Nonfiction 101 by Aine Greaney
Nonfiction Writing 101
By Aine Greaney
We can classify all true stories — as opposed to stories invented or imagined — as “nonfiction.” Nonfiction, then, spans every “true” or it-really-happened genre, from news reportage to biography to autobiography to memoir — plus everything in between. However, for the purposes of this set of instruction, we are defining nonfiction writing as creative or personal writing that derives from our personal experiences.
Your story really happened — yes, but rather than just reportage, you are going to borrow from fictional techniques to tell the story in an interesting and very human way. In this kind of creative nonfiction writing, we are nearly always writing in the first person ( as “I”).
So when I say “nonfiction” here, I mean personal essays, op-eds, creative nonfiction essays, short or book-length memoirs, micromemoirs, audio essays, photo essays and blog essays.
What Should I Write About: Getting Ideas for Your Nonfiction Essay or Book
When it comes to generating ideas for your nonfiction work, avoid the I-haven’t-had-a-very-interesting life excuse. Ditto for the “this-theme-has-already-been-written-about” spiel. Yes, most themes have already been written about, but not by you. That’s what’s lovely about first-person nonfiction writing: As readers, we get to enjoy more than just the story itself. We also get to enjoy the writer’s sensibilities, voice, opinions, history, background and the writer’s unique take on this particular theme. Our stories aren’t just a rendering or telling of events or mishaps. They’re much more than an anecdote. Because some time has elapsed between the event (the day I fell and hurt my knee) and the telling (let me tell you about the day I fell and hurt my knee), the story has ripened, developed and deepened inside the writer’s brain and heart.
While there are a million things to write about, here are some possible story-starters to get you inspired to write that first nonfiction scene:
Keep a journal: If you already keep a journal, look back through it for recurring themes — the things you write about over and over. These are clues to what really matters to you.
Dreams: Have a repeating dream? Sometimes, this is the subconscious trying to tell you something or trying to play out a life issue or memory that won’t stop niggling at you. This issue, memory or story could be worth addressing in a first-person piece.
Secrets: Do you have a family secret or a half-finished story? Write about what you actually remember and surmise about what might have been the truth. Or is there a secret you’ve kept, and now it’s time to examine or tell it — plus reveal your own reticence in the telling?
Life around us: Write about random characters or situations — on the bus, in a café, at the doctor’s office. Explore an overheard line, a media headline or an event to which you want to respond or relate to your own experience.
Life-changes: Write about an important life change for you — divorce, bereavement, an illness or loss, a romantic relationship that has turned out happy, a person who has inspired you.
Photos/memories: Take out an old photo album. Look at old photos of yourself or your relatives. Write this line, “I remember …”
Places: Write about a place where you feel or felt especially safe or where you felt you belonged. Or write about a place that instantly made you ill at ease. Or write about your first day in a new school, job, home or other setting.
Great starter lines: “Today I want to write about …” “I remember …” “My mother/father always said …”
“I believe that …” “One day I hope to …”
Typical Word Counts for each Nonfiction Subgenre
Now that you have gotten started with some good ideas, you will want to simply sit at your writing desk or go to a café or library and bang out that first scene or draft. I say “bang out” because, for the first draft, you cannot think about editing or second-guessing yourself. Don’t worry if you will sound smart or if your writing will be published or admired or ridiculed or sold for money. Just write for you. Just write because it will bug you and pain you not to write on this topic. Still, it’s useful to have a general sense of the norms and lengths of each type of nonfiction.
Book-length memoir: A short memoir is about 65,000 words, while a longer one is about 90,000 words. A memoir does not chronicle all of your life, just one part of it. For example, you may want to write a memoir about the three years you spent working in the U.S. Peace Corps. So the story has a natural beginning, middle and end.
Personal essay: These fall into two categories: The longer essay generally published by literary magazines or literary online journals is about 2,500 to 3,000 words. The essay published on blogs or in Sunday newspaper magazines is generally between 600 and 700 words.
Op-Eds: These are the opinion essays that appear in the page opposite the “Letters to the Editor” page in the daily or Sunday newspaper. Publications vary in their required length, but the typical op-ed essay is about 600 to 800 words. Some newspapers will accept up to 1,200 words. Always check with the publication’s own guidelines and requirements.
Micromemoir: This is a short, well written memoir. These range from 400 to 1,000 words.
Blog essays: Again, the length depends on the publisher. A popular word count, though, is about 800 words.
What Exactly is a Personal Essay?
Even the experts in this genre have often failed to exactly define the genre. And don’t be fooled. The use of the word “essay” here does not mean that you’re writing anything at all like those “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” stories from your school days.
Also, personal essays or memoirs are very different from academic or business writing in that the creative nonfiction essay uses very simple, direct language and keeps the obscure or “fancy” words to a minimum.
To help you to fully understand the genre, see the resources I have posted below.
Getting to Show and Tell Your Nonfiction Story
Just as for novelist or short-story authors, we nonfiction writers must learn how to create a memorable scene. Scenes are the building blocks of our stories; they’re what let the reader into the story and, more, they’re what make the reader care and want to turn the page for more.
What makes some scenes more memorable than others? Make a list of your favorite movies. Opposite each movie title, jot down a list of the scenes you remember. Then, free write about what it was about those scenes that made them stay with you. Perhaps it was the location, the dialog, the use of color or setting, or how the scenes and the characters made you feel. So if you’re going to write about that day when you fell and hurt your knee, it’s not enough to tell us about it. We, as readers, need to actually be there, on the sidewalk, smelling that hot blacktop, seeing the blood trickles, listening to you scream, and feeling your shock and pain.
Here are some tips for writing lively, memorable scenes:
The Opening Scene: This is where you draw the reader in and get him or her interested in your story. The opening scene should also establish these aspects of your book or story:
Your narrative voice — how do you write, “speak” on the page, use language?
The essay’s mood and pace — Is it slow, thoughtful, witty, opinionated?
The location of your piece — Is the setting in the north or south? In a hot or cold climate? In the United States or abroad?
Era — Are you writing about a recent or long-ago event?
Genders — We need to know if you, the writer, are a man or a woman
Your nonfiction story’s central conflict or question — What’s at stake in this story?
Creating memorable scenes:
Choose specifics, not generalities. For example, instead of writing about your childhood family car, give us make and model (“That evening, Dad arrived home in his sky-blue Skylark.”).
Use the five senses — but carefully. One or two per scene is enough.
Avoid the static scene — character must do or decide something.
It’s More Than a Story: Blending Other Resources into Your Writing
You may want to enrich your own personal story (the day I fell and hurt my knee), with other, nonwriting disciplines or resources. So let’s stick with the example of the injured-knee tale. Your personal essay could be infinitely richer if you do some research and weave in history (that same year, President Kennedy had just been shot); or medicine (Last year, the CDC reported over xxx U.S. cases of sepsis or bacterial infections, 60% of them caused by knee injuries); or urban planning or migration trends (From 1954 to now, we Americans have adored and despised our suburban housing developments. But the fact is that our infrastructures are aging and, according to statistics, causing over 70,000 childhood injuries per year). Not all essays or memoirs will warrant or sustain this kind of factual reportage or research. And it’s important to make good and seamless transitions between the narrative (your story) and the research.
Using Dialog in Nonfiction Writing
Dialog is another way to make the reader care about you and your story. Of course, unless you had a tape recorder on hand, you will not remember the spoken exchange between your mother and the policeman on that day when you fell and hurt your knee. But in fiction or nonfiction, written dialog is not about replicating what actually got said. Dialog is always a very contrived composite in which we capture the voice, cadence and words as we remember them. Dialog is never just plopped onto the page. Generally, when we choose to insert dialog (“Didn’t you see that crack in the sidewalk, Missie?” asked the police officer), it has to be very a very good reason: (1) To move the “plot” of your story forward or (2) To give the reader an insight into the “characters,” their relationship or what has happened before this particular story (“God only knows why I got landed with such a tomboy,” said Mother.”).
Using Dialect in Nonfiction Writing
Capturing a particular mode of speech or regional accent gives authenticity to a piece of personal writing, but in this case, less is more. It’s hard for the reader to decipher very heavily accented English, and, when we present the people in our lives as being ignorant (via poor grammar in dialog) or backwoods or strange, we writers risk coming across as a snob or a smarty-pants. It’s better to give a sense of the accent or language usage by inserting just a few words and by capturing the cadence of the speech.
First-Person Nonfiction: How Much Do I Reveal (Or not)?
One of the great risks and fears of first-person narrative is that we are exposing ourselves, our lives and, sometimes, our loved ones on the page. Many writers struggle with this, and deciding what to tell or omit is one of the key decisions a nonfiction writer must make.
A few guidelines to help you decide what to include or omit in your writing:
Generally, if you’re writing about trauma, illness, or something that made you angry, it’s best to allow some time between the actual event and the writing. This will give you some objectivity and clarity and a deeper perspective.
Ask yourself your motivation for writing the story. If it’s revenge or an intentional “outing” of someone, it will read as mean-spirited and not as very interesting.
When revealing something about yourself or your past, ask yourself if you can live with this information being out there in the world. Can you also live with it being out there five, ten and fifteen years from now?
When you cast other people in your story, will it damage them? If your partner, family or friend will pick up your writing and be angry or feel exploited or outed, then you need to ask — really ask — if this is worth it to you. There is a do-no-harm writer’s ethic. To violate that ethic, to break a loved one’s trust, you must be ready and able to take the consequences.
If in doubt, ask. Sometimes, writers are surprised by how willing a subject is to be written about. Equally, by showing your work to the subject, he or she gets the chance to ask you to delete a certain fact or to present him or her in a slightly more flattering light.
Omitting a certain part of your life (that you don’t wish to reveal) is not lying. You have simply chosen to not include that in this particular narrative.
Many industries do not allow their employees to reveal certain information about their workplaces. Healthcare comes immediately to mind. U.S. federal law precludes healthcare workers from revealing the identity of the patients they treat. And yet, narrative medicine and medical humanities is a growing field. As nonfiction writers, it’s important that we are not breaking any laws, risking our jobs, or putting ourselves at risk for libel suits.
Getting Published: Breaking into the Nonfiction Market
There are many markets out there for shorter nonfiction essays or micromemoirs. By taking the time to fully research the publications — online and print — that may be right for you and your writing, you will reduce the risk of rejection.
Guidelines for Getting your Nonfiction Published
Think writing, not publishing: In the beginning, just write for you and because you want to write about this subject. Don’t think about what others will say or if you will ever be able to publish this piece of writing.
Edit and redraft: On the second, third or tenth draft, be brutal in asking yourself how you can make the writing better and more universal. It may be a personal story, but it also has to appeal and speak to a wider audience.
Find your perfect editor or agent: Research, research and research your target markets. There are no shortcuts here. If you’re writing about that day you fell and hurt your knee, it’s foolish to submit that piece to a journal that exclusively publishes pet stories.
Find hooks: Your childhood knee-injury story stands a much better chance of getting published if there has just been a series of media stories about childhood injuries or underfunded city sidewalk repairs.
Follow the rules: Follow your target publication’s or literary agent’s exact submission requirements. If he or she wants double-spacing, then double-space your essay. If he or she wants 12-point font, then that’s how you must format your submission. Don’t try to bypass the required online submission process by emailing or mailing the editor or agent directly — unless the publication requests it.
The cover letter: Submit a brief, accompanying cover letter that outlines your essay topic, gives a word count and provides your credentials and publishing clips.
Spread the word: When your piece is published, drive readers to it by linking it to your social media posts. Encourage readers, friends and family to support your work. Engage online and offline with other writers. Support is a mutual process.
Further Resources for Nonfiction Writing
Phillip Lopate’s book, The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)
Morris Dickstein's article in the New York Times:
Lee Gutkind's essay, "What is Creative Nonfiction?":
Tim Bascom's essay, "Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide":
Roxane Gay’s essay, “The Danger of Disclosure”:
Chryselle D'Silva Dias’s list: “Fifteen Paying Markets for Personal Essays and Life Stories”:
Meghan Ward’s list: “20 Great Places to Publish Personal Essays”: http://meghanward.com/blog/2011/09/21/20-places-to-publish-personal-essays/
New Pages website, which lists publications and calls for submission: www.newpages.com
Agent Query , which tells you everything you need to know about researching, querying and submitting to literary agents and independent publishers: www.agentquery.com