Elizabeth Herman has been helping and supporting writers of various backgrounds and ages and in all stages of the writing process since 1998. She completed her doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition in December of 2008. Vital Writer Services is her new business offering coaching, tutoring, editing and proofreading to writers in various genres and with a variety of possible issues. Five percent of each fee will be donated to non-profit educational service projects around the world, which are described on the ‘supporting others‘ page of this blog. Contact her at 618-559-1641 (cell phone) or email@example.com for more information.
This week I submitted an essay to the journal “Creative Nonfiction.” One reason why the genre appeals to me so much comes from my background writing academic papers, reflective journaling, poetry writing, and reading a lot.
Combining the habit of writing researched nonfiction for school with my passion for using language creatively, the latter which I developed by studying literature and writing poetry, allows me to apply a wide variety of skills and sensibilities to composing nonfiction using a creative, literary style.
As writers, you can tell true stories that excite readers’ imaginations because of the dramatic and compelling narrative force with which you tell them. I have observed over the years as a teacher that many writing exercises start by having the author tell their own story with some narrative embellishment. Because this type of writing fits so well into writing instruction, it feels so natural to begin attempting to publish in this genre instead of in other, more traditional categories.
I hope you decide to experiment a little bit by planning to write about your own story in a compelling and creative way. At first, especially if you are unsure of how to begin, it might help you to get over your tentativeness by describing the characters who participate in your drama, one at a time.
Each ten minute spontaneous writing session that you undertake can evoke a new person who plays a role in shaping who you have become. If you make a list of the important human figures in your life, and then take 10 minutes to generate detailed descriptions of each person on that list, you will be on your way to a new creative nonfiction piece.
Describing people fits so well into the process of portraying characters, and strong characters who interact somehow lead to events worthy of readers’ attention. Take this challenge as a big first step on the road to being an author of creative nonfiction.
You need look no further than through your own window to find topics for writing in abundance. Just walk outside your door and observe the grass, trees, other plants and animal life to find hundreds of great stories and interesting details to grasp and capture in writing.
A new project has happily come my way recently, involving regular contributions to the blog on the website of my workplace, the nearby Art of Living retreat center. The topics I currently focus on include my local hiking experiences and the healing benefits I have gained from nature walks on trails in the area where I now live.
Nature provides so much material to authors, including sensory experiences, philosophical musings, scientific observations and poetic imagery.
The best places to get potential journals started, natural areas offer the peace and quiet that writers need for healthy focus, as well as a constant flow of life and opportunities for deeper perspectives on changes in the world.
Since my audience consists of readers of the center’s blog, I focus on easy-to-find locations closest to that particular center.
The structure of my blog entries includes personal narrative, lists of ways that being in nature supports happiness and healing in general, along with directions to find the specific, natural locations where I have experienced my own positive transformations.
However, as a nature writer, you can experiment with different structures, and form your pieces as poems, letters to mother nature, songs, novels or anything else.
When I first read the transcendentalist writers’ works, such as “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, and other works such as “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey, and “Turtle Island” by Gary Snyder, I felt the powerful urge to get back to nature and write about it.
I also loved Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” about living for a year off of food only grown by oneself or one’s friends.
Gather your own experiences in nature and then write about them. You can collect rocks or leaves as remembrances of each place you visit. Meanwhile, your writing and your mind will grow as you gain greater awareness of yourself and your world.
If you have an interest in writing, you can probably appreciate how helpful it is to be able to tell your own story. Since it only belongs to you and nobody else, you transform your life in unique and inimitable ways by creating personal narratives based on everything that happens to you and others.
It can be liberating to know that you don’t have to produce a long, drawn out, book-length manuscript in order for your story to be read and appreciated. Some serious writers may find brief journals on personal topics to be too fluffy and unambitious for publication. However, most writers need to take their composing and publishing lightly, especially when first starting to find a readership.
Similarly, in many technical professions, the stories of work related events often appear in logs. A log provides an easily accessible place to record how processes take place during intense work situations.
Engineers, navigators, doctors and others keep logs regularly in order to keep track of how continually evolving circumstances take shape over time.
One of the most attractive aspects of using a log book involves the small amount of time necessary to produce entries.
Blogging, which is a term that evokes the practice of online journal writing, also requires small amounts of time that are consistently, repeatedly applied. Such time and effort produces ongoing, continuous records of thoughts, opinions and perspectives on various events and/or topics.
You can find plenty of advice about blogging on the internet. Blog writing is a pursuit that has provided creative outlets that are easy to produce. If you look for blogs by searching in a particular field or topic, you’ll find that many writers, artists, musicians, and businesses in general take advantage of it.
Because of free blogging sites like WordPress and Blogger, it doesn’t have to cost anything to buy a domain name when you need to establish a web site. Just enter the internet with your own free blog on any topic or focus that you wish!
You can add pages to it and create an entire context for who you are and what you do if you start blogging and maintaining the site on a routine basis.
The next and final role in Flowers’ paradigm of the writing process, judge, is perhaps the most sticky, because writers often tend to be overcritical of small details when they should actually be concentrating on other things.
For example, when you’re working in the madman stage, you definitely don’t need to worry about correct placement of commas!
Recently I have spent a great deal of time helping out at the beautiful Art of Living Retreat Center, laundering massive amounts of sheets, towels and blankets for more than 400 residential retreat rooms as well as two buildings of hotel rooms and an Ayurvedic Spa. As I do this gratifying, physical work, the judge role comes into play frequently, as I must assess the stains and delete them with spot remover when needed. Washing linens transforms into an editing process, with localized attention to each unwanted mark on any given piece of fabric.
Similarly, in the judge role, writers must identify each local error in their text, and correct it by choosing from numerous strategies. Some errors require simple deletion, some need re-wording, and some can be eliminating by adding words, punctuation or parts of words.
Some of these errors show up easily, without extensive searching, while others may stay hidden from an author’s or an editor’s eyes until the second or third read-through.
Attention to detail is a must for the judge, for the sake of effective error detection. If necessary, a magnifying glass might help as you comb through your paragraphs in an effort to perfect everything you’ve already done in the roles of the madman, architect and carpenter!
When the time comes for putting together the pieces of the architect’s plan, the role of carpenter must take over the writing process. The actions of the carpenter involve more detailed compiling of sentences, phrases and paragraphs that embody the ideas that the writer intended to express when formulating the overall blueprint for the written piece.
Not only does the carpenter put together words into sentences and paragraphs to express ideas, but also must work to connect the ideas with each other. Just as nails and bolts connect pieces of a building, so do prepositions, conjunctions and other transitional words and phrases.
When drafting your term paper or novel or resume or letter, it may help to think of yourself as a carpenter. Your first draft may be the first time you see your writing plans come to fruition, and that can be so gratifying. At the same time, the first time you put together all the pieces, the structure may not be perfect yet, and you can be prepared to come back later and tweak the content, to revise and edit your writing in the role of judge!
Carpenter may be the most exciting role for a writer to play, because here the writing must be generated. The plans have already been made, and now the ideas must percolate across the page like a flowing river. At the same time, the perfectionism can be delayed until later, once the whole draft has been created. Here is where you can enjoy the creation of your written work!
In the architect stage of Flowers’ writing process paradigm, the writer begins to design and depict the plans for a particular piece of writing.
Of course, there are several steps involved in creating an effective plan for a composition. As we discussed last time, composing a thesis statement to express the main idea and foreshadow the support for that idea is a good first step. After that, it takes a careful process of articulating both the thesis and support to design a sound, balanced approach to any topic.
One of the most tried and true ways to begin the planning of a full draft of a text is the technique known as outlining. The outline can assume many shapes, including a vertical listing of ideas, a diagram or flow chart, or an idea map.
The more traditional outline uses combinations of numbers and letters, in upper and lower case, to indicate the importance of and relationships between the different levels of support for the thesis.
By clustering the evidence around a few good supporting points, you can create an essay that is both unified around a main idea and coherent in that the connections to that main idea are easily explained and clear.
Drawing these connections in a visual format, and listing out your planned elements of explanation, can give you a solid footing for writing a first draft in an organized way, thus reducing the chance that highly extensive revisions will be needed later.
As a piece of writing begins to take shape from the random scrawl of your madman, your architect begins to control the activities as you move to the next stage of Flowers’ paradigm of the writing process. Like most architectural tasks, having a blueprint will ease the process. The thesis statement is one such blueprint, or road map that you can use as a guide.
Your goal transforms from simply generating and including any and all disparate ideas, to narrowing and honing your topic, viewpoint and purpose for the writing task at hand. One important step in articulating your topic, viewpoint, purpose, as well as how you will achieve such a purpose, consists of composing a thesis statement.
A thesis statement can also be known as a main idea or controlling idea. In academic writing, it also often helps to foreshadow the supporting evidence that you will use to support your idea or viewpoint as you develop the rest of the paper. This can also help you establish an organizational scheme, because the order in which you mention your types of supporting evidence can mimic the order, or sequence, in which you will present the types of evidence in detail.
Another way to visualize the relationship between the thesis statement and the support for that idea is as an umbrella with many smaller points at the outer edges and corners, all merging into one main point at the top.
It simply works well when the supporting points maintain a solid connection with the main point, so that none of the spokes of the umbrella stick up and disrupt the ability of the shield to protect what is underneath. You’ve walked through rainstorms with a broken umbrella, right? The effect on your essay is similar when a connection between the support and the thesis reads tenuously.
Staying dry becomes much easier with an umbrella that has solid links between all of the points, and that’s the best kind of an essay, too. Everything you say needs to read like it hits the target that you establish in the beginning with your thesis statement.
At the same time, the thesis statement needs to be wide enough in scope to make for enough interest to keep the reader reading. If the reader already knows that your thesis statement is an irrefutable fact, then why take the time to explore why you support that fact with evidence? There is no reason to investigate a topic you already agree with unless the author offers a unique point of view and an interesting rationale for taking that unique stance.
Overall, you may need to experiment with several different thesis statements before you find the right one for your particular writing task. And sometimes you may use the thesis statement while you write, without including it in your final product. Each case will be different, but for academic essays, a good architect will start with a good thesis statement!