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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Narrative History

By Dave Hood

Instead of writing the personal narrative, many writers turn outward, and write true stories about the past, including stories of historical people, historical places, and historical events. They write from many perspectives: as a victim, as a witness or observer, or as historian or lover of history. For instance, Erik Larson recently wrote the bestseller “The Devil in the White City,” a true story about the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial killer. To write the narrative history, Larson used newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. Historian David McCullough has written several books of historical narrative, including “1776,” “Truman,” and “John Adams.”

Writers are not required to write books of history. Many writer craft creative nonfiction essays using the techniques of historical narrative. To write about history, using the historical narrative approach, writers must conduct extensive research and then write their story using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. The historical narrative is highly descriptive, and so scene and description must be used. Writers are not suppose to fabricate dialogue or events. As well, they are expected to complete rigorous fact-checking. No fact should be included that has not been verified through fact-checking.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss creative nonfiction as it applies to writing about history. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of history
  • Perspectives on history
  • Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Nonfiction history versus creative nonfiction
  • Gather material through research
  • Writing style for the historical narrative
  • Additional reading

Defining History

There are many definitions of history. Here’s my view: The historian or lover of history studies the past, collects, analyze, interprets facts, determine cause and effect, and share the significance of the past, in an effort to teach humanity not to make the same mistakes again and to learn how to recreated the achievements of the past. Writing about history involves writing about past events, such as the Civil war, World War I, Roaring Twenties, Viet Nam War, War on Terror. Writing about history also involves writing about historical people who are now deceased, such as Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and many more. As well, the writer can share a story about ordinary events and ordinary people, providing the story is interesting.

How can the you craft narrative about history? Four popular ways to write about history are:

  • Writing a Memoir. It is writing about a period in the person’s life, not their entire life. Often political leaders write about their experiences in public office. Anyone can write a memoir, providing it is interesting and unique.
  • Writing a biography. You can research the person and their life, and then write a life story, including details of obstacles and setback that were overcome, achievements and accomplishments, significance to the present day. Historians often writer biographies about public figures, such as presidents and prime ministers and generals, icons of popular culture. For instance, David McCullough wrote biographies of “Truman” and “John Adams.” Other writers have written biographies on Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, President Bush, Prime Minister Trudeau, Reagan, and countless others.
  • Short Profile or Biography Sketch. Instead of writing a biography, many writers write a biography sketch or profile of a historical figure, artist, politician, writer, photographer, even an ordinary person. The sketch is much shorter than autobiography or biography, usually between 500 to 2,000 words. Unlike the books of biography or memoir, the profile or sketch is published in magazines or newspapers.
  • Narrative History. You can use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and figurative language to tell a true story about a person or event in history. You can write a creative nonfiction essay, based on historical narrative, or a book of narrative history.

Perspectives Of History

When writing from a creative nonfiction perspective, instead of writing a personal essay,  you are writing about another person, place, event, idea, or topic in history. You are also applying the research methods and writing techniques of creative nonfiction. You are moving outward, viewing the outside world, instead of looking inward to your “self,” and those memories that are part of your past. You can view the world as a witness to history, as a victim of history, or as an author of history.

When writing as a victim of history, you are writing a true narrative about how some historical event impacted you and your life . For instance, all of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had friends and families, who were victims. Suppose you are a victim, a family member who lost a loved one in the attacks of 9/11. You could write about 9/11 by sharing historical facts of the event, by explaining the causes, and by contributing your personal reflections.

When writing as a witness of history, you are an observer of the world, watching it unfold before your eyes. Every year, you are witness to many global events and public figures of historical significance, which will become stories in history textbooks, for future generations to learn. For instance, President Obama is the first black president of the United States. To understand the significance of this, you must have a sense of history–the civil rights movement, racial discrimination of blacks in American throughout history, the Civil War, and slavery of blacks.

When writing as an author of history, you are researching the past, and writing about it. Either you are a historian or lover of history. Each of these roles requires that you become a subject matter expert. You must immerse yourself in the life of the person or the historical event, reading everything you can, visiting the places of historical significance, immersing yourself in the past by reading diaries, journals and notebook, watching historical film footage, gazing at vintage photographs. As an author of history, you are the historian, sharing facts, anecdotes, description, narrative, interpretation, and analysis. Your purpose is to educate, inform, and entertain.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

To write about history as a creative nonfiction writer, you must embrace the advice of Lee Gutkind, expert on creative nonfiction. And so, you must do the following:

  • Write about real Life. Your topic will be real people, actual events, and real places. Nothing is fictional or fabricated.
  • Conduct extensive research. You will gather facts and information and impressions from the library, interviews, Internet, immersion, and more.
  • Write the historical narrative. You will use the elements of fiction, such as the narrative arc, literary techniques, such as showing and telling, and figurative language, such as simile and metaphor, to write the true story of history.
  • Share personal reflection. You will share personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives with the reader.
  • Learn about the person or event by reading. You must read autobiographies, biographies, and other informative books about history.

Gathering Material Through Research

When you conduct research, find the answers to the following: who? what? when? where? why? how? To answer these questions, gather information from the following:

  1. Immersion. Visit the place where event occurred or museum that contains artifacts and other historical material.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them, such as historian. Or interview eyewitnesses. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazines, articles, newspaper clippings, journals, and take notes.
  4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what historians have written about the person or event or issue. The search results will also reveal where there are books and magazines and journals on the topic, or subject matter experts. As well, visit History Matters
  5. Reading on your own. During your leisure time, read books, magazines, newspapers, and articles about historical events and historical people.
  6. Read primary sources to understand the person and place. Read diaries and letters and journals to understand the person who is now deceased.

Nonfiction History versus Creative Nonfiction History

Both creative nonfiction and nonfiction writers inform and educate readers. A nonfiction history presents the facts and causes and effects, and significance. In contrast, creative nonfiction does the same, but also adds narrative history, including storytelling, dialogue, setting, character development, vivid description.

The writer of nonfiction history uses an authoritative tone and third person POV (he/she). The writer of historical narrative can use the first person POV (“I”) third person (“He/she”) As well, the creative nonfiction writer uses a friendly, conversational tone, and personal reflection.

The writer of nonfiction history tells the story using formal language and a matter-of-fact presentation, without personal reflection or use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery. In contrast, the creative nonfiction writer puts into use personal reflection and figurative language.

Both methods and approaches require extensive research, including immersion, interviewing eye witness or experts, reading books and journals at the library, viewing public records. Both the historian, who writes nonfiction history, and creative nonfiction writer, desire to inform, educate, and entertain readers.

Writing the Historical Narrative

Writing about history requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a layperson? Are you writing as an expert? Next, narrative history essays are stories about actual people, actual places, and actual events.  You’ll reconstruct the important people and events using the narrative arc and scenes. You’ll use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, vivid descriptions, and figurative language to write the narrative. As well, always revise your first draft.  Here are a few tips on how to write the historical narrative:

Word choice

Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.

Elements of Fiction

All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.

A narrative history is structured as a narrative arc. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict, either internal or external
  • Turning point or climax
  • Resolution. End of the story.

If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue.

Point of View

Write the historical narrative using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection

Use one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happened and to describe behaviour. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain, to summarize, and to tell readers. As well, use personal reflection to share personal opinion.

Figurative Language

Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Allusion

Vivid Descriptions

To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what the reader will see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction

When writing true stories of history or historical people, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.

Writing Style

Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

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).

Staying Informed

Writer about history requires that you learn about the past and stay informed about the present. Here are a few suggestions on how to stay informed:

  • Read biographies of famous people, such as Hitler, Mao, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Bin Laden, Thatcher
  • Keep a history idea journal. Events unfold every day, and so record the details–your opinions, impressions, and observations of what you see or hear in the media.
  • Keep a history file. When an event of historical significance happens, read relevant newspapers and magazines, and save the important magazine articles and newspaper clippings.
  • Learn about history by visiting History Central .
  • Read creative nonfiction books, which focuses on historical people and historical events.

Additional Reader

For additional information on writing narrative history, 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
  • Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed American by Erik Larson
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
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Writing Creative Nonfiction: On Popular Culture

Aug 6 2013
By Dave Hood

Instead of writing a personal essay or memoir, creative nonfiction writers often craft literary journalism essays and reviews about popular culture, including film, art, photography, famous people, fashion, and music. For instance, the popular magazine, “The New Yorker,” publishes literary journalism essays as profiles of public figures, perspectives on current events, essays on topics in the news, as well as film, music, and book reviews. “Harper’s” and “The Atlantic” are other magazine that publishes literary journalism essays. As well, many literary journals publish literary journalism essays, including Tin House, Epiphany, Witness.

The literary journalistic essay, as it applies to writing about popular culture, involves writing true stories about people, places, events, film, books, music, photography, art, and so forth. Writers craft this category of essay by completing research and then writing the narrative using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. Writers usually narrate the story from the third person POV (“he/she”) and include scene, summary, and personal reflection.

Sometimes a creative nonfiction writer will play the part of a reviewer or critic, reviewing a film, concert, painting, or book. This review will include a description or summary, share the pros and cons, provide opinion and recommendation. For instance, a writer might write a literary review of a book that’s just been published, and the reader will use the review to decide whether to purchase the book.

The purpose of the literary journalistic essay and review of pop culture are always to inform, educate, and entertain readers.

In this article, I’ll discuss popular culture as it applies to writing literary journalism essays and reviews. The following will be covered:
• Defining popular culture
• Perspectives for writing about popular culture
• The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
• Gathering material by completing research
• Writing a review
• Writing a literary journalistic essay
• Tips for writing about popular culture
• Additional reading

Defining Popular Culture

There are many definitions of popular culture. Essentially, popular culture refers to the contemporary popular culture of a particular society, such as Western pop culture. It deals with the contemporary aspects of film, photography, art, sculpture, painting, cuisine, genre fiction, poetry, music, fashion, trends, fads, influential people, such as political leaders, rock stars, sports heroes, Hollywood starlets, video games, anything to do with the current popular culture.

From pop culture, we define our tastes, likes and dislikes, identities, fashion, leisure time, beliefs, values, norms, and much more. Pop culture includes many institutions, such as Hollywood, where many motion pictures are produced. An important element of pop culture is the mass media: television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, film, Internet. These institutions create brands that people can embrace and relate to. A particular “brand” can become an emblem of pop culture. For instance, anything Apple is now part of the pop culture of contemporary society in 2013. These institutions also shape our values, views, opinions, beliefs, and behaviour.

The physical artifacts of an era are an aspect of popular culture. Digital technologies play an important role in defining our current popular culture. Most people own either a smart phone, tablet, such as iPad, or digital music play, like the iTouch. Most people surf the Internet for work, or entertainment, or leisure. Many people use the computer to access social media, such as Facebook, to connect with friends and share their lives. Many use the computer to access YouTube to watch and post videos and Flickr to view and post photographs. It seems that young people now spend more leisure time surfing the web, text messaging, visiting Facebook than watching television. The masses have embraced digital photography, capturing an endless stream of snapshots with their smart phones or point-and-shoot digital cameras. Everyone is now a digital photographer. Digital technologies pervade the popular culture of 2013.

Serendipity often creates pop culture. Fads and trends happen by accident or chance. For instance, in the late 60s and 70s, long hair was fashionable for men. Now many men “crop” their hair as though they are enrolled in the army. Men and women adorn their bodies with a coloured tattoos. These trends arrived by accident, pure chance. At some point, the trends will depart, and be replaced by something new.

Influential people, such as Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, or Bono of U2 also create popular culture, and shape how we dress, think, and act. For instance, Steve Jobs was the “mastermind” of the digital technologies which pervade contemporary life, such as iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.

Zeitgeist

Any definition of popular culture most include Zeitgeist. It is a German word, which means “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time”, and refers to the cultural, political, ethical, intellectual, spiritual climate of a culture during a specific era or time frame. The spirit of a particular era will include the shared views, shared attitudes, shared feelings, shared tastes, shared morality, and shared preferences toward war and technology, political movements and religion, economic conditions and types of work, new scientific discovers, or anything that is part of society.

Think of zeitgeist as the “collective consciousness” of a particular generation. To understand it, you’ll have to conduct research on the Internet and in the library, uncovering the significant events and people and artifacts. Then you’ll have to analyze this popular culture and write the essay, providing examples, which illustrate the idea of collective consciousness. For instance, a decade from now, people will look back and see that digital technologies, such as the iPhone, iPad, Internet, social media, were important aspects of our collective consciousness.

To assist you understanding the “spirit of the time,” use the Google Search called Google Zeitgeist . It will tell you what is on the minds of people. For instance, in 2010, according to Google Zeitgeist, the iPad, Master Chef, Justin Bieber, were some of the most popular searches, and on the minds of millions of people around the world. You might then ask: Is there a spirit of hope or hopelessness, progress or regression, optimism or cynicism, alienation or inclusion?

Perspectives for Writing about Popular Culture
When writing a literary journalistic essay, writers use popular culture in several ways: They use popular culture to provide context to a story. They write as subject matter experts on some feature of popular culture, or as a witnesses to some aspect of popular culture, such as film, art, photography. Play the role of reviewer and write reviews on books, film, music, art, theatre, and more.

Pop culture can provide context to personal narrative or literary journalism essay. Often when writers craft essays that include setting, they allude to the music, film, fashion, values, beliefs of the time period. This provides context to the story. How does a writer find out what happened twenty or thirty years ago? Writers can use a timeline, which shows the significant events, popular culture, and influential people for a particular year. A good website to find context for a true story is http://www.history central.com

The writer, often a subject matter expert, writes a commentary or opinion on some an entertainment personality, film, music concert, event, issue.

The writer might write as a witness. For instance, the writer might craft a personal narrative about a visiting to the Art Gallery, such as the Museum of Modern Art or attending the Bruce Springsteen concert, or what it feels like to cheer for a losing football team, such as the Buffalo Bills.

The writer can play the role of reviewer or critic. For instance, experts in film write film reviews, ,experts in music write music reviews, experts on art write literary journalistic essays about painting, sculpture, photography. To review some “art form,” the reviewer must experience the art. For instance, if the writer is writing a book review, the writer must first read the book. If the writer is writing a film review, the writer must first watch the film. If the writer is writing a review on some painting or sculpture or installation or photograph, the writer must first attend the exhibition.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about pop culture requires that you follow the advice of Lee Gutkind’s “Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction:” He suggests the following:
• Write about real life, real people, actual events, real art forms, and actual places.
• Complete research, collecting facts from the library, interviewing experts, reading essays on the Internet, watching television or film, listening to music, immersing yourself in the “art form.”
• Write an essay or review about some feature of popular culture. Use immersion and other tools of research, facts, and fact checking to write the essay or review.
• Include personal reflection. Share your personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives about popular culture.
• Read widely and deeply. Read books, magazines, articles, essays, commentary, Internet blogs to understand to the topic, issue, event, or person.

Gathering Material to Write the Literary Journalistic Essay

If you intend to write about pop culture, you must stay informed and conduct research whenever you have a topic to write about.

Staying Informed
Here are a few publications that will help you learn about pop culture and stay informed:
• Music. If you intend to write about the music scene, including singers, song writers, artists, bands, rock, pop, soul, rap, jazz, begin by reading “Rolling Stone” magazine.
• Art. If you desire to learn about modern or contemporary art and artists, read “Canadian Art”, “Art in America,” and “Artnews.”
• Film. If you want to learn and write about film, turn the pages of “Sight and Sound” magazine.
• Fashion. If you desire to become an expert on fashion, read “Vogue” magazine (for women) or “GQ” magazine (for men).
• General entertainment news. Stay informed by reading “Entertainment Weekly” and “The New Yorker” magazine, and by reading the entertainment section of your newspaper.
• Literary journals. These are specialized publications, illustrating the best of some an art form. For instance, to read short fiction and poetry, read the journals Granta, Epiphany, Witness, Tin House.

Conducting Research
A literary journalism essay is based on facts, gathered from research. Writers can use different methods of research, including:
1. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
2. Immerse yourself in the story. Attend a music concert, or watch the film, visit the art gallery, and then make notes.
3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what has been written on the subject and where there are books, magazines, journals, subject matter experts.
5. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.

Writing a Review

Before writing a review, you should first experience the art form, such as viewing the painting or seeing the film. You should also have a good understanding of the genre. For instance, if you`re going to write a film review, you should have a good understanding of movie terms, concepts, film making techniques, movie stars, and history of film. Writer William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” provides some suggestions for completing a review:
1. Love the art form or medium you are reviewing. In other words, if you don`t like film, be sure not to write a review. It will be tainted.
2. Don`t tell the readers everything. For instance, if you`re writing a book review, don`t tell the readers the ending. Provide them with only enough detail to convince them to read or ignore the book.
3. Don`t use adjectives to exaggerate your impression of the art form
4. Use a minimal writing style to express what you think and observe.

As well, when writing a review, do the following:
• Summarize what you observed, heard, or experienced with your senses.
• Share pros and cons.
• Give you opinion. Tell readers whether you like it.
• Make a recommendation. Should the audience see the film or read the book or visit the art exhibition.

Writing a Book Review

There are many ways to write a book review. Just check out the Globe & Mail or The New York Times, and you will see that each newspaper includes them. Lovers of books desire to read them. All book reviews should include a summary of the book, identify the book’s strengths and weaknesses, specify the publishing information (title, author, page count, price), and determine whether the reader ought to read the book. Here is one method you can use to write a book review:

Before Reading the Book
Before reading, scan the book and make notes of the following:
• Title. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Preface. Does it tell you the purpose of the book?
• Table of Contents. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Glossary. Does the book include a glossary? Does it appear useful?
• Index. Does the book include an index? Is it useful?

After scanning through the book, jot down your impressions. Next, research the author to find out what his/her biases, views, expertise, and other books he/she has written.

Reading the Book
While reading the book, make notes on the following:
• Your impressions
• Author’s argument
• Author’s main points
• Facts and evidence
• Topics covered
• Theme
• Strengths and weaknesses

Writing the Book Review
Your first paragraph needs a hook, which grabs your reader’s attention. You should also include the name of the author and title of the book. The body of your review requires a summary and should identify some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of the book. You should conclude with a recommendation.

Your book review also requires the following publishing information:
• Title of the book
• Name of the author
• Name of the publisher
• Page count
• Price of the book

Most book reviews include information about the author, such as the author’s views and biases, the author’s expertise on the subject, other books that the author has written. A good book review identifies the types of readers who will enjoy reading the book, and it indicates whether the information in the book is useful to the reader. Many good book reviews also state whether the book expands on the existing body of knowledge.

Writing the Literary Journalistic Essay

Writing about popular culture requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a witness? Are you writing as an expert? Or do you only want to use popular culture to provide context to a personal narrative essay or literary journalistic essay? Or are you writing about popular culture as a reviewer? Follow these suggestions:

Word choice
Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.

Elements of Fiction
All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.

When you narrate a true story, use a narrative arc. It includes:
• Inciting incident
• Conflict, either internal or external
• Turning point or climax
• Resolution. End of the story.

If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue. Always answer the question: Who is this person?

Point of View
Write the literary journalistic essay on popular culture using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
If you’re writing a narrative, write one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happens. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain and tell readers background information. As well, use personal reflection to share your impressions and emotional truth (How does it feel to you?).

Figurative Language
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
• Simile
• Metaphor
• Personification
• Allusion

Vivid Descriptions
To reconstruct setting and events and impressions of people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction
When writing true stories of popular culture or people of popular culture, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.

Writing Style
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

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).

Tips for Writing about Popular Culture
Popular culture is never static. It is always evolving. New things are continuously being introduced, such as film, music, art, and technologies. And so, to write about popular culture, you must stay informed. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule a “Creative Date” each month. Examples: Visit the art gallery, go to a concert, buy tickets to watch a movie.
2. Stay informed. Read the entertainment section of the newspaper to find out what is going on in your city or town; read pop-culture magazines, such as “Entertainment Weekly”; watch the news and listen to the radio; read articles on the Internet, including the blogs and websites; watch YouTube videos and connect to Facebook and other social media.
3. Keep a writing journal. Make regular entries about pop culture in a writing journal.
4. Become and expert. Enroll in a photography, art, poetry, film study, music course.
5. Consider writing a speculative narrative. For instance, you might see a piece of art in a gallery, and then write a description using sensory details, and then rely on your imagination to determine the meaning of the art.
6. Remain aware of the fads and trends. Regularly, Ask yourself: What are the fads? Trends? What’s popular in your culture? How does film, fashion, music, art influence you? How have books influenced your life? How has the smartphone, tablet, digital music player, or digital camera altered your lifestyle?
7. Make popular culture part of your life. Immerse yourself in film, art, literature, photography, music, and you will see view the world from a different perspective, a viewpoint that will enable you to write about popular culture.

Additional Reading

For addition information about learning creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
• Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
• Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
• You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
• The Best American Essays Series 2012, edited by David Brooks and Robert Atwan
• The New Yorker magazine

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

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