Top 5 Tips for Beginning Creative Nonfiction Writers

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This spring, I am offering five tips to students writing in each of the four genres covered in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. This time around, the focus is creative nonfiction.

Of all the genres typically taught in an introductory creative writing course, students are most likely to be familiar with the conventions of the essay. Unfortunately, many of them think of the form as a stultifying exercise in repeating material already taught by the teacher—the opposite of “creative,” and an endeavor to be completed as quickly as possible, nowadays possibly with the help of Artificial Intelligence. Fortunately, the creative nonfiction essay, which can take the form of a memoir, an argument, a lyric essay, literary journalism, or a variety of other incarnations, draws students back to the pure pleasure of recording their own thoughts in ways that readers will admire, appreciate, and happily return to.

Here are my Top 5 Tips for Beginning Creative Nonfiction Students:

  1. Tell a story. After many years of writing essays for school, you may have come to believe that, as long as you address the basic parameters of your assignment, your essay will be perfectly fine. Alas, a dull, meandering text that doesn’t engage the reader is detrimental to any piece of creative nonfiction. To get the narrative juices flowing, borrow some of the techniques you learned from fiction writing—creating believable characters, employing memorable dialogue, vividly setting a scene—and give your readers a jolt of excitement as they realize you are going to keep them interested in your essay.
  2. Use concrete details. One of the surest ways to keeps readers engaged is to employ concrete details—references to things they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Granted, if you are writing about something that happened years ago, you may have to do some serious memory work (if the events happened to you), or some extensive research (if they did not). That said, whatever time you invest in bringing the world you’re writing about to life will be time well spent.
  3. Write with style. When you’re slogging through another assigned essay that you may not care too much about, it’s easy to fall into the habit of just typing out the first thing that comes into your mind. However, creative nonfiction is all about expressing yourself as eloquently and memorably as possible. Revision is crucial. There are many differently styles you can turn to, from the plain and straightforward to the elegant and refined, but whichever one you choose, you should dive in, embrace it, then make it fully your own.
  4. Be clear about your own role in the essay. The personal essay frequently (and rightly) has the author/narrator at its center, and if you choose that point of view, be sure to think about how you are coming across to your readers. Are you trustworthy and credible, or do you seem uncertain and ambiguous in regard to your material? And don’t forget that you don’t necessarily have to take the central role. Plenty of interesting essays have the author on the edge of the action, looking on and commenting as appropriate.
  5. Tell the truth. The first four tips address the “creative” aspect of this genre, but they are meaningless if you don’t adhere to the “nonfiction” element of the essay. Sure, “truth” is a hotly contested topic in our contentious times, but every writer knows in their bones what they feel to be the truth. Naturally, if you “feel” something happened when it didn’t, that’s not truth. But if you are writing and sense that the words you are laying down don’t reflect real events, then you know it’s time to stop, reread, and revise toward honesty.