Voice & Vision, Stephen J. Pyne’s book about writing nonfiction, starts with the question: Why do we write?
Many unpublished writers dream of garnering fame and fortune. Pyne doesn’t think these aims provide a practical impetus for writing. He suggests that the genuine triggers for writing include our desire to connect with readers by entertaining them, helping them understand a topic, or providing fulfillment.
It’s not enough to come up with a great topic. Many people can think up an idea that could be developed into a book-length manuscript. But few end up with a finished manuscript. Why?
According to Pyne, some simply don’t have time to write. I’d add that some don’t make the time for writing. Others lack the motivation, skills, or knowledge to develop their ideas in terms of a major writing project.
Even writers who succeed in creating a finished manuscript may hit a brick wall when it comes to publication. One can self-publish. But if the idea is to get an agent or publisher, it’s worth knowing that even thought manuscripts flood in to these gatekeepers, increasing ‘arithmetically’, they ‘die exponentially’. In other words, only a small percentage of writers get their work published through the traditional route of a publishing house.
Putting all that aside, how can nonfiction writers improve their writing? Pyne offers suggestions.
Draw on fiction elements
Drawing on fiction when writing nonfiction is increasingly popular, as evidenced in the category, creative nonfiction.
Whatever your topic and take, can you include the following in your material?
- A strong plot
- A narrative arc
- Memorable characters
- Vividly described settings and scenes
- Action and narrative
- An effective tone and rhythm
Choose voice and vision
Voice is how an author relates to readers and tries to keep them reading. An author’s voice is made up of three major elements in writing.
- Word choice
Formal or informal? What suits your expected readers?
- Sentence and paragraph structure
Are the sentences and paragraphs usually long, or short? Informal, or formal? Simple, for complex? Does your structure fit your readers and your topic?
What is your attitude towards your subject? Towards your expected readers?
When I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, I so enjoyed how he told his tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail that I went on to read his other books.
On the other hand, I tend not to stick with a nonfiction book if the author writes more than a general reader needs to know, seems egotistical, or goes off on confusing tangents.
Vision What Pyne calls vision is I call theme. It’s the writer’s big idea, the organising principle that helps shape a topic and makes it easier for a writer to work out what information belongs and what does not.
Pyne likens vision to a sheepdog that ‘keeps your flock together’ and reminds you ‘where to go next, how long to stay, what to keep, what to discard’.
How do you choose your vision? He suggests focusing on your topic and purpose.
Topic: What do you want to do? What is your book going to be about?
Exercise: To clarify topic and purpose, identify your intended book’s place in the world.
- Where would readers find your book in relevant bookshops, libraries, and websites?
- What other books would be on the shelf with your book? How do they differ from your book? How are they similar?
- If someone asks the genre your book belongs to, what’s your answer?
Later, when you are drafting, keep returning to these questions. As you read and research more, you may be able to become more specific in terms of your topic and your purpose.
Interestingly, Pyne believes that if writers keep their focus on voice and vision, they won’t suffer the dreaded writer’s block. How good is that!
Pyne, Stephen J. (2009). Voice & Vision: A guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP.
Mapping—sometimes called clustering, ballooning, or bubbling—encourages writers to play with ideas before creating their first draft.
The aim of mapping is to be loose—exploring ideas and making connections, without restriction. Mapping helps writers generate more ideas at the start. Later, they can sort through the results to work out which are worth developing.
The main benefit of mind-mapping is that the exercise often takes a writer beyond obvious ideas and into new creative territory. It’s fun, and satisfying, to follow where your mind takes you.
Here is a visual of what a mapping exercise may look like when finished. This example is from Scapple, a good, inexpensive, online mapping program. I use it, but many writers are happy to map using a sheet of paper and a pen.
If you have never tried mapping to develop material–short story, essay, speech, whatever—why not have a go?
When mapping, let your mind free associate. Imagine you decide to start with the term crazy love. Jot it down in the middle of your paper, and circle it.
Now, what does the term bring to mind? Capture the first idea that pops into your head: Write it down, circle it, and draw a line to link it to crazy love.
Keep going, adding words and circles. Some circles will have their own offshoots as you think of additional ideas.
At the end of the exercise, your sheet of paper will be filled with a network of circles and lines, words and phrases.
Sarah wants to write a poem about home. She writes the wor HOME in the centre of her page, and draws a circle around it. Then she free associates, adding whatever words and phrases come to mind. She does not censor anything, no matter how silly, but lets her imagination run.
When she thinks she has done enough, she puts her mind-map of HOME aside. Later, when she returns to her map, she not only has lots of material, but she may now have a better sense of which items on her page could work for her. The exercise has taken her beyond her first ideas.
If you haven’t used mapping as a playful pre-drafting activity, have a go. Imagine writing a short story, poem, essay etc. on one of these topics:
- Early memory
- When I was young
- Not again
- If only
- I need
Place your word or phrase in the centre of your page. Then start adding words and phrases as they come to mind. Work quickly. Don’t censor or evaluate.
As you work, add connecting lines, to show relationships. The aim is to work quickly, creating a web of words and phrases. You may opt to leave some terms on their own. With other terms, you may come up with more connections. For these, use linking lines to new circles.
When you have reached a finishing point, put the results aside for at least a few hours, and don’t think about the exercise.
When you return to your map, shift into editor mode. Assess what you want to keep. Perhaps you’ll get a sense of where you want to go with the material. Highlighter pens can be useful here. Use one colour to identify possible main points and another colour for secondary points. Or one colour for items you definitely want to include, and another colour for items you might add. Or start by crossing out the items you don’t want to include.
Once you’ve assessed your mapping results, You can refer to it when developing an outline, if that’s how you start writing. Or perhaps you will start drafting, given that you now have a better sense of your topic and what you wish to include.
A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend. —Lorrie Moore
Unfortunately, some stories suggest more of the mad rather than the lovely. What problems can wreck your short story’s pace and content?
This checklist can help you evaluate your material when you’re drafting, as well as later, when editing.
Problem 1: Writing beyond your story’s true start and true ending
Missing your story’s true beginning and ending can play havoc with pace and sense of closure. When you’re grappling with writing, it can be hard to identify the appropriate point to start and finish. Some writers load unnecessary information at the front. Some keep going, past the logical ending, as they keep explaining or tying up loose ends.
Unlike novels, short stories often leave some elements unexplored and unreported. When writing short, try to remain open, rather than explain too much.
Problem 2: Overkilling your scenes
A similar problem is overkill, taking a scene past its dramatic peak.
What if you want a scene to peak when your main character confronts a workplace bully.
Start the build up too early and your readers may think the peak has come too late. If you Write too much afterwards, extending the scene, and they may not grasp where the peak point is.
Problem 3: Repeating too often
A story that is too repetitive can annoy readers. They may think the author believes they’re stupid or can’t pay attention.
Even a small slip can irritate. If a character introduces her pet as my dog Jack, readers expect it to be shortened after that to Jack. If Jack’s owner has a hyena laugh, readers don’t need that descriptor each time she reacts to something funny.
Problem 4: Disclosing too early or too much
Modern short fiction often does not include a lot of detail about characters—their history or backstory, their views about various topics. There simply isn’t that much story space to add extraneous details. Having a character provide too much personal history can overload a short story.
In real life, we usually share our personal details gradually, depending on what and how much we are comfortable telling. Think of how little information we provide when we meet someone new. When chatting with old friends, we may keep to familiar, accepted topics rather than introduce new ones.
Problem 5: Inserting useless flashbacks
A flashback has a use. Done well, it helps readers understand the story. If it doesn’t provide this payoff, get rid of it, or find a different way to provide the information you want readers to know.
Imagine that you don’t want to use a major flashback when your character is reflecting on a haunting childhood tragedy. What can you do instead?
- Make one flashback into a few shorter flashbacks, interspersed throughout your story. Your character could experience the tragedy several times, with different details coming to the surface each time
- Replace the flashback with dialogue. Your character could tell another character about the incident. Discussion not only provides another’s view , plus it can flesh out both characters.
Problem 6: Confusing divine art or reality as FICTION
When writing the first messy draft, it’s fine to follow the flow of inspiration. But don’t mistake the result as a divine gift from the writing gods, meaning that no revision is needed.
If you want to fictionalise a real event, more is needed than changing the names of those involved. And probably every critique group focused on fiction has had someone respond to feedback with this defence: But I wrote it exactly the way it really happened.
Even if you draw on divine inspiration, or a real-life account, test your story’s fictional payload. How? Put your draft aside. Let it go cold. Then analyse each scene in terms of its fictional power.
1) Does this scene help my story overall? In what way? How much? Can I do better?
2) Does it help readers understand? What do they understand now that they didn’t before?
3) Would removing this scene weaken the story? Why? How?
Problem 7: Writing unnecessary dialogue
A story’s pace and interest can be jeopardised by lengthy dialogue, especially if the topic is trivial. Example: Readers learn that the main character has organised to take vengeance on her cheating partner. Next, she meets up with an old friend, and they chat for ages about work issues.
The problem is not that this conversation couldn’t happen in real life. But after getting readers focused on vengeance, office politics is a letdown. When writing dialogue relevant to the main plot, provide the weighting and space it deserves. pare back the dialogue.
Problem 8: Adding too many non-crucial details
Include too many minor events or details, and you may drown your story. And if minor items overwhelm major ones, your readers may become confused or bored. How much do you want readers to know at the different stages in your story?
To evaluate what’s important and what isn’t, keep asking why. Why was Sam at the deli that Thursday? Why did James look scared when the phone rang? You don’t have to explain everything to your readers. But working out the answers can help you identify your story’s mix of important and non-crucial elements. This exercise may also help you follow the famous writing advice: Kill your darlings.
Problem 9: Creating clutter characters
These characters are minor, and almost invisible—unless you give them too much oxygen. You know you have a problem when a reader tells you how much she likes Sharon, the nurse’s aide, because she’s sooo funny. Unfortunately, Sharon has only six lines of dialogue in one scene and never appears again.
Problem 10: Incorporating dream scenes
When I wrote my first story in a beginners writing class, I included a dream scene. I thought it was so expressive. But the workshop leader looked pained. Since then, I’ve read or heard from other writing experts, who often advise jettisoning the dream scene. Why?
Sometimes, a dream scene has to carry too much weight. Example: using the dream to tell readers something crucial in understanding the story. Sometimes a dream is fluff, which does not pull its weight in terms of moving the story forward.
If you must incorporate that crazy dream you’ve thought up, at least clarify its purpose. What do you want your readers to get from it in terms of the overall story? Then consider alternatives to a dream, and decide what works best.
These days, I so rarely get ‘here comes the postman’ letters that it seems odd to comment on writing letters. However, the Women of Letters is unusual, a popular ‘talk letters’ event.
Selected women—usually well-known to the public—are given a set topic and respond to it in a form of a letter. Each woman can choose who or what the receiver is, plus whether that recipient is from the past, present or future. At a WoL event, each invited woman reads out her piece before a live audience.
The topics selected for these events work well as writing prompts. See what you can do with the following.
For an added challenge, imagine you’ve been invited to read your letter at a WoL event. Consider what and how to develop your piece to connect with a diverse audience. Will your letter be funny, poignant, angry, revealing? Will you draw on real life events or provide a fantasy?
Here are a some topics. I’ve included questions to help you reflect on what you could include and what approach you could take to develop your idea:
- A complaint letter
Is it from the past, present, or future? Is it funny or serious? About a person, animal, or an object?
- To my most treasured possession
Was it from the past—your own or someone else’s? Is the perspective about the possession unusual?
- To the moment I knew it was time to go home
Was it related an interesting period/job/phenomenon in your life? About a particular day? Can you do something with the word home? Was there a turning point, e.g., a decision made, an action taken?
- A love letter
Are you writing to your younger self? To a relative? An animal? A physical condition? A habit? A location? Is it to do with something now gone, vanished? Or something you’ve learned or unlearned?
- To the things I never told my mother
What were the circumstances surrounding the ‘not telling’? What do you think now about not telling? Are the things never told funny? Tragic? Or . . .?
- An apology
Is this about a change of some sort? A sarcastic response to a irritating person or thing? Is to do with a misfortunate or confusing event from the past? Are you writing to your younger self?
- To my most treasured possession
- To the person I never got over
- To the best day of my life
- The letter I wish I had written
- To the best present I ever received
- To my ghosts
- To my turning point
- To the thing I can’t resist
- To the night I’d rather forget
- To the life I could have lived
- To my first pin-up
- To my nemesis
- To the host of that party
- To my first boss
- To the best decision I ever made
- To the song/story I wish I had written
- To the person I misjudged
- To my twelve-year-old self [or pick any age]
- To the moment it all fell apart
- To the photo I wish had never been taken
- To my most treasured possession
- To the one who changed my life
- To a little white lie
Source: Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, 2012. https://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780670076093/women-lettersher adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters. Viking Press (Penguin Grp), Melbourne.
Where I live, up in the mountains, I usually find that when I’m driving along the highway I’ll pass a loooong coal train snaking next to the road. It’s a line of ugliness because each coal hopper is usually tagged by aerosol vandals, creating a monotonous frieze of contorted letters.
Aerosol mural painters are a huge step up in terms of art and beauty. In the upper mountain town of Katoomba, some of these artists were invited to create murals along an alleyway. Their work turned a forgotten passageway into a colourful art walk. Katoomba also has other large art pieces on the external walls of buildings, bringing colour to its main street.
A friend sent this photo of a street mural in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I’d love to see more public places where visual art is combined with poetry. To have poems infiltrate public spaces—shaking us awake, reminding us that there’s more to life than the humdrum of shopping, picking up library books, looking for a parking space.
The verse in the photo is by Robert Creeley. He was the first poet I heard reading his own work out loud. As an English major at uni, I was immersed in American and British poetry from Anglo-Saxon times to the 19th century. I also bought slim volumes of contemporary poets. But I’d never had the opportunity to hear a poet reading their own material to a live audience.
So when I saw a flyer on campus advertising a public reading by Creeley, I went to see what it was about.
When he came out on stage, looking quite ordinary, I was a little disappointed. He didn’t look like a poet, I remember thinking.
There was no discussion, no interview. He simply adjusted his microphone and began reading. And it was wonderful.
Later, part-way through one poem, he broke off. He explained that he hadn’t read it ‘correctly’, and he started again, a few lines back. He must have felt he’d nailed it that time because he continued to the end.
Why do I remember Creeley’s mistake? His action—stopping, correcting—identified that he emotionally owned that poem. And that its precision, its rightness, was important. To him obviously, but in some flattering way, to us his listeners, people he’d most likely never see again.
That experience of being in an audience that was being read to left me shaken and stirred, and I began reading more poetry and writing some myself.
Even now I enjoy the poem a day app, although I wish it included voice as well as text. I don’t like every poem I read, but The best ones show me a new, different perspective, at least for a few minutes.
When I recently came across a book titled Conscious Writing, I was intrigued to know what that meant.
Its author, Julia McCutchen, founded the International Assoc. of Conscious & Creative Writers (IACCW) to help writers who are interested in spiritual and personal development. Her book combines mindfulness exercises and visualisation as part of writing.
Much of the book isn’t relevant to my writing interests. But I was taken with her views about how to begin a major writing project, such as a book.
- Even if we have a great idea for a book, we may lack confidence about how to develop it. As well, our infamous inner critic can get revved up, to the point that we may despair, thinking I’m not good enough . . . I can’t write . . . I’m not a real writer.
It is this lack of confidence that makes it hard for writers to
- keep track of their aims
- develop their ideas
- establish an appropriate voice
McCutchen suggests that writers undertake two preparatory steps before embarking on a major writing project:
- Start a regular meditation practice
- Assess topic, aim, and readers.
She believes that establishing an ongoing meditation practice leads to calmness and clarity. Developing these positive qualities can help us counter the fears and confusions we often face when we write. With practice, we may even quash our inner critic.
The authors of some how-to books on writing assume that their readers have already settled on theri topic and approach. The books focus on helping these writers develop and improve their material and writing style.
McCutchen believes writers benefit when they undertake a preliminary step, which involves responding to two questions—Why and Who.
Why have I decided to write about this topic?
Why am I passionate about it? What message do I want to convey? What do I want to share with my readers—and why? What’s motivating me to share?
Who am I writing for?
What are my readers’ interests and needs? What kind of experience do I want them to have from reading my ideas, insights, and stories? What kind of link or relationship would I like to make with them through my book?
What’s the value of considering these two questions? Whatever we write, it’s impossible to engage every reader. So why not focus, identifying our ideal or most probable readers?
Answering the two questions can help us plan a writing project that focuses on–
- the readers who are likely to be attracted to and appreciate our ideas
- the kind of relationship we want with them.
How we answer these two questions provides direction, which can help us as we choose and develop content, structure and message.
McCutchen encourages writers to keep a record of their what and who responses. Some people list them, others use mind-mapping. Having a physical record enables writers to keep evaluating their initial responses. Some may find they can hone their original responses and get a clearer sense of their intent and readership.
Are you old enough to remember receiving personal letters that the postman/mailman delivered to your home?
PROMPT: Jot down memories or ideas, from the time before email, Facebook, mobile phones, etc. A time when letters were the main method of communication. When letters—lost, found, received, not answered—could change a life.
In the pre-computer times, a plot for a novel or story sometimes centred around a letter. In Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the male lead, Angel, loves Tess and wants to marry her. She writes a letter to him, confessing a past affair, and slips it under his door. The next morning, when he is as affectionate as ever, she believes he’s forgiven her. She later discovers that when she shoved her letter under the door, it went under the carpet, and Angel had NOT read it. Tragedy follows.
Today, I received two Christmas cards in the mail. I have one US cousin who sends a beautiful handmade card for my birthday and anniversary. Another relative annually sends an account of her year—written in iambic couplets (!).
My elderly aunt is the only relative who still sends me handwritten letters. I briefly imagine myself doing the same, but know I never will.
A friend’s adult children complained that her emails were ‘too long to read’. So she now provides short, snappy and frequent Facebook comments. I would find that frustrating. I don’t write people often, but when I do, I engage, choosing particular experiences and ideas based on the interests of person I’m writing to.
Christmas postcard date unknown, c. 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The short message is not a new development. I have my grandmother’s postcard albums from the early 1900s. In those days, people enjoyed saving postcards sent to them–often a photo of a faraway location, sometimes a joke picture.
The messages on the backs of the old postcards I have were written in pencil. I guess people didn’t take quill pen and inkwell with them when they traveled. And many senders simply signed their name, providing no message. Perhaps it was enough in those days to share a visual joke or faraway scene, rather than give a personal account of ones’ strip.
Letter-writing paraphernalia is vanishing. I still have some sets of stationery, plus beautiful cards, fountain pens, and different colours of ink, in bottles. All are untouched, as dated as the Model T Ford.
What about the demise of the aerogramme? When I moved to Australia, my mother used the one-page, lightweight aerogramme to convey news. Harper, the small Kansas town where she and Dad lived, had 1800 citizens and a two-block main street. Still, she found a surprising number of developments and dramas to write about. She advised me about the wheat harvest, church and town doings, her China painting, their backyard garden, plus square dance club, fishing trips with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law, duck hunting in fall, and sightseeing trips.
I learned how crucial letter writing was when I was in my first teen crush, with the boy living at the other end of Kansas. I spent time, too much, selecting just the right stationery and ink colour when corresponding. Sometimes I made my own envelopes, using picture pages from Life magazine. I impatiently checked our mailbox each day for a letter. When I received his letter, I took it to school and re-read it during geometry class. (Note to younger self: in terms of preparing for university, spending time learning maths is better than a short adolescent romance.)
The biggest issue was finding a safe place to hide the letters from my nosy older brother. One day he snatched the latest missive and locked himself in the bathroom, threatening to read it. I yelled back, rattled the doorknob, and started kicking the door–and my foot went through a thin panel on the door. For some reason, my parents blamed me!
A few years later, my brother was in Vietnam, where he wrote to my parents and to me. I still have his letters. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll read them. Perhaps they will be healing, helping me understand his life, how two Purple Hearts led to the PTSD that dogged his life, and his inability or lack of interest in keeping in touch.
In my loft storage, I still have a few old letters from various boyfriends dating from high school and college days. Reading them now gives me an insight into my young self, what interested me, worried me, made me happy.
In those days, I never imagined a time when getting mail would not be exciting. But now my letterbox holds mainly bills and flyers. It serves as the occasional dropoff place for a book or gift of produce from a neighbour. And because it’s mostly empty , it’s become the perfect home for a big, but harmless, huntsman spider.