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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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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”
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
• Call to action
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.)
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
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
Your writer’s voice and writing style are developed as you learn, as you experiment, as you master the art and craft of writing. The more you read, the more you experiment, the more you learn about writing, the more polished your writing becomes. Your voice and style emerge as you become a polished writer.
All great writers have a distinctive voice and style, which they learned, developed, and polished over time. For example, fiction writer Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is like minimalism art. His style is sparse. He uses short sentence, and write with nouns and verbs, applies adjectives and adverbs sparingly. His voice is conversational. Many fiction writers aspire to write like Hemingway. Why? Because they like his voice and style of writing.
If you don’t like the tone, or the voice, or the style of writing, you are likely find a personal essay, memoir, or any other creative nonfiction or fiction writing dull. When a work is judged to be dull, the reader will not proceed to read it.
In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it applies to creative nonfiction. (The same definition of voice and style applies to fiction and poetry.) The following will be covered:
- How to analyze the voice and style of writer’s you like
- Voice of the creative nonfiction writer
- Writing style of the creative nonfiction writer
- How to develop your voice and style
Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers
To become a great writer, you must not only write on a regular basis, but also read like a writer. What does reading like a writer mean? It means analyzing the prose of the writers you enjoy reading, learning what sorts of sentences, diction, tone, voice, point of view they use.
In the July 30th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes a piece of creative nonfiction called ” Slackers.” He begins the literary journalism essay as follows: “Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parent’s home, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago……” From Gladwell’s beginning, we get a glimpse of his writing voice and style. He uses everyday language, the first- person point of view (“I”), and has a friendly, conversational tone.
In the next section, Gladwell introduces us to Alberto Salazar, the great long-distance runner of a bygone era. Gladwell shifts point of view to third-person, referring to Salazar as “he”, and then begins to profile Salazar. We see that Gladwell makes use of the simile, writing “Salazar shuffled like an old man.” We see that he makes use of the short sentence with “Distance runners tend to be elfin.” We learn that Gladwell is speaking to the reader using everyday language, sentence variety, and the active voice.
You can improve your style and develop your voice by analyzing the prose of writers you like reading. Once you learn how they constructed their essays or memoirs, you can use their techniques, such as syntax or diction in your own writing.
The Writer’s Voice
What is voice? It is a confusing term, often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by those who aspire to become creative writers. One of the best definitions of “voice” is written by author, Jack Hart, in Story Craft. He suggests that voice is the personality of the writer revealed in the words on the page. For Hart, voice has two components:
- The persona of the writer. A writer has many personas. Some public. Others private. A woman can be a mother, wife, friend, artist, and so on. For each of these personas, the woman as a writer can express a different voice. To understand persona, ask yourself, what kind of personality is revealed on the page? Happy? Sad? Serious? Humorous? Friendly? Sophisticated? Condescending?
- The position or narrative distance of the writer in relation to the true story. If I tell a story using “I” or first-point of view, then I am close to the story, probably directly involved or a close observer. On the other hand, if I tell a story using “He/She” or third-person point of view, then I am telling the story from some distance, like a spectator watching a football match from the sidelines.
The writer’s voice is also revealed in the thoughts, feelings, reflections shared on the page with the reader. This is especially true for creative nonfiction, which relies on the building blocks of scene, summary, and personal reflection, to tell a true story, whether a personal essay or memoir or literary journalism.
Why is voice important? Often, we make a decision to read to its completion a piece of creative nonfiction because we like the voice of the writing. Jack Hart writes that “voice plays a key role in attracting and holding readers, regardless of their subject.
In creative writing, the writer’s voice is an important quality of the writing, especially in personal essays and memoir. And yet, ” the “voice of the writer” is excluded in so many types of writing. This is true for business writing, technical writing, academic writing. It is formal writing, laced with jargon, clichés, and written in the third person. In essence, the writing doesn’t reveal the personality of the writer, nor does the writer use “I” or first person point of view. Hart refers to writing that excludes persona as the ” institutional voice.”
When writing any type of creative writing, you must discard the “institutional voice.” Instead, work to develop a friendly, conversational voice, using everyday language.
The Writer’s Style
What is style? Hart, in Story Craft, suggests that style is different than voice. For Hart, style is the expression of the writer’s personality on the page. How does a writer express his style? There are many components of a writing style. In a general sense, style is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing–views, prejudices, biases, expertise, wisdom, knowledge, and so on. But this does not enable us to understand a writer’s style as it applies to the writing itself. What, then, are the important components? Most instructors of creative writing will tell you that writing style includes:
- Word choice or diction. Each word that the writer selects has a dictionary meaning (denotation) Does the writer use educated language, such as ten-dollar words or simple language, everyday language? Most words also have a connotation (implied meaning.) Many words have more than one meaning, depending on the context As well, a writer must strive to use language in a fresh and original way, which means that clichés should not be used. What are clichés? They are warn-out words or phrases that have become dull like old paint on a wall. A clichés just makes for dull writing. As a writer, you must be cognizant of diction, connotation, and clichés.
- Syntax or sentence variety. This refers to the length and types of sentences the writer uses–an intentional fragment; simple, complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence; periodic sentence or loose sentence; Declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory sentence; Parallel structure; items in a series. (If you don’t understand these different types of sentences, you ought to learn them and use them. Sentence variety also refers to the length of the sentence. The writer can select a single word, a phrase, or a longer sentence. Short sentences speed up the pace; long sentences slow down the pace.
- Figurative Language. You have many choices: metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, symbolism. Figurative language gives an infinite number of possibilities to develop your style. Figurative language is like different colours of paint you use to paint a memorable landscape.
- Tone. It refers to the attitude of the writer towards the subject and the audience who will read the work. Some writer’s write in a friendly, intimate tone. Other writer’s write with authority and expertise. (There are many types of tone that a writer can use. Never use a condescending tone.) Humourist David Sedaris writes with a humourous tone.
How to Develop Your Writing Style
Writing Style evolves as you write. If you don’t write on a regular basis, If you don’t learn how to write, if you don’t study the writing of great writers, your style will stagnate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can develop your writing style:
- Expand your vocabulary. If you read a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning in the dictionary. As well, if you don’t have a strong vocabulary, start by learning a new word each day, and then use it in your daily conversations and writing.
- Read and learn the rules and principles and guidelines On Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
- Read and internalize the advice in ” On Writing Well” by of William Zinsser.
- Learn to read like a writer. Not sure how? Pick up a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. How do you read like a writer? You read good writing in the New Yorker or some other publication. You analyze the style, word choice, and structure of the writing, learning how the writer constructed the piece of creative writing.
- Get in the habit of writing each day. How? Keep a personal journal. The easiest way is to buy a pen and notebook of paper, then begin to write each day. Write about what is important to you, such as a memory, interesting observation, “important moment.”The act of writing makes you a writer. When you write, experiment with your writing. Learn how to write a loose and period sentence. Learn how to write an inverted sentence. Learn how to write metaphors and similes and use personification. The more often you write, and experiment with your writing, the more original your style will become.
- When you write, always be yourself. Don’t write in a breezy manner. Don’t use grandiloquent language. Don’t use inflated language. Don’t write as if you are someone else, like creative nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, or fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. Begin by writing like you speak. Use the language that you use in daily conversation. Relax and write as yourself.
A Few Tips
Here are a few easy ways to improve your writing style and develop your voice:
- Use the active voice. The verb performs the action of the subject. Examples: You composed a poem about summer….He hit the ball with the tennis racket…I pressed the shutter release, capturing a memorable photograph of a happy moment on the trip.
- Write with concrete nouns and verbs.
- Write with verbs that express some action. Examples: Jumped, climbed, punched……….
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. By selecting the best “verb”, a writer can find a word in the dictionary or thesaurus that best expresses the meaning of the adjective and adverb.
- Use sentence variety—long and short, simple, compound, compound, complex, loose, periodic, and so forth.
- Write in a friendly, conversational tone. Start by using “contractions.” Image that you are writing to a friend.
- Use everyday language.
If you want to learn more about voice and style, I suggest you read and learn from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. These are the best books for the lowest price on learning how to write. If you read, learn, and master the rules and guidelines in these books, if you also write every day, and if you read something interesting, like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, even the newspaper, you’ll become an excellent writer. Perhaps you’ll even publish your work of writing art.
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
What Writing Style is Best?
A good writing style is based on “simplicity.” In On Writing Well, a best selling classic on how to write creative nonfiction, the author William Zinsser wrote that simplicity is the basis of good writing. The writer must “strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
Zinsser also said that clear thinking leads to clear writing. To write clearly, the writer needs to ask: What am I trying to say? After writing , the writer needs to ask: Have I said what I wanted to say?
But there are many other ways to improve your writing style when writing a personal essay, memoir, travel article, and so forth. This article defines the term “writing style” as it applies to creative nonfiction, and it provides 25 tips or suggestions that you can use to improve your writing style.
Definition of Writing Style
What is style as it applies to creative nonfiction? A writer’s style has many elements. First, there are no rules, only suggestions or guidelines of how to improve a writer’s style. Secondly, style begins with the diction used by the writer. What type of language does the writer use? Simple language? Complex language? Thirdly, it refers to the sentence patterns used by the writer. For instance, does the writer use short sentences, long sentences, or sentence fragments? Fourthly, it also includes the tone or attitude a writer has toward his/her readers. For instance, does the writer use a formal tone or humorous tone? Style is also the quality a writer adds to his/her writing. Quality has many elements, such as research and writing experience. And style includes the point of view of the writer. Does the writer express his/her thoughts using the first person “I” or the third person “he/she”? Style also includes the “voice” of the writer. For instance, the voice expressed by William Golding is different than the voice of Ernest Hemingway or Philip Roth or George Orwell or William Shakespeare. Finally, style includes the element of “craftsmanship.”
How to Improve Your Style
There are many ways you can improve your writing style. Here are 25 suggestions on how to write good creative nonfiction:
- Be yourself when writing. In other words, use a genuine writing style. Write in a way that comes naturally. Don’t put on airs.”Don’t deliberately garnish your prose. Use your own language. Tell your reader something interesting using words that come naturally to you. Use the first person point of view. When the genre doesn’t permit “I”, imagine that you are telling a personal story. You can do this by sharing personal opinions, thoughts, emotions, and memories.
- Simplify your prose. Begin by making every word count. Each word should have a function. Eliminate the clutter. For instance: Replace a long sentence with a shorter sentence. Delete redundancies and nominalizations. Change the passive construction to the active voice. For more information, read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
- Use the active voice. To do this, the verb should perform the action for the subject. Example:Bobby Bonds slugged the baseball out of the park.
- Use action verbs. These are verbs used to indicate an action, such as researched, wrote, edit, typed, and so on.
- Write with nouns and verbs. The noun is the subject of the sentence and the verb performs that action of the subject. Example: The professor instructed the class…The student wrote a personal essay….The employer hired the candidate.
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Most adjectives and adverbs are unnecessary. They create clutter in your writing. Find the noun that accurately describes the subject rather than using adjective + noun combination. Use the adjective only when it is necessary. Find the verb that accurately describes the action rather than using a verb + adverb combination. Most adverbs are unnecessary and due to careless writing.
- Avoid using qualifiers. Eliminate words that qualify how you feel and think, such as “very, “quite”, “merely”, “extremely”, and so on. Qualifiers create clutter.
- Vary the length and pattern of your sentences. Use simple, compound, complex sentences. Use periodic, loose, and antithesis sentences. Use sentence fragments when required.
- Emphasize important ideas by placing them at the beginning or end of your sentence. Example: After completing the degree, he wrote poetry, short stories, and a novel.
- Place the most important idea in the independent clause.
- Use effective transitions between sentences and paragraphs. For instance, to create flow within a paragraph, you can use pronoun reference, repeat key words, use parallel structure, use transitional expressions, such as “also”, therefore, and “consequently.”
- Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Use a topical sentence for each paragraph. It tells your readers what your paragraph is about. All other sentences within each paragraph need to provide support or relate to the topical sentence.
- Develop your paragraphs using the appropriate method of development. Your method of development will depend on the purpose of your paragraph. For example: If you are telling a story, use narrative. If you want to want to answer a question, use question and answer. If you want to describe something, use description.
- Organize your work. Popular methods include chronological order, logical order, and topical order. For example, a personal essay is often written in chronological order, while an article is usually written in topical order.
- Use dialogue to develop character, reveal a fact, or advance the narrative.
- When appropriate, you can begin a sentence with a coordinator conjunction (And, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), and end a sentence with a verb or preposition.
- Show, don’t tell your reader. To show the reader, dramatize the narrative. Use sensory language, write dialogue, and construct action scenes.
- Provide concrete and specific details. You don’t have to include all the details, just the important ones. Concrete details can be perceived by the senses. So, use language that appeals to the senses, such as the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch. Concrete details are also precise. They tell the readers exactly what they need to know. Example: He gave her one red rose for Valentine’s Day.
- Use the elements of fiction, such as setting, plot, and character to develop your narrative.
- Use literary techniques, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, and so forth to entertain and provide deeper meaning.
- Inject personality into your writing. Write about your opinions, thoughts, emotions, memories. Use the first person “I”. Use a friendly, conversational tone. Use contractions, such as “can’t”, “won’t, and “don’t.”
- Write with freshness and originality. Avoid clichés and hackney expressions. Write original similes and metaphors. Avoid jargon. Use a dictionary and thesaurus. Vary your sentence patterns. Develop your own voice.
- Choose proper diction. Avoid using foreign terms, sexist language, or words that are pompous, pretentious, or faddish. Prefer simple language to complex language. It is often the best diction. In essence, use language that your readers understand.
- Begin your essay or article with a lead, and finish with an ending. You lead needs to do three things: 1) It needs to grab your reader’s attention. 2) It needs to tell the reader the purpose of your writing. 3) It needs to tell the reader why the article/essay needs to be read.
To finish your assignment, create ending that makes a final point and leaves the reader thinking. Your writing needs to provide a new insight or point of view. You can finish by emphasizing new information.
Popular ways of ending a piece of creative nonfiction are with a reference back to the beginning, a recommendation, an opinion, a judgement, a quotation or final quote. If your ending isn’t’ strong, your reader will say, “So what?”” What was the point?”
25. After writing, revise and rewrite. You will rarely get it right the first time. Often you must rearrange sentences and choose new diction to improve the first draft. Often you must clear the clutter by eliminating unnecessary phrases, adjectives and adverbs. Sometime you will need to replace clichés with original expressions. Sometimes you will need to delete grandiloquent language with simple language.
If you want to improve your writing and increase the chances of finding employment in writing, you ought to learn these suggestions and incorporate them into your writing.
For more information about “writing style” as it applies to creative nonfiction, I suggest that you read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please post them to my blog.
Next, I will write about “fact” and “truth” in creative nonfiction.