Home » Posts tagged 'Techniques'
Tag Archives: Techniques
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
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:
- Immersion. Visit the place where event occurred or museum that contains artifacts and other historical material.
- 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.
- Use the library. Read relevant books, magazines, articles, newspaper clippings, journals, and take notes.
- 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
- Reading on your own. During your leisure time, read books, magazines, newspapers, and articles about historical events and historical people.
- 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:
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.
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
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.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
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.
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
By Dave Hood
Much of creative nonfiction is serious. Writers craft essays about depressing or controversial topics, illness, disease, war, famine, gun control, murder, child abuse, rape, and more. And yet,
many creative nonfiction writers use the techniques of humour to write interesting personal essays and entertaining memoirs. Jeanette Walls, author of the memoir, “The Glass Castle,” shares humorous anecdotes about her life growing up, even though the story is disheartening. David Sedaris, author of many bestselling books, writes self-depreciating humour in the form of anecdote about his personal life and family. Mary Karr’s, “Lit: A Memoir,” includes several humorous parts. For instance, she writes, “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” (Page 97/Lit)
Most magazines and newspapers and popular Internet sites of creative nonfiction include humour columns, or articles, or essays. For instance, regularly, The New Yorker magazine publishes essays that have a humorous tone. In The New Yorker’s anthology of “Humour, Disquiet Please, ” writer Ian Frazier uses exaggeration in his essay “Thin Enough.” He writes: “After four or five glasses of wine, I am able to overcome my usual food-finickiness and eat half a crock-pot of whatever my wife has made for dinner, and then a couple of baskets of leftover Easter candy. (Page 234).” People enjoy reading a good story, when the writer combines humour and an appealing writing style.
In this chapter, I’ll discuss how to use humour in creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
• Power of humour
• Humour versus comedy
• Techniques of humour
• Suggestions for using humor
The Power of Humour
In his bestselling book, “On Writing Well,” author William Zinsser, writes that “humour is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” It is often the best tool and only tool for making an important point. (Page 206) Usually, the writer uses humor in nonfiction to make a serious point and also to generate a laugh or amusement. The writer must find the right humour technique or techniques to disguise his/her serious point. Read the books by David Sedaris, a humorist writer, who uses exaggeration to make a serious point. Writers also use many other types of humour techniques, satire, irony, satire, exaggeration, joke, truth, and more.
And yet, the writer doesn’t always write humour to make a serious point. Sometimes the writer only desires to share a funny story with readers, with the intention of generating a comic effect. Sometimes writers use nonsense to make readers laugh. Frequently, all that is required of the writer is to exaggerate the truth. Sometimes the truth is funny, especially when the writer uses absurd facts or ludicrous quotations by people. The humorist writer must be an active observer, noticing amusing incidents, events, fleeting moments, funny conversations and people, making mental notes of sensory details that are amusing or funny.
Zinsser, in the text “On Writing Well,” provides some useful advice to writers who aspire to write humorous prose. First, the writer should never strain for laughs. Instead, the writer should focus on surprising the reader. Secondly, the writer should write about the truth, real people, places, events, experiences, not make things up. Thirdly, before writing humour, the writer must learn to write well, using familiar rather than unfamiliar words, proper grammar, sentence variety, a humorous tone, different paragraph types. (To help you write better, read and master “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale)
Writers should use the techniques of humour subtly, and not overuse humour, especially when it is directed at real people. Otherwise readers will see the humour as an attack. Writers must also be aware that humour is subjective. Not all readers will laugh at the same things. And so, the writer should focus on first writing the story, including the facts, and then adding humour. Humour should be secondary to a good story that is well written.
Humorists are the rogues and mavericks of creative nonfiction. They often write what some people don’t want to hear. They often write what the collective consciousness is thinking but afraid to discuss publically. Yet people want to read the stories of humorists. Good humour writing makes readers laugh.
Humour Versus Comedy Writing
What are the similarities and differences between humour and comedy writing? The terms “humour and “comedy” are often used interchangeably. Both terms have elements in common. Both are also different.
Humour writing and comedy writing are often based on truth. Both frequently use the same humour devices, such as irony, satire, exaggeration. Both use the anecdote and storytelling. Both use the joke, which requires a setup and punch-line. Both use wordplay and the one-liner. Both tend to write about subject matter that is funny. Both writers write about serious topics, with the intention of making them funny. The intention of both is to create a comic effect.
Despite the similarities, comedy writing and humour writing are different in certain respects.
Usually, the humorist writes an essay or article or filler that is amusing or funny. The humorist’s material is intended to be read. Most humour writing is done for print publications, such as newspapers, magazines, or books. On the other hand, most comedy writing is done for TV sitcoms, comedy films, comedy sketches, and stand-up comedy. The comedy writer writes material to get laughs, usually in front of a viewing audience. Comedy writers are best known for writing material for situation comedies, comedy films, stand-up comics, and sketch comedy. Most comedy writing is intended to entertain by provoking laughter, while most humour writing is more subtle and cerebral, intending to amuse, inform, educate, and persuade the audience to change its opinion. The humorist won’t use profanity or shock humour, which is popular in comedy, especially by the stand-up comic.
Unlike the comedy writer, humour writing can take the form of “filler.” This filler can be a joke, quote, or short anecdote that is used to fill space at the end of a column or page. There is no formula for filler.
Techniques of Humour
Writers use humour to make a serious point and to evoke amusement or laughter in the reader. Unfortunately, humour is subjective. One person will laugh at the writer’s humour, while another person won’t find the joke or parody or exaggeration funny. To make their point and generate a comic effect, writers use several techniques of humour, including:
- Satire. The writer mocks another person’s mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Incongruity. The writer juxtaposes two different things not normally associated with each other. The incongruity of speech, character, behavior, or situation can result in a comic effect. For instance, the exterior of a mansion might be awe-inspiring, but the interior is like a home owned by a hoarder. A man might be dressed like a model in GQ magazine, but talk as if he’s uneducated.
- Irony. A figure of speech. There are several types, including verbal irony and situational irony. Verbal irony is writing that means something other than its literal meaning, with the intention of creating a comic effect. Sometimes, irony can be misconstrued as sarcasm by the reader. Irony is not sarcasm. Sarcasm means what is intended, while irony is a trope in which the intended meaning of words is different than the literal meaning. Situational irony occurs when the expected outcome is different than the actual outcome. Many true stories involve situational irony. For instance, the groom goes to the church, expecting to get married, but the bride-to-be runs from the church at the last moment.
- Exaggeration. Writers can use overstatement, embellishing what they hear and see and experience, to generate laughs. When using exaggeration, writers focus on exaggerating the attributes of a person, place, thing, event, experience, and so forth.
- Understatement. The writer makes a situation seem less important as it really is.
- Self-deprecation. Writers mock their own mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Anecdote. A short and amusing story about a person or incident.
- Nonsense. Sometimes writers use the technique of nonsense to write a humorous piece. This technique defies logic. It is an unrealistic representation, intended to amuse or stir a laugh.
- Truth. Sometimes absurd facts and ludicrous quotations by people can be humorous.
- Parody. Occasionally, the writer imitates the artistic work of another writer or artist, mocking artistic style, the author, or topic, intending to generate a comic effect, such as amusement or laughter.
- Joke. Sometimes writers incorporate jokes into their writing. The joke includes a set-up and punch-line. The set-up provides the premise and background. The punch-line is the line that generates a laugh or amusement. When telling a joke within a personal narrative, the writer must use the element of surprise. The writer should not notify the reader that a joke is coming. Example: “Here’s a joke..” This type of humour technique should be incorporated into the essay or memoir.
To study and learn from the humorist writers, read “Disquiet Please,” an anthology of personal essays by some of the best writers of humour, published by The New Yorker magazine.
A Few Suggestions
If you’d like to write humor, follow these suggestions:
- Don’t be mean-spirited or sarcastic. Instead evoke amusement or laughter with subtle humour, such as exaggeration.
- Observe the world in which you live, searching for humour events, incidents, people. Read the newspaper and watch television to unearth humour. Look at your own life for a humorous story. If an experience seems funny to you, write about it. Write about what makes you laugh, and so become an observer. This means you must be aware of the world around you, paying attention to the sensory details of each day. Make not of what you find humorous. Jot down a few notes in your journal.
- Use the techniques of humour to write a humorous personal essay, including exaggeration, satire, juxtaposition, irony, anecdote, and so forth. However, humour should be secondary to narrating a good personal essay.
- Write about humorous people who have passed in and out your life. Ask yourself: What makes them funny? Write the story or anecdote.
- Read the columns or books of humor writers, including David Sedaris. He often uses anecdotes to tell amusing stories about himself and family. By reading and analyzing humour writing, you will learn how to write it.
- Always focus on collecting the facts, and then writing the humorous essay.
- Use humorous figures of speech to amuse, such as similes and metaphors.
- Mine your memory for humorous stories. What are some of most amusing moments in your life? Why are they remembered? What is the significance? What is funny or amusing?
- Never make racial or religious slurs.
- Sometimes truth can be funny. Consider incorporating ludicrous facts and absurd quotations by people you didn’t expect would say such things.
To write humour, you must learn the techniques of humor, such as exaggeration, satire, incongruity. Start by reading humorous writing by Mark Twain, Stephan Leacock, David Sedaris, and The New Yorker. Read their essays once for enjoyment, and then reread them to learn how these writers crafted their humorous essay. Focus on structure, writing style, techniques, and tone. Practise using the techniques of humor by writing in your journal, and by using the techniques of humor to write your own personal essays. Instead of forcing humour into the story, become an active observer, and notice humour unfolding each day, then write a story, based factual truth.
For more information on using humour in creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Writing Creative Nonfiction, Edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerald
• Naked by David Sedaris
• When Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
• Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
• Disquiet Please: More Humour Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder
• Comedy Writing by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser
By Dave Hood
Your “writer’s voice” is about writing style. It is what makes you authentic, original, different from other writers. It is the voice you use to write a poem, personal essay, short story or novel. It is what readers hears when they read your words.
Read a poem by Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or any other memorable poet, you’ll quickly discover their compelling and authentic voice. Read the short stories of Poe, Atwood, Munro, and you will hear different voices expresses as you read. Read an personal essay by E.B. White or Joan Didion–you’ll discover other voices.
A writer’s voice is their “public persona, which is revealed on the page when you read. Reading enable you to hear the writer speak. The writer speaks by writing down words on a page.
You can express your voice on the page in many ways. In my opinion, the most important components of a writer’s voice are word choice/diction, sentence variety, and the writer’s tone.
In this article, I’ll explain how a writer’s voice is revealed, suggest the type of voice to use, and explain how to develop your “writer’s voice.”
How is a Writer’s Voice Revealed to the Reader?
The writer’s voice is expressed on the page by word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, and imagery, and the types of sentences or syntax the writer chooses to craft a piece of writing.
Word choice has to do with the type of language the writer uses, such as simple, everyday words or grandiloquent words. Memorable writers avoid clichés. Instead they use language in a fresh and original way. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a meaningful word that has power, that is accurate, that is precise. For instance: This morning, I met a curmudgeon at the supermarket. Instead of writing: “This morning, I met an old man…”
Tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward his readers and subject. A writer can have many types of tone. It often depends on the genre and type of writing. Tone is a big part of a writer’s voice. Tone refers to your attitude to the reader and about what you are writing about. For example, when you read the essays of David Sedaris, you hear a humorous tone. When you read the poetry of Charles Simic, you often hear a “whimsical” tone.
Two popular types of tones are humorous and serious. A person writing an essay about “death” will often use a serious, respectful tone. A humorist might write with an ironic or witty tone. Writers should strive to use a conversational tone. You write as though you are having a conversation with a friend. You must never write as though you are preaching or acting as though you are superior to the reader, unless you want the reader to toss your work in the garbage.
Writing style refers to syntax or sentence variety, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences and sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence. Use of the active voice or passive voice. Use of powerful verbs. Writing with nouns and verbs–or verbose writing.
A writer’s voice, especially in creative writing, is expressed by the writer’s ability to write imaginatively. Memorable poets, short story writers, novelists, essayists are able to use literary devices skillfully. Imaginative language has to do with the tools of creative writing–using simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and more. Some writers use few similes and metaphors–others them a great deal. Great writers make every word count–serve some purpose.
What Type of Voice to Use
We like particular poems, have favorite short stories, read essays, and experience delight by reading other works of certain writers for many reasons. One of the reasons has to do with “the writer’s voice.” How the voice sounds as we read the words on the page. How the ideas are presented to the reader on the page. The actual content of the work, and so forth.
In the splendid book about writing by Constance Hale called “Sin and Syntax: How to Craft a Wickedly Effective Prose,” she writes: “A strong voice is conversational. The writer leaves us with a sense that we are listening to a skilled raconteur rather than passing our eyes over ink on paper. This involves more than just write the way you talk.”
The writer must pay attention to the sound of words, the rhythm of sentences, the word choice and its connotation, sentence variety. Most importantly, the writer must revise his work, perhaps many times, before the writing is complete. The first draft is never the final draft, unless you are not a passionate writer.
The voice of a writer is determined by many things, including life experience, education, beliefs, values, interests, and passions—everything the writer brings to the experience of writing.
The best voice to use is conversational, informal, friendly–as though you are having conversation with a friend over coffee.
How Can You Develop Your Own Writing Voice?
Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several paths. 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 head.” 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. Write using 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.
Next, read poetry, short stories, and essays of writer’s you admire. Analyze how they have written their work. 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 styles and then use sentence variety in your work. 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? Pick up a copy of Sin And Syntax by Constance Hale or The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark.
The language choices a writer makes important ingredient of the writer’s voice. 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 or knowledge or wisdom.
If you aspire to become a creative writer, you should also 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.
A few final points: 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 or in your head, using your own words.
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.
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
By Dave Hood
If you dream of becoming a successful creative writer, meaning that you desire to have your writing work published, read, and talked about, then you must learn and master the techniques of creative writing. There are many techniques that you must learn and master. One of the most important is “showing and telling.” When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay, or fiction, or poetry, such as a narrative poem, you must both show and tell your readers what has happened. And you must either show or tell the inner worlds of characters and the outer world that they see. Showing and telling breathes life into a story and shifts its pace to slow or high gear.
The technique of “showing” means to create a scene, to expand time, and to dramatize the story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.
You will stretch the details into a vivid description, or a larger scene. A scene includes the setting, dialogue, action from a particular character, imagery with word pictures. By showing your readers what happened or how a character is dressed or conducts himself or herself, you create significance to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction. You also make your readers believe the story and produce an entertaining read. And only work that is entertaining will get published and purchased.
The technique of “telling” your reader means that you summarize and compress description of character and events in the story, reducing or eliminating the concrete and specific details, reducing or eliminating sensory images, erasing the scene of a story. In other words, sometimes you will compress the details of a character or event into a summary. Summarizing enables you to speed up the pace of the story, explain inner thoughts of character or significance of events that cannot be explained in scenes, provide a backdrop, or write about exposition/background of the story.
In this post, I’ll explain how to use the techniques of ” showing and telling” when writing poetry, short fiction, or creative nonfiction.
Showing the Reader (Writing a Scene)
As an aspiring writer, you desire to create compelling, believable, entertaining, even memorable prose or poetry. By deploying the technique of “showing” your readers, writing in scenes, you are able to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader. This technique is used to evoke an emotional response. Moreover, showing the reader makes the story believable, as you are able to “recreate the scene with words.” If you are unable to entertain or make the story believable, readers will put down your piece of creative writing before finishing it.
Instead of summarizing or compressing details, the writer shows readers by constructing a scene for each important event that unfolds or to develop a character. The scene in prose or poetry is just like the scene in a movie, which has a beginning, middle, and end. Writing a scene instead of a summary brings the story to life, creates a dream in the mind of the reader, and entertains them, inspires them to turn the page, to discover what happens next. You can only create memorable prose or poetry with scenes. And all great poets, like Charles Simic, or memorable writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, write scenes for their fictional stories or poems. Here is an example from writer Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil…
When should you show readers what happened ?
You ought to create a scene for any of the following situations:
- Conflict in the mind of the character or with another character or society
- Setbacks or obstacles that prevent the character from achieving his or her goal
- Turning point, such as an illness, marriage break up, job loss
- Crisis, such as when you or the character runs out of options and must make a painful and stressful decision.
As well, when developing a character, you construct the character sketch or profile with vivid details, concrete and particular description, describing the behaviour of a character within a scene. In fiction, you rely on the character sketch or profile to compose your imaginary character. In a personal essay, you share important details, such as personality traits, about yourself.
How can you show your readers a character or what happened?
There are many techniques. The most important are to write down important details, use concrete and particular descriptions, use sensory images that create word pictures in the mind of your readers. Here is a list of ways to show your reader:
- Sensory imagery-use language that appeals to the sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing
- Vivid details that are concrete, specific, particular
- Concrete and specific descriptions
- Metaphor and simile
- Symbolism-something or some object that represents more than its literal meaning.
- Personification-using descriptions, traits, adjectives applied to human beings to describe things that are not human. Example: The rock growled at us as we walked past.
As well, remember to use the active voice. It performs the action of the verb. Example: Rocky, the boxer, closed his fist, “punched” his wife in the face.
How do you show your readers by constructing a scene?
You can craft a scene with the following characteristics:
- Setting-time and place and context.
- Dialogue-what is said by characters in the story, both the main character and supporting cast.
- Action-describing the conduct of the character with significant details.
- Sensory imagery-language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.
- Details-significant and particular details; sensory images.
- Descriptions–Concrete and specific descriptions.
As well, remember that a scene has a beginning, middle, and end—just like a scene from a movie. And always use the active voice, which performs the action of the verb. Example: Eddie Ruth, the baseball player, smacked the pitch with the heavy bat, over the centerfield fence for a home run.
Telling Your Readers (Writing a Summary)
Sometimes, you’ll be required to tell your readers what happened by compressing time and leaving out many of the important, particular details. Essentially, you’ll summarize what happened. Here’s an example:
First, I purchased money from the ATM machine, then I bought groceries, then I cooked dinner, then I watched television…When the night descended, I drifted off to sleep.
This is a summary of how the person carried out their day. It is not detailed description or series of scenes.
When should you tell your readers what happened? There are many suggestions or guidelines that you can use to help you determine when to show and when to tell. You can tell your readers when you are writing:
- Backdrop of the story– setting of the story, such as time and place and context
- Exposition-The writer provides the reader with background details about plot, setting, character, theme.
- Interpret ting an experience or event. Sometimes you will need to explain the significance of a scene.
- Repeated experiences , such as daily rituals or events.
Jane Burroway in Writing Fiction suggests that there are two ways to write a summary:
- Sequential summary-The writer tells the reader what has happened with a condensed and compressed version of the story. Significant details are omitted. Instead, the story is summarized.
- Circumstantial summary-The writer uses summary to describe the circumstances for repeated details or what has happened, such as time, place, cause, effect, reasons for occurrence.
When writing a summary, the writer can also include vivid details–but not a scene. Writing a summary is most important in short fiction and narrative poetry.
As well, a summary can be used by the writer within a scene. Remember, a scene includes setting details, dialogue, action, imagery, concrete and specific description. Often this summary explains the significance of the scene.
Read any edition of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, and you will see that all writers use the techniques of showing and telling in poetry, short fiction, book reviews, film reviews, essays, profiles, literary journalistic essays, commentary.
Showing and telling are two of the most important techniques you can learn and apply in your creative writing, whether you desire to write prose or poetry. To “show” means to write in scenes, and to use vivid, concrete, particular, significant details. “To tell” means to compress and to summarize the character sketch and the events that have happened.
Showing and telling is a balancing act. Too much generalization leads to boredom. Too much detail also leads to boredom.
The successful poet, fiction writer, creative nonfiction writer both “shows and tells” his/her readers, and knows when to use each technique to compose a poem, short story, novel, personal narrative essay, memoir, or any other type of creative writing.
For additional explanation on showing and telling, you can read:
- Writing fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
- Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show & Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, by Laurie Alberts.
By Dave Hood
How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography. And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.
In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.
What is the Importance of Memory?
“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)
Memory also constructs the self– who you are. The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.
Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.
A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll. You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as writing prompts, to tap into memories filed away in your mind.
And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.
The Five Senses
We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.
Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit. To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.
Our sense of taste is often acquired. Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.
The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.
The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.
The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant. The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen? Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.
What Memories to Write About?
Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:
- First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
- Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
- Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
- Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
- Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.
Tools for Mining Your Memories?
There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.
The easiest way to tap into your memory is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.
Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.
Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.
Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how: Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting. Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.
Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.
A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?
Tools for Writing About Memory
Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader . You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.
When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:
- Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
- When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
- Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
- Write vivid descriptions.
Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.
In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories. Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.
Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.
To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:
- How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola