Most days, I aspire to calling myself a writer. In reality, I’m merely a blogger. Sure, I’ve written more than 1M words on my blog, and my daily “hit” count is rising with each extra bundle of content I provide, but I haven’t finished my non-fiction book about HR processes, and it is a very long time since I attempted anything resembling fiction.
Some people maintain their dream through pre-writing activities. Maybe “reading about writing”, through books like Stephen King’s On Writing, or other writing guides by Lawrence Block or Sue Grafton, or how-to guides like Save the Cat!, or a whole host of other books out there from big writers talking about their writing process. Others join writing and critiquing groups, online or in person. And others subscribe to writing magazines such as Writer’s Digest to get their “fix” that somehow they are honing their craft without actually honing their craft through, you know, WRITING. I’m kind of in the first and third categories. I still subscribe to Writer’s Digest, and I regularly comb through issues of the magazine or the webfeed for tidbits, some of which I squirrel away for a rainy day of writing when I’m retired. “Oooooh, look,” I think, “a five step guide to developing a believable villain, I should clip that.” Which I do, and the folder grows and grows, likely to be just deleted at some point during a pointed purge.
Articles about creative nonfiction, i.e., applying creative techniques usually used in fiction to non-fiction topics to improve their readability, are obvious draws for me. I desire the time and motivation to write fiction, and in the meantime, I write almost entirely nonfiction on my blog. But one article that I tripped over recently goes all the way back to my March / April 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. It is called “Straight Up Nonfiction with a Twist” by Debbie Harmsen (pp. 22- 25).
The article looks at seven techniques / approaches you can use to ensure you have a new, fresh, or original approach to your nonfiction writing. Here is my reaction to each element.
A. Employ a fun framework. The idea is to find a fun theme to your writing (she uses an example of driving for how to manage your life, with rest stops, road rage, etc.) with the intent to inject a bit of lightness to your topic. I understand the premise and the desire, but I think you first need to ensure that the person reading your work already trusts you, that you have hard-won credibility with them, before you take a light-hearted approach to something serious. If not, they are just as likely to be offended or turned off as they are to warm to your style. I remember being REALLY turned off by the approach in Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe (BR00013). It bops between light-hearted treatment of book addiction on the one hand and then treating it as a formal disease akin to other addictions on the other. I read it way back in 2001, and I still remember hating the approach. I wonder if it is more suited to shorter pieces than longer pieces, or perhaps merely less risky.
B. Be a contrarian. Frank and honest sums up this technique, but I already use it in spades. I always give MY take on things, and it frequently is NOT the party line in any genre.
C. Use scenes and dialogue. The advice is a bit of a mix between using “what if” scenarios to make something more real or more storytelling / anecdotes. For my HR guide, I have plenty of anecdotes. I don’t however have any “what if” examples to show someone confronted by a problem and how they can use my advice to solve it.
D. Add supplemental material. At first I thought this was going to be about annexes, but it was actually about ways to liven up your non-fiction text with text boxes, takeaway bullets, sub-headings, etc. I never really thought of that as a separate “creative” technique, but I guess it is. It is something I’ve struggled with in my HR guide, and I find it hard to use at all in my blog pages (at least as separate boxes; I do use subheadings a lot).
E. Play with time. I haven’t tried this with any of my non-fiction stuff. I tend to “recount” the story rather than taking me or the reader back in time to the moment and making it “present” tense at that point to make it more immediate. I may have to think about that for some of my HR articles. It could work really well for some of my anecdotes.
F. Bring in narration from others. I think this heading is a bit misleading. It means not only outside narration but even outside research that shifts from “here is my opinion” (for example) or “here is what I experienced” vs. “what really happened” (the facts). I do tend to put some of that in there, but I rarely contrast “what I knew at the time” with “what I know now” as I spend more time on the lesson learned than a previous gap.
G. Take an unexpected angle on a timely topic. This is a popular idea, and often badly executed. The idea is that if, for example, the anniversary of something significant approaches, then write something tied to that theme. It is often done badly, as I said, by people who take the smallest link to the anniversary event and try to tie something they were already going to write to it in some superficial way. Like, for example, trying to tie a cookbook about broccoli to the veggies that Obama served at the first official dinner. There’s no real link, other than dropping it in as an SEO filler to boost clicks, but there it is. Or worse, some bone-headed link such as a love of convertibles tied to JFK’s death or something. To me, it only works if the link is REAL, not manufactured to look real, and like with the lighthearted approach above, it risks alienating the reader rather than attracting them.
Still, regardless of which ones work for me and if I can find ways to use them in my own writing, I really liked the article.