An essay is still a story: Tips for improving your creative non fiction
By Kat Vella
We have all had experiences that have shaped us. But it's knowing how to piece together your story and reflections for the purpose of sharing with others that's the challenge. This month, Mona's non fiction editor Kat, gives her top tips for composing a powerful but simple personal essay.
So you have found the time to sit with your thoughts, put aside some time to write, got your thoughts down on paper and felt the tide of satisfaction and relief roll in from finally starting. Well done! Writing down our experiences can be such a cathartic exercise, but it's important to remember that if you would like others to engage with what you have to say, you need to put yourself in the shoes of a reader. From my experience as an editor, receiving dozens of personal essays each edition and having the pleasure, and often the frustration of reading through each one, here is my best advice for how to take your piece from something that's been beneficial for you, to something that's powerful for others.
1. It may be non fiction – but it’s still a story!
It seems so simple, obvious even, but all stories should have a beginning, middle and end. Even when we are chatting with a friend or partner about our day or something that happened over the weekend, you will find you touch some semblance of all three. It's important that your essay, even if it's not in chronological order, have a flow that brings the reader from a setting, context, starting point, through a journey to a conclusion. Be specific about the events, thoughts and reflections you are sharing. Avoid the assumption that when it comes to the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story, that the reader already knows what you know. They know nothing unless you tell them! So identify what are the important bits to tell and get them down!
2. Tell us something we don’t already know
Often I will come across pieces whose content I have read many times coming from many different writers. Writers that are all trying, probably unconsciously, to tell a story to fit with a cultural or community narrative. The trope of the dutiful, self sacrificing but content country wife/mother/*insert other role women are expected to do for free here* comes to mind for me here. Challenge yourself to look at your story without the words of your friends, loved ones, or town ringing in your ears and see it for how you see it, even if it might shock or challenge those in your life. Your story is unique because no one sees life through your exact eyes! Tap into that. I think it's important to note here that not every story is meant for others to read. It's important to be vulnerable on your own terms.
3. Be personal
Be deliberate about the personal language you use. Don't be afraid to own your story and use first person pronouns! Find your voice. Find the words and the language that best reflect who you are and how you are feeling in the piece. Monas, a word of encouragement here: this takes time! You are not going to nail your personal voice in the first piece you write, but stick with it! The more you are tuned into searching and listening for it, the more it will improve.
4. You are an individual – but you live in a community.
Now you are seeing your experience more clearly, use this to reflect on the braoder community and societal themes that have impacted this story. This is where including research and expert opinions on the subject or themes raised can be very insightful to both you and the reader. While we all like to think we are in control of our own lives, the truth is that everything we do and experience is shaped by the values and history of our communities. Use your experience as a spring board to dive into the bigger picture story. Your story is the hook that engages the reader but the research is what will encourage the reader to question and to think, which in my opinion is the real power behind the personal essay.
5. Writing for you and writing for someone else are two different things
Often, I get submissions that read a lot like diary entries. Diary entries can be a great impetus for a piece, but it shouldn’t end there. Readers need more info, context, and description. You don’t have to go overboard, you can leave some stuff open to the reader’s imagination but not so much that it becomes obtuse. The difficulty for you as the writer is identifying how much detail is enough for the reader to understand your point, but not too much that they get lost or bored.
6. Leave your reader with something to take away
To finish, I come back to the original point: We have all had experiences that have shaped us. If you are writing about your experiences for others to read, ideally you would like them to benefit in some way from what you went through. Somewhere in your piece give the reader with your 'lessons learned'. If you're not sure what they are, ask yourself the following as a starting point:
1. After going through this event/experience, where am I at now?
2. What did I learn?
3. What has changed about me and/or the way I think about a certain topic etc?
It´s important to note, that this doesn't have to be positive or illuminating. It can be simple, obvious, but it must be authentic to you and your story.
Kat Vella is the non fiction editor of Mona Magazine. She is an educator, activist and journalist who lives on Wiradjuri Country in Griffith, NSW. She is national committee member of Rural Australians for Refugees and is passionate about social justice, feminism and education. Apart from finding her work at Mona Magazine, she has been published in regional mastheads and The Guardian Rural Network.
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