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Writing Short Fiction: Voice and Writing Style

July 31 2013

Dave Hood

The writer’s voice is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing short fiction, including education, socialization, values, beliefs, religion, opinions, and life experiences. The writer’s writing style is part of voice. This writing style is what makes a writer authentic, original, different from other writers. It is what readers hear when they read the short story. The writer’s voice is their “public persona,” which is revealed on the page. The most important features of writing style are word choice or diction, sentence patterns, literary techniques, and tone.

One of the popular writing styles of fiction is the minimalist style. It was a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and also endorsed by Raymond Carver. This style focuses on the belief that “less is more.” Writers use short paragraphs, short sentences, write with the active voice, and use action verbs and concrete verbs. The writer omits or deletes every detail that is not essential to the writing. Subtext plays a strong role in this style of fiction.

You can develop your fiction writing style by reading and analyzing short fiction, and then incorporating the techniques of other writers into your own fiction.

(Note: You will also use these same guidelines and techniques to write poetry, personal essays, and other types of creative nonfiction.)

In this article, I’ll discuss writing style as it applies to fiction writing.  The following will be covered:

  • How to identify the author’s writing style.
  • Define Hemingway’s minimalist style.
  • Suggest a writing style to use for writing fiction.
  • Learning to write lyrical prose.
  • Developing your own writing style.

Analyzing Short Fiction

The writer’s style of writing is expressed through word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, the types of sentences or syntax , as well as the choice of fictional techniques.

The best short fiction writers use everyday language in a fresh and original way.  They also avoid using avoid clichés and jargon. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a word that has powerful meaning.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of sentence patterns, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences, sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of literary techniques, such as flashback, suspense, dialogue, showing and telling, and interior monologue.

The best short fiction writers also use the poetic devices of poetry, including simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and allusion. Some writers use similes and metaphors infrequently, such as Carver and Hemingway. Other writers use them a great deal.

The best short fiction writers use a tone that is conversational and respectful. Tone refers to the writer’s attitude to his/her subject and view of the audience. Never use a condescending tone. Learn to write fiction by reading short stories as a writer. Analyze how the writer used the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices to constructed the short story. As you read, answer these questions:

  1. How does the writer begin the short story? With conflict? With setting description? With dialogue? With action? With a memorable event?
  2. How does the writer develop the setting? What is the time and place of the story? Is it real or fantasy? Does the setting create a mood? Is the setting the antagonist? Does the setting provide a backdrop for the story?
  3. A short story must include conflict, turning point, and resolution. Identify the conflict, turning point, and resolution of the story.
  4. Which point of view does the writer use?
  5. What is the theme? How does the writer reveal theme to the reader?
  6. Where does the writer use scene and summary? What are the features of each scene?
  7. where is there dialogue in the story?  How does the writer use dialogue? What conventions are used?
  8. What fictional techniques does the writer use? What poetic devices does the writer use?
  9. What is the writing style of the writer? Does the writer use simple or fancy words? Does the writer use simple sentences , compound sentences, or fragments?
  10. How does the writer end the story? Does it include an epiphany? Lesson learned? Is the ending open, closed, or a summary?

One of the popular writing styles of short fiction is minimalism, popularized by Ernest Hemingway. He wrote minimalist short fiction. Years later, short story writer Raymond Carver also embraced this style of storytelling. Minimalist short fiction has these attributes:

  • Concrete nouns and action verbs
  • Few adverbs and adjectives
  • Short sentences
  • Short paragraphs
  • Short words and everyday language, as well as familiar instead of fancy words.
  • Minimal character and setting description
  • Minimal background details
  • Very little use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification
  • Insufficient resolution or ending to the story

Popular Fiction Writing Style

To write short fiction, develop a writing style that includes:

  • Concrete nouns
  • Action verbs
  • Active voice
  • Sentence variety
  • Figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification, allusion
  • Lyrical prose, using alliteration, assonance, repetition, parallel structure

Develop a writing style that is friendly and conversational. Learn to show and tell readers. Use sensory detail, language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. As well, read and master the advice in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Learning to Writer Lyrical Prose

Author Constance Hale, in “Sin and Syntax,” explains how you can learn to write literary prose. There are found components: voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm.

Voice

The writer must consider the literary meaning and implied meaning of words, as well as avoid using clichés and jargon. The writer should also use a variety of sentence patterns, such as a fragment, simple, and compound sentences.

Lyricism

The writer can create prose that sound musical by using the following:

  • Imagery-Use of sensory details.
  • Metaphor-Making a comparison between unlike things, without using “like” or “as.”
  • Simile-Making a comparison between unlike things, using “like” or “as.”
  • Personification. Describing things and objects and ideas by using human attributes. Example: The bible preaches its wisdom to anyone who takes the time.
  • Description. Using concrete, significant, and particular description. Example: He pressed the shutter on his black Nikon, full-frame camera, using a wide-angle lens, capturing a fleeting moment in time, a man being shot by police, for all the world to see.
  • Repetition. Repeating words and phrases in a sentence or sentences that are close to each other.

Example:

Streets and highway filled with an avalanche of snow. The plows bulldoze it away. Icicles hang from the eaves like a work of installation art. Cars stuck, spinning their wheels. The Maple leaf, stands, watches, as the neighborhood shovels. Kids frolic, build snow forts, toboggan down hills of snow in the park behind the school. The storm has interrupted daily routines and rituals.

Melody

The writer can create prose that have a melody by using the poetic devices of:

  • Assonance-Positioning two or more words with the same vowel sounds close together in a sentence.
  • Alliteration- Positing two or more words with the same initial consonant sounds in a sentence.
  • Internal rhyme Selecting words that rhyme and using them in the middle of a sentence.
  • Onomatopoeia -Using words that sound what they describe. Example: The fire crackled.

Rhythm

The writer should strive to create sentences that have rhythm. It refers to pattern, pace, repetition, and parallel structure of a sentence. A simple way to create rhythm is to count the stressed syllables in a sentence. The writer can slow down the pace with long sentences, and speed up the pace with short sentence. Create rhythm in your prose by developing sentences with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Learn to use repetition and parallel structure. Example: He smoked, drank, womanized, and died one day, lounging on the beach in the sunshine with a smile. ( Slow pace)

Developing Your Writing Style

Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several ways. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your mind. In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.

Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Try using the technique of stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.

Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference. As well, read Constance Hale’s “Sin and Syntax.”

Next, read short stories to learn how the writer constructed the story. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.

Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn to the major types of sentence patterns and then to write poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice?

Language choices contribute to writer style. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas, knowledge, and wisdom with your audience.

If you aspire to become a creative writer, learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.

Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.

It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind.

Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.

Additional Reading

To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
  • The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
  • The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
  • Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
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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

The Writer’s Craft: How to Write an Ending

November 26, 2012

by Dave Hood

How do you end a poem, short story, novel, personal essay—or any other type of creative writing? Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening…You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening.” This is the advice William Zinsser shares in “On Writing Well.

There are many ways to end a piece of creative writing, such as with a relevant quotation, with a recommendation, with a call to action, by referring back to the beginning. Often the genre you are writing and the idea you are writing about will dictate how to end.

The ending should provide a sense of closure to your writing. To write an ending, you should know when to end and how to end a piece of writing. Different genres, such as a short story, personal essay, or poetry,  have different suggestions for writing an ending.

In this article, I’ll explain what an ending must accomplish and provide some general suggestions on how to end a narrative or poem.

What Must Your Ending Accomplish

In the “Handbook of Magazine Article Writing,” it is suggested that the ending of an article should do one of the following:

  • Leave  readers with the idea that they have learned something.
  • Leave readers with the idea that they have gained some insight.
  • Show  reader how the information in the article impacts or relates to their lives
  • Encourage readers to conduct research or additional investigation.

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

  • “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
  • “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
  •  “What usually works best is a quotation.”

Zinsser also tells readers not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”

Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.

When you end, you must have answered all questions posed in the story or article or personal essay. Otherwise, the reader is left wondering, and feels your writing is incomplete. As well, the essay or narrative should be brought to a close. In other words, the reader knows that the narrative is complete. For instance, if you are writing about a journey, the end might be when the character reaches his/her destination. If you are writing a meditative essay, you might leave the reader with some final point to ponder. If you are writing an opinion essay, you might end with a final point. Writer Elizabeth Anderson, in her essay “IF God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” (The Portable Atheist, selected and introduced by the late Christopher Hitchens), ends her essay with the following judgement: “The moralist argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”

A great ending, in my view, leaves the reader with something to ponder or meditate about after he puts down the piece of writing. Sometimes the writer shares an epiphany or a lesson learned or words of wisdom.

There are no rules on how to end a piece of creative writing, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Your end should make some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.

How to Write An Ending

There are several ways to end. It all depends on the genre.  A personal-narrative essay usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. In a poem, the last line often makes some emphatic final point, some idea the writer can take away and ponder. In a short story or novel, the ending can be closed or open. In a closed ending, the story ends, and nothing else happens. In an open ending, the reader is left to imagine what might happen in the future. Trilogies end with an open ending. A popular technique for ending a story is to use a “cliff hanger.” Sometimes the writer ends a short story or novel ends with dialogue from the protagonist. Some writer’s end articles or personal essays or meditative essays by referring back to the beginning.  Other writers begin with a question, explore the question, then you can end with one final answer.  Many writer’s end with a final quotation.

Check out most literary journalism essays in the New Yorker, and you’ll discover that most writers end their writing with a final quotation from someone they’ve interviewed. In the essay, “Slackers” (July 30th, 2012),  writer, Malcolm Gladwell, ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes.” He was back on the track nine days later.” Clearly, there are many methods you can use to end a piece of creative writing. The decision is yours to make. It is a creative choice of the writer.

David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”

 You often read true and fictional stories about a calamity or disaster. The writer opens the story by describing a setting of normalcy. And then, the bomb is dropped, or the hurricane destroys the quiet life of the living, or the earthquake obliterates a town. The writer describes the cause and effects, and the struggles to survive and cleanup. In this sort of narrative, writers often end by “returning to the state of normalcy.”

 Some writers end with a telling anecdote, or by pointing to what will happen next in the story, or tell readers where to find additional information. Other writers end with an epilogue, which tells what happens to the characters later and how their stories continue.

Other ways to end a piece of creative writing include:

  • With a judgement
  • With recommendation
  • With a prediction
  • With an insight
  • With a hope or wish

There are no rules for ending a piece of writing, only suggestions. And every form of writing–whether a personal essay, poem, short story, article—has its own suggestions for ending. The final decision about how to end a piece of writing is the writer’s. It is one of the creative decisions of writing. Often the writer relies on a “gut feeling” or “intuition” or “sixth sense.” The worst thing a writer can do is overwrite or write a double ending. The best way to end is to leave your reader satisfied while giving the reader a sense of closure. William Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and seem exactly right.”

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
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, edited by Michelle Ruberg and Ben Yagoda
  • The New Yorker, “Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the Art of Exhaustion” by Malcolm Gladwell (July 30, 2012)

The Writing Process: The First Draft

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dave Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing Your Material

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

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

At the organization stage, do the following:

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

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

Types of Writing Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Required Tools for Writing the Draft

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

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

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

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

Writing the Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revising Your Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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