How to Write Creative Non-fiction

Hello and welcome to chapter five on the elements of the art and craft of writing. Here’s where the juicy stuff starts. This is the fun part.

The elements of the art and craft of writing we will be covering:

  • Tips on keeping it simple
  • Importance of dictionaries and thesauri
  • Tips on writing with your “true” voice and narration
  • Overview of possible angles and points of view

Tips on keeping it simple

  • In general, avoid words with “ion” at the end
  • Always look for the simple ways of saying things. When you feel like saying “at this moment,” write “now.”
  • Use  writing  guides  to  help  you  keep  your  language  clean  –  meaning uncluttered (like my office at the moment)
  • Read children’s books, newspapers, magazines and a lot of traditional, as well as alternative journalism. Surf the ‘net and read the content for style. This is where you will find a sense of getting your meaning across quickly
  • After you finish writing, edit yourself (we’ll go into more detail about this later)
  • Read your copy out loud. If you stumble on a word, it probably doesn’t fit and needs editing
  • Always choose the short word over the long word. In the world of writing non-fiction, “short words have reason to live.”

If you are reading this, chances are you are a habitual reader, meaning you read on average an hour or two a day. As such, I can say with some authority, that most of the words you know, you learned through the act of reading. Research has shown that past the 4th grade, the number of words a person knows depends primarily on how much time they spend reading (Hayes & Ahrens, 1988; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Stanovich, 1986). In fact, by the time they reach adulthood, people who make a habit of reading have a vocabulary that is about four times the size of those who rarely or never read. This disparity starts early and grows throughout life….

According to Beck and McKeown (1991), 5 to 6 year olds have a working vocabu- lary of 2,500 to 5,000 words. Whether a child is near the bottom or the top of that range depends upon their literacy skills coming into the first grade (Graves,1986; White, Graves & Slater, 1990). In other words, by the first grade, the vocabulary of the disadvantaged student is half that of the advantaged stu- dent, and over time, that gap widens.

The average student learns about 3,000 words per year in the early school years — that’s 8 words per day (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Beck & McKeown, 1991; Graves, 1986), but vocabulary growth is considerably worse for disadvantaged students than it is for advantaged students (White, Graves & Slater, 1990).

How important is vocabulary size? Imagine how much harder your life would be if you didn’t understand 75% of the words you currently know. How hard would it be to read a passage of text if you didn’t know many of the words in the pas- sage? Imagine if reading the front page of the newspaper was like reading this passage of text:

“While shortening efrades the populace of the vaderbee class, most experts con- cur that a scrivant rarely endeavors to decry the ambitions and shifferings of the moulant class. Deciding whether to oxant the blatantly maligned Secting party, most moulants will tolerate the subjugation of staits, savats, or tempests only so long as the scrivant pays tribute to the derivan, either through preem or exaltation.”

Would you read the newspaper if it was all like that? Would you read anything you didn’t have to? Most non-readers have difficulty decoding the individual words, but in addition, even if they can decode them, most non-readers do not understand many of the words in formal text.

Wren goes onto to say expanding one’s vocabulary is a lifelong effort in learning. However, although you may learn many “big” words, try to keep it simple in the art of communication so you can get your points across.

Wren also recommends Steven Stahl’s book Vocabulary Development. As he puts  it,  “this  is  a  very  short  but  highly  informative  book  that  describes  research findings and has suggestions for classroom instruction.”

Importance of dictionaries and thesauri

For many of you, English may not be your first language. For others, it’s your native tongue. Whatever the case, a dictionary and thesaurus always comes in handy.

An acquaintance of mine and I were talking about the fact most humans when it comes to language, especially the English language, only use a small portion of the vocabulary that is available.

When you are writing your creative non-fiction pieces, try to use simple words you often don’t. A dictionary and thesaurus comes in extremely handy in this case.

I’ve heard of people who have read the entire dictionary. This is an awesome accomplishment, especially for people whom really want to become wordsmiths. As a writer, it helps to be a wordsmith; however, if you have the necessary tools, this will help in making your writing rich and colourful.

Think of the writing in this piece from David Remnick’s Life Stories as an example of wonderful writing when it comes to vocabulary. This selection comes from

“The Soloist” and is a profile of famed Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov by

Joan Acocella:

What has made Baryshnikov a paragon of late-twentieth-century dance is partly the purity of his ballet technique. In him the hidden meaning of ballet, and of classicism – that experience has order, that life can be understood – is clearer than in any other dancer on the stage today. Another part of his preeminence de- rives, of course, from his virtuosity, the lengths to which he was able to take bal- let – the split leaps, the cyclonic pirouettes – without sacrificing purity. But what has made him an artist, and a poplar artist, is the completeness of his perform- ances: the level of concentration, the fullness of the jaw, even the splay of the fin- gers, all deployed in the service of a single, pressing act of imagination. In him there is simply more to see than in most other dancers. No matter what role his

is playing (and he has played some thankless ones), he always honors it com- pletely, working every minute to make it a serious human story. In an interview prior to the Riga concerts, the Latvian theatre critic Normunds Naumanis asked him why he danced. He answered that he was not a religious person (quickly add- ing that his mother had been, and he had him secretly baptized) but that he thought he found onstage what people seek in religion: “some approximation to exaltation, inner purification, self-discovery.” He may hate interviews, but once he is in one he tends to pour his heart out. (This may be why he hates them).

Acocella has used a rich array of language. Everything from where she starts with the word “paragon,” to the phrases like “cyclonic pirouettes,” to the last two sentences, it is a well-crafted paragraph. Does it make you want to read the whole thing? I bet it does.

ASSIGNMENT 5.1

These are 25 unusual words and phrases which you need to place into 25 sentences which you will create.   There are also 9 phrases that you need to recreate and make your own by making full sentences out of them. This is a really fun assignment. Best of luck.

  1. Mocker – He was a mocker of the standards of his society
  2. Emulate – He tried to emulate his brothers character
  3. Piety – He had a distain for established pieties.
  4. Conjecture – He gave raise to strange conjecture
  5. Obscurity – he indulged in his cravings for opium and obscurity
  6. Vileness – the very vileness of thief and outcast
  7. Parity – suggesting a close parity between the realms.
  8. Duplicity – he suggested that duplicity is an essential part of existence.
  9. Debauchery – indulging in debauchery
  10. Depiction – an accurate depiction of the male role within society.
  11. Articulates – Shannon articulates a version of her story worth hearing.
  12. Cynical – he was a very cynical man.
  13. Conceit – it is a powerful and disturbing conceit.
  14. unbridled – unbridled indulgence in pleasures
  15. Promptly – the event was promptly cancelled.
  16. Marvelous – it was a marvelous speech
  17. Adore – I adore good music.
  18. Tawdry – I looked out on the performance. It was a tawdry affair.
  19. Prudence – she told me to exercising prudence when crossing the river.
  20. Desolate – the scene was depressing and desolate
  21. Inclined – I’m inclined think this was the best decision of my life.
  22. Vivacious – she had a vivacious aura about her
  23. Irrevocable – marriage is an irrevocable vow.
  24. Transfigured – she was transfigured with joy
  25. Sphere – he spoke about the ideas as if they belonged to two separate spheres of thought.

Phrases

  1. Blurring the distinction between rich and poor.
  2. Constraints of social conformity
  3. The provoked and outraged response
  4. Some of these views help to illuminate my point
  5. To even enter into the realm of debate on these issues shows your lack of humility.
  6. Lay there in a frightened pleasure.
  7. Working long hours robs the color of the human heart.
  8. The business venture seemed to promise rich and fruitful results.
  9. I’m interested in the intersection between freedom and companionship.

Have fun! I know did coming up with the words and phrases. Upload your completed sentences to your personal website.

Tips on writing with your “true” voice and narration

One of the things I find extremely helpful when I’m writing is my MD recorder. My MD recorder is a mini-disk (MD) device that allows me to record sound in digital format.

I’ve used this device for years, ever since I was doing freelance reporting for CBC Radio. Even with the added writing and teaching experience I’ve gained, I still find it useful. It can be a huge bother to be in an interview with someone and accurately take notes with your hands and a pad of paper. Most people don’t write as fast as people talk in this age of the computer. Of course, it also helps to be able to type fast so if you’re having a phone interview, you can keep track of what your source is saying. We’ll get into interviewing later, but now I’ll just capture the principles behind this writing tool which can help everyone from a beginner to a pro.

Another tip to writing in a plain style is to write the way you speak. This is best captured by talking to the microphone, recording your voice and telling the story you’re working on. After you’ve done that, you can transcribe the tape – there’s lots of work for writers in transcription – and shape the story with quotes from sources. This will best help to distinguish your “true” voice from the voice of your sources.

Theordore A. Rees Cheney whom is the author of Writing Creative Nonfiction, discusses the importance of voice starting on page 130. She uses an example from Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine. The example comes from a 1983 piece called “On Reading” in his column “Notebook”:

On first opening a book I listen for the sound of the human voice. By this device I am absolved from reading much of what is published in a given year. Most writ- ers make use of institutional codes (academic, literary, political, bureaucratic, and technical), in which they send messages already deteriorating into the half-life of yesterday’s news. Their transmissions remain largely unintelligible, and unless I must decipher them for professional reasons, I am content to let them pass by. I listen, instead, for a voice in which I can hear the music of the human im- provisation as performed through 5,000 years on the stage of recorded time.

….As a student, and later as an editor and occasional writer of reviews, I used to feel obliged to finish every book I began to read. This I no longer do. If within the first few pages I cannot hear the author’s voice….I abandon him at the first con- venient opportunity.

This shows how important it is to inject your own voice into your writing. Don’t be afraid to express who you really are and this will come through in your writing.

You may need to structure the transcription with the combination of your voice written and the quotes you’ve received from your sources. Refer back to chapter two to recall basic story-telling techniques.

Darlene Maciuba-Koppel in The Web Writer’s Guide: Tips & Tools quotes from William Zinsser who wrote the classic book called On Writing Well. Zinsser says “You learn to write by writing.” Maciuba-Koppel also believes this statement is true for the web as well. I actually have the statement “Just write it” under my name on my own site right here.

Finding  one’s  writing  voice  can  be  tricky  at  first,  but  the  cure  is  to  keep practicing. I once spoke to a lawyer that has 40 years of experience in law. He said the interesting thing about his job is he was still practicing law. The same is true of writing. Even great ones like Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, Robertson Davies, Wole Soyinka, Ralph Ellison – and these are examples of fiction writers – however, the craft of storytelling is still the same principle.

Along that vein of learning by doing, here’s an assignment just for you students.

ASSIGNMENT 5.2

One of the easiest ways to find your voice through writing is by starting with your own oral voice. Many of us write the way we talk.

Get a tape recorder, or some type of recording device and tell a story – talk about the events of your day. This type of story-telling is also known as “a day in the life” type of stories.

Then, transcribe the story into a word processing document and post to your personal website on I.

Do not edit the piece before you hand it in. The purpose of this exercise is to discover your true voice.

Overview of possible angles and points of view

With traditional journalism, there are so many stories which come out where the same one is covered by various media publications. In order to be different from the competition, often it’s the angle, or point of view, which can sell or sink a newspaper or magazine. This is especially true of the cover stories. Angles or points of view are also known as the “slant” of a story.

Angle and/or point of view, is the approach the writer takes to a story. For example, if I were writing a story about milk. One approach or possible angle may be to write about how it can help fight bone cancer, turning it into a health story. Another approach may be to discuss how the price of milk has skyrocketed over the past 15 years – this would make it a business story.

The same is true in creative non-fiction. We’ll discuss two types: objective and subjective. There are a variety of angles and points of view the writer – you – can take. Here’s an overview, which will be followed by explanations and descriptions:

  • Objective: opinions and judgments are not included in this style of writing. Many examples can be found in any most newspapers you read in democratic newspapers. Here’s one of the objective approach taken from The Toronto Star titled “Swim coach scandal spurs calls for review” by Heba Aly and Richard Brennan:

An ex-convict with a history of drug trafficking has no business coaching chil- dren in competitive swimming and should be stripped of his duties, Ontario Pro- gressive Conservative Leader John Tory said yesterday.

And respected former Canadian Olympic athlete Bruce Kidd said if Cecil Russell, 53, was instructing his children he would pull them out of the swim club.

Reaction to Russell having his lifetime coaching ban lifted by the Canadian Cen- tre for Ethics in Sports, as reveal in a front page Toronto Star story yesterday, had been met with shock to muted indifference, especially by the federal govern- ment. The controversy has sparked calls for more regulation of coaches.

Russell, twice arrested for trafficking of steroids and ecstasy, who also testified he helped burn and dispose of a dismembered body, is now running Oakville’s Dolphins Swim Club.

The reporters decided the focus of their story was to cover the reaction to the reinstating of the ex-convict swim coach. They don’t include any of their personal opinions, only the opinions of others to gather their information.

  • Subjective: This approach is when the writer decides to infuse their personal opinion into the written piece. Here’s an example The Globe of Mail of July 24, 2006. The writer is John Coo and the piece appeared on the Facts & Arguments page titled, “Summertime and the clothing is breezy”:

There were advantages to this dressed-down uniform. But saying so is mere ra- tionalization for my licentious behaviour. The onset of hot weather sets young men to thinking about…..summer dress-down days. As a callow youth, I always had clear views on “casual Fridays” – they were a bad thing; an indicator of the moral and sartorial laxness of modern society. I had always been of the school of thought that says “If you have a job, you wear a suit and tie.” End of story. I sup- pose I was prepared to bend so far as to modify this philosophy to read “sports coat and tie” for advertising copy writers, plainclothes policemen and university professors. And if you are dressed in a suit, then you wear the jacket, always.

In this piece by Coo, he injects his personal opinion. He takes a subjective view point. His slant is subjective.

Conclusion

The elements of the art and craft of writing are many, but the ones covered in this chapter include a plain writing style, language usage and vocabulary expansion and the two main approaches you can take to your writing.

Keep in mind this chapter involves those things you do while writing, however, having a clear plan before writing is important, especially when it comes to the angle you will take, so you don’t write in a confusing manner by switching back and forth between points of view. Organizing your time and yourself as a writer will be discussed in chapter nine.

ASSIGNMENT

Write two, one page stories, using an objective slant with one and a subjective slant with the other. You can look through your local newspaper and take a story that is controversial and in one page, practice objectivity – finding sources and doing research that will present a balanced point of view from your perspective. With the second  part  of  the  assignment,  write  an  opinion  piece  (your  opinion).  The  only research will come from your knowledge of the story and clearly outlining your opinions on the story and supporting your arguments with facts. Keep in mind the points raised in this chapter and include the elements in your writing.

Post your assignment to your personal website for my review.

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Author: kakonged

I am an author, journalist, teacher, and lawyer who lives in Toronto, Canada. This picture is a selfie that was done on Saturday, February 24, 2018, nearing six years of my being dreadlocked.