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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Profile/Biography Sketch

Friday, August-02-13

Dave Hood

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:

  1. What are the events or moments that shaped your life?
  2. What are your biggest accomplishments and achievements?
  3. What are you afraid of?
  4. What is your biggest regret?
  5. What setbacks or obstacles have you faced?
  6. What motivates you?
  7. What are your fears and worries?
  8. 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

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

Developing Character

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.

Vivid Descriptions

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.

Writing Style

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.

Revision

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. Include dialogue. A good profile includes dialogue, revealing some personality trait.
  7. Include telling details. A good profile includes vivid description, revealing some personality trait.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Additional Reading

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
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Creative Nonfiction: Doing Research to Increase Understanding

Dave Hood

Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism.  The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.

In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life. 

Purpose of Research

You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.

Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.

And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.

If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.

Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book,  “Tell It Slant.”

Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will  involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.

There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.

Methods of Research

Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.

Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”

The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Books
  • Periodicals
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
  • Online catalogues to help you find facts

Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.

The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.

Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.

Researching Your Own Life

Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.

Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year

Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:

  • Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
  • Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
  • Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
  • First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
  • Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
  • Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
  • Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
  • Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.

Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.

What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research  to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.

Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:

  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel

Writing Creative Nonfiction: A Toolbox of Techniques

Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.

There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.

Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.

In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.

Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for  writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?

Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:

  • Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
  • Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
  • Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
  • Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
  • Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.

As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure,  resulting in a new structure or shape.

Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.

Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.

Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll  recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.

Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you  must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Action-something happens.
  • Dialogue-someone something not always
  • Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
  • Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
  • Point of View-first, second, third person.
  • Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
  • Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end

Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.

You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.

Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.

Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:

  • Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
  • Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
  • Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
  • Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
  • Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
  • Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
  • Theme-the meaning of the story

The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.

Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Personification
  • Imagery
  • Assonance and alliteration
  • Allusion

Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.

Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:

  • Personal thoughts and feelings
  • Opinions
  • Ruminations
  • Personal perspective
  • stream of consciousness
  • Mediations

Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.

 Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction.   Avoid using clichés and jargon.

Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:

  • Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation.  A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
  • Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
  • Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind,  to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
  • Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
  • Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
  • Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.

Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:

  • Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
  • Parallel Structure
  • Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
  • Alliteration and Assonance
  • Sensory Imagery

Resources.

For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Voice and Style

Dave Hood

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers

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

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

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

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

The Writer’s Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer’s Style

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

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

How to Develop Your Writing Style

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

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

A Few Tips

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

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

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

Resources

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

Self-Publishing Your Creative Writing

In this post, I discuss self-publishing. There are two methods of self-publishing. First, you can use your own money to publish a manuscript for a book. Secondly, you can create a website or blog and publish your work on the Web. A blog is good for publishing shorter works of creative writing, such as your poetry, flash fiction, short fiction, personal essays, literary journalistic essays, book reviews.

Self-Publishing a Manuscript

Most new writers will have a difficult time publishing their manuscripts. There are several reasons why. First, the editor might not want to publish your book because he/she doesn’t like it.

Or, the editor might not want to publish your book because he/she believes there is insufficient interest in the genre you are writing about.

The editor will also be reluctant to publish your book because you don’t have a platform (website, blog, published work, teaching credentials, education, and writing portfolio). Essentially, you are an unknown commodity.

Sometimes the editor will enjoy your book but won’t publish the book because it won’t sell in the current book market. What does the aspiring writer do? You could do what Charles Dickens did with the Christmas Carol: Publish the book yourself.

Whatever the case, first time writers are going to have difficult time publishing their work.

If you really want to publish your work, you have a few options.

When to Consider Self-Publishing a Manuscript

When might you consider self-publishing? If you have the money to pay for the costs of publishing, you can consider self-publishing. If you just want to publish for the pleasure of it, you can consider self-publishing. If your book is written for a small audience, you might consider self-publishing. If you believe there is a larger market for you book, you might consider self-publishing. If you want to build your writing platform, you can consider self-publishing.

Drawbacks to Self-Publishing

The big drawback of self-publishing is that many in the book publishing industry see it as a form of self-promotion and shoddy way of getting published. Often you won’t be taken seriously as a writer.

The other major drawback is marketing. You need to be able to get the word out—to make the public aware of the fantastic book you have written. You need money to market your book. Most writers don’t have the money to pay the marketing costs. You also need a place to sell your book. Most retail book chains or independent stores will refuse to sell your work. So, you will be forced to sell your book at the Farmer’s Market, flea market, or book fair.

Tips for Self-Publishing a Manuscript

  1. Only consider self-publishing if you have the money.
  2. Only consider self-publishing if you have the time to market and sell your book.
  3. Before you print your book, be sure you have edited and proofread every page.
  4. Research the market to be sure that people will be interested in your book. Your book needs to be unique.
  5. Use a reputable publisher to print your manuscript.
  6. Be sure to find out the costs of publishing the book.
  7. As an option, check out e-publishing.

Self-Publishing on the Web

Many writers are now using the Web to market and promote their work. Established writers usually have websites that include a summary of the book, book reviews, and additional information related to the book.

More and more writers are also turning to the Web to blog or write about their passions on a Website. For instance, creating a blog is a very good way for the aspiring writer to self-publish poetry or short stories or personal essays or literary journalistic essays. The writer can do the same with a website.

Here are a few suggestions for self-publishing on the Web:

  1. Use free software to create your blog or website. The ideal tool for creating a blog is www.wordpress.com . Just follow the instructions, choose a theme, add your features, and start blogging.
  2. Learn how to write for the Web. Unlike the printed page, people scan or skim Web pages, looking for useful information. They don’t read for every word. That means you need to chunk your information in small paragraphs, use headings and subheadings, use bulleted lists, and link the reader to related content. (For more information, see my article on “Writing for the Web.”
  3. Post useful content. Don’t write about yourself, unless it will entertain or interest your audience. You can include your poetry, flash fiction, short stories, personal essays, and literary journalistic articles.
  4. Edit and proofread your work before posting it.
  5. Your website or blog should have a specific theme. Only post content that is related to the theme. For instance, this website is about creative writing. Only poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, digital media, and how-to information are posted to this blog. Nothing else.
  6. Provide links to related information. If there is a useful website, provide a link on your blog.
  7. Add content to your blog or website on a regular basis. If readers are aware that you are adding information to your blog on a regular basis, they are more likely to revisit.

At the very least, self-publishing is a way to build your writing platform and writing portfolio. But, there are drawbacks. Before you consider self-publishing, you must weigh the pros and cons.

Writing Creative Nonfiction

What is creative nonfiction? It involves writing about personal experience, real people, or events. It is writing about fact, rather than fiction. The writer can write about anything, such as a personal experience, current events, or issues in the public eye. The writer can also inject personal thoughts, feelings, or opinions into the writing. Often, the writer uses the first person “I.” Popular types of creative nonfiction include the personal essay, memoir, autobiography, literary journalistic essay, travel writing, and food writing. Creative nonfiction is also known as “Literary Journalism.”

This article identifies the techniques of creative nonfiction, defines the various types of creative nonfiction, provides some guidelines, and lists several popular books and several resources to help the aspiring writing learn the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction.

 

How to Write Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer produces a  personal essay, memoir, travel piece, and so forth, with  a variety of  techniques, writing tools, and  methods. He/she is required to use the elements of nonfiction, literary devices of fiction, and what Lee Gutkind called “the 5 Rs of Creative nonfiction.”  The following is a brief explanation of each:

Elements of Creative Nonfiction

The creative nonfiction writer often incorporates several elements of nonfiction when writing a memoir, personal essay, travel writing, and so on. The following is a brief explanation of the most common elements of nonfiction:

  • Fact. The writing must be based on fact, rather than fiction. It cannot be made up.
  • Extensive research. The piece of writing is based on primary research, such as an interview or personal experience, and often secondary research, such as gathering information from books, magazines, and newspapers.
  • Reportage/reporting. The writer must be able to document events or  personal experiences.
  • Personal experience and personal opinion. Often, the writer includes personal experience, feelings, thoughts, and opinions. For instance, when writing a personal essay or memoir.
  • Explanation/Exposition. The writer is required to explain the personal experience or topic to the reader.
  • Essay format. Creative nonfiction is often written in essay format. Example: Personal Essay, Literary Journalistic essay, brief essay.

Literary Elements

Creative nonfiction is the literature of fact. Yet, the creative nonfiction writer utilizes many of the literary devices of fiction writing.  The following is a list of the most common literary devices that writers incorporate into their nonfiction writing:

  • Storytelling/narration. The writer needs to be able to tell his/her story. A good story includes an inciting incident, a goal, challenges and obstacles, a turning point, and resolution of the story.
  • Character. The nonfiction piece often requires a main character. Example: If a writer is creating his/her memoir, then the writer is the central character.
  • Setting and scene. The writer creates scenes that are action-oriented; include dialogue; and contain vivid descriptions.
  • Plot and plot structure. These are the main events that make up the story. In a personal essay, there might be only one event. In a memoir, there are often several significant events.
  • Figurative language. The writer often uses simile and metaphor to create an interesting piece of creative nonfiction.
  • Imagery. The writer constructs “word pictures” using sensory language. Imagery can be figurative or literal.
  • Point of view. Often the writer uses the first person “I.”
  • Dialogue. These are the conversations spoken between people. It is an important component of creative nonfiction.
  • Theme. There is a central idea that is weaved through the essay or work. Often, the theme reveals a universal truth.

The 5’Rs of Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind, who is a writer, professor, and expert on creative nonfiction, wrote an essay called “The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction.” In this essay, he identified five essential elements of creative nonfiction. These include:

  1. Creative nonfiction has a “real life” aspect. The writer constructs a personal essay, memoir, and so forth, that is based on personal experience.  He also writes about real people and true events.
  2. Creative nonfiction is based on the writer engaging in personal “reflection” about what he/she is writing about. After gathering information, the writer needs to analyze and assess what he/she has collected. He then must evaluate it and expression his thoughts, views, opinions. Personal opinion is permissible and encouraged.
  3. Creative nonfiction requires that the writer complete research. The writer needs to conduct research to learn about the topic. The writer also needs to complete research to discover what has been written about the topic. Even if a writer is crafting a personal essay, he will need to complete secondary research, such as reviewing a personal journal, or primary research, such as interviewing a friend or family member, to ensure that the information is truthful and factual.
  4. The fourth aspect of creative nonfiction is reading. Reading while conducting research is not sufficient. The writer must read the work of the masters of his profession.
  5. The final element of creative nonfiction is writing. Writing creative nonfiction is both an art and craft. The art of creative nonfiction requires that the writer uses his talents, instincts, creative abilities, and imagination to write memorable creative nonfiction. The craft of creative nonfiction requires that the writer learn and deploy the style and techniques of creative nonfiction in his/her work.

Types of Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is about fact and truth.  The truth can be about a personal experience, event, or issue in the public eye. There are many categories or genres to choose from, such as the personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.  The following is a list of the most popular types of creative nonfiction:

  • Personal Essay. The writer crafts and essay that is based on personal experience or a single event, which results in significant personal meaning or a lesson learned. The writer uses the first person “I.”
  • Memoir. The writer constructs a true story about a time or period in his/life, one that had significant personal meaning and a universal truth. The writer composes the story using the first person “I.”
  • Literary journalism essay. The writer crafts an essay about an issue or topic using literary devices, such as the elements of fiction and figurative language.
  • Autobiography. The writer composes his/her life story, from birth to the present, using the first person “I.”
  • Travel Writing. The writer crafts articles or essays about travel using literary devices.
  • Food writing. The writer crafts stories about food and cuisine using literary devices.
  • Profiles. The writer constructs biographies or essays on real people using literary devices.

Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Not only must the aspiring writer of creative nonfiction learn the techniques, but he/she also requires a good understanding of the guidelines. The following are 12 guidelines for writing any type of creative nonfiction:

  1. Research the topic. Both primary (interview, personal experience, or participant observation) and secondary research (books, magazines, newspaper, Web)
  2. Never invent or change facts.  An invented story is fiction.
  3. Provide accurate information. Write honestly and truthfully. Information should be verifiable.
  4. Provide concrete evidence. Use facts, examples, and quotations.
  5. Use humour to make an important point.
  6. Show the reader what happened, don’t tell them what happened. To do this, dramatize the story.
  7. Narrate the story. A story has an inciting incident, goal, conflict, challenges, obstacles, climax, and resolution.
  8. Write about the interesting and extraordinary. Write about personal experiences, interesting people,  extraordinary events, or provide a unique perspective on everyday life.
  9. Organize the information. Two common techniques are chronological or logical order.
  10. Use literary devices to tell the story. Choose language that stimulates and entertains the reader, such as simile, metaphor, imagery.
  11. Introduce the essay or other work with a hook. Its purpose is to grab the readers’ attention and compel them to reader further. Popular hooks include a quotation, question, or thought-provoking fact.
  12. End the creative nonfiction piece with a final, important point. Otherwise the reader will think, “So what!” “What was the point? It was an interesting story, but how does it apply to me or my life?”

Reading List

There have been many creative nonfiction books written about a wide variety of topics, such as divorce, abuse, and happiness. To help the aspiring writer learn the art and craft of creative nonfiction, he/she ought read creative nonfiction books by the best writers. By doing this, the writer acquires an appreciation for good writing and  learns how creative nonfiction is written. Some of the most popular creative nonfiction books include:

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
  • Paper Lion by George Plimpton
  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolf

As well, there are several good books that are currently on many bestseller lists:

  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The White Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi
  • Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  • Nigh by Elie Wiesel

Magazines

There are also many popular magazines that publish all types of creative nonfiction, including:

 

Resources for the Aspiring Writer

To write creative nonfiction, the aspiring writer must learn the craft.  He/she can do this by taking a course or through self-study. Both involve reading text books. The following books will help the aspiring writer learn how to write creative nonfiction:

  • Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality by Gary Talese
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore
  • Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth edited by Bill Roorbach
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition): The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers.

Next, I will explain how to write a lead and ending.

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