and conversations.
  • Details and Descriptions. Use sensory images. The details reveal the underlying story or the universal truth.

This doesn’t mean that the writer excludes expositions or a summary from a literary journalistic essay. These elements have a function. It is just that the writer keeps each of these elements separate.

Include a Lead, Content, and Ending

Whether you write about a person, place, event, idea, your story needs a lead that tells the readers the purpose of your essay and why they should read the essay. The lead also needs to persuade the reader to read the essay. So, you must write a hook. It can be a quotation, interesting fact, important point, question, anecdote.

In the body of your essay, you can write about the important facts. In addition, you can include personal opinion, thoughts, and feelings. You can also use literary devices, such as imagery, metaphor, and simile. The key point is to remember to inform and enlighten your readers.

In a short essay, you can organize your points in chronological or logical order. In a longer essay, you can organize your ideas by topic. In this case, you can use headings and subheadings.

In closing, you need to leave the reader with an important point. Otherwise, the reader will think: “So what? What was the point of writing the essay”

Your goal is not to preach or sermonize. Your goals are to entertain, inform and enlighten your reader.

For more information on how to write a lead and ending, read my earlier post. You can also learn how by reading William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well.

Tips on How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There is no single method of writing a literary journalistic essay. That being said, a literary journalistic essay requires a lead, content that is based on factual information, and an ending. Here are a few tips on how to write the literary journalistic essay:

  1. Learn about your subject through personal reportage. Interview others, conduct research in the library and on the Web. Immerse yourself in the story.
  2. Outline your story before writing it. What is your lead? What important points do you wish to make? What facts do you have? How do you intend to end your essay?
  3. Include a lead and ending. The lead tells the reader what your essay  is about; The ending leaves your reader with a final message. What final point do you want to make?
  4. Use your distinctive voice. You reveal your voice by your choice of diction, choice of sentence patterns, choice literary devices, such as alliteration, imagery, metaphor, simile, and so forth.
  5. Write a true story about a person, place, event,or  idea. Make sure that the story is interesting and informative. If it isn’t, write about something else.
  6. Write dramatic scenes—action, dialogue, details, setting.
  7. Consider narrowing your topic to a brief period of time.
  8. Use literary devices. Popular devices include metaphor, simile, alliteration, and imagery.
  9. Tell your story using the third-person point of view. (he/she)
  10. Make use your writing reveals a universal truth or message. Otherwise your reader’s will say: “So what? What was the point?”
  11. Be sure your writing informs and enlightens. Before writing, use Google to check what has been written on the topic.
  12. Conduct extensive research on your topic. Often you will use only a partial amount of the information that you collect. Your goal is to become a subject matter expert, so that you can write as an expert.

Resources to Help You Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There are some excellent books available to help you in the art and craft of writing a literary journalistic essay. Here are a few of the good books you should read:

  • Writing Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerald. It provides good advice.
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. This is a must read.
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore. This book provides good how-to advice and an anthology.
  • The Fourth Genre: The Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction by Robert Root and Michael J. Steinberg.
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This book tells you how to develop your style and how to compose any writing. Buy it and internalize the advice on writing.
  • Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paula
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser. If you want to write creative nonfiction, you should buy and master the advice in this classic text.
  • The Best American Essays Series. It is published each year.

If you have any questions, please post them to this blog or send me an email at davehood59@gmail.com .

Next, I will explain how to gather facts, so that you can write a literary journalistic essay.

Writing the Lead and Ending

William Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well that “the most important sentence is the first one” when writing creative nonfiction or nonfiction.  Your first sentence needs to grab the readers’ attention and compel them to read on.

Zinsser also wrote that good piece of creative nonfiction includes an ending that makes an important point, one that readers can think about after reading.

Whether you write a personal essay, memoir, or article, your piece of writing requires a lead at the beginning and an ending that makes an important point.

This article explains how to write a lead and ending.

Writing the Lead

What is the lead? It introduces your essay, memoir, or article. According to Zinsser, a good lead does the following:

  1. It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook.
  2. It tells the reader why the piece was written.
  3. It tells the reader why he/she ought to read the article or essay.

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.

Methods of Writing a Lead

There are several methods to write your lead. 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.

When writing your lead, you can also answer a few questions, such as:

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

Writing the Ending

Once you finish writing your essay or article, you require a good ending. In “On Writing Well”, William Zinsser writes 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.”

A good ending is a sentence or two, or paragraph in length, but not any longer. A good lead should take the reader by surprise and seem like the correct place to stop.

How do you know when you are finished? Zinsser writes that when you are ready to stop, stop.

 Here is how to write an ending:

  1. Don’t summarize your essay or article.
  2. Your ending should encapsulate the central idea of your essay or article.
  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
  • Judgement
  • Recommendation
  • Call to action

A good piece of creative nonfiction includes both a strong lead and close. Be sure to learn the ways to write a lead and ending. Then use them when you write.

For more advice on how to write creative nonfiction, you can read  On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Next, I will discuss writing style, as it applies to creative nonfiction.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog.