Start Writing Creative Non-Fiction with Dan Richards
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Special offer: All creative writing online courses include a free 12-week digital subscription to Granta Magazine.
This course will help aspiring authors develop the skills and techniques required to write a non-fiction book, be it a biography, a memoir, reportage or another of the many flourishing forms within this exciting field of writing. Whether you have started to write and would like help moving forward or simply have an idea you’d like to explore, this course will give you the essential tools you need to progress.
Successful non-fiction requires skills in two disciplines – conducting research and writing prose – and the course’s six modules will provide a solid grounding in both areas. As well as helping you find a story and decide how to tell it, we will show you a variety of research techniques and how to craft compelling prose that holds the reader’s attention.
This course will teach you how to:
- Start work on a non-fiction book
- Create an effective structure for your non-fiction narrative
- Find the right voice (or voices) to tell the story
- Craft compelling prose that engages the reader
- Improve your interview technique
- Conduct online and archival research
- Convey a sense of place in your writing
- Create a multifaceted portrayal of a biographical subject
By the end of the course you will have:
- Become familiar with a range of non-fiction forms and voices
- Improved your ability to draw interesting and relevant information from documentary, visual and audio sources
- Improved your ability to extract useful information from interviewees
- A stronger understanding of how to tell a compelling story
- The necessary skills to progress your non-fiction project with confidence
Designed by the University of East Anglia and the National Centre for Writing.
The twelve-week course is divided into six fortnightly modules. Participants will analyse extracts from published texts and sources of information including documents and film and audio clips, before discussing them with the tutor and fellow students. The modules are posted fortnightly. Every two weeks you will submit an assignment to your tutor, who will then respond with constructive feedback and advice.
Module One – Introduction
Why Write Non-Fiction? How and why do you start writing a non-fiction book? Here we will look at how to begin your research. We’ll discuss what makes a compelling story and consider why a reader might wish to read a book. For example, it might be a memoir that gives them emotional reassurance, a travelogue that makes them laugh, a piece of nature writing that compels them to be more environmentally aware or a biography that enriches their understanding of history. We will discuss how to find stories and insights into human behaviour wherever you go. We’ll also look at ways of opening your narrative that hook the reader and compel them to keep reading, by raising implicit questions that they want answered. Finally, we’ll look at the art of using dialogue well in non-fiction.
Assignment One: Listen to a conversation between strangers in a public place – on the bus, in a shop, in the park – and note down all the facts you’ve gleaned, or watch a documentary film clip (TBC). Highlight the most interesting facts or memorable quotes and choose lines you’d research if you were writing their biography (300-500 words)
Module Two – Research Techniques I
On your own: archives, online research and exploring locations on foot. How to get the most out of paper archival research, digitised archives and resources, and visiting the key locations in your non-fiction narrative. Also, how to cite sources properly.
Assignment Two: You’ll be given a choice of clips to watch or read, about which you’ll then write a description or begin a discussion on its salient points.
Module Three – Research Techniques II
People and Memories: how to conduct great interviews, and the strengths and weaknesses of anecdotal evidence, looking at the reliability of memory. Having completed your interview, what comes next? How do you decide what to use and what to discard? How do you verify people’s anecdotes? We’ll also consider the ethics of interviewing, looking at how to balance your obligations to your interviewee and the reader.
Assignment Three: Interview a friend or member of your family about their childhood and find out something that you didn’t previously know – ideally a significant incident that shaped who they became. Write 300 to 500 words describing this person’s childhood, including quotations.
Module Four – People…
How to create an in-depth portrayal of a character that makes the reader feel they know them – a vital skill across all fields of non-fiction, from travelogue to history. What makes up a personality? Humour, habits, emotional responses to situations, behaviour under duress… we’ll look at how to get inside your character’s head so that the reader empathises and appreciates their complexity. We’ll read The Duchess of Newcastle’, Virginia Woolf’s entertaining essay on Margaret Cavendish, published in The Common Reader.
Assignment Four: What questions are raised by Woolf’s portrayal of Margaret Cavendish? If this were your introduction to Cavendish’s life and work, how would you go about determining your own objective opinion? Discuss in 300 to 500 words the approach you would take to researching her life.
Module Five – …and Places
How to describe the locations that form your narrative’s settings; and how to manage the interplay of your people and places, how they influence one another and drive the narrative arc of a biographical subject’s progress.
Assignment Five: Write a biographical account of a famous person from your town and analyse how the place made them the person they became.
Module Six – Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story
Now you know how to find your material and elicit stories, we’ll look at how to structure a book-length narrative. This will include discussing how different voices suit different genres, how to find the best structure for your story, and how to craft prose that holds the reader’s attention. We will look at the benefits of first-person and third-person narration, and at narrative arc, tone, vocabulary, and rhythm both at the sentence level and structural level. We’ll also discuss creative non-fiction and experimental biography, with particular reference to A J A Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, published back in 1934. From here we will look at how exponents of creative non-fiction have taken diverse genres – such as biography, nature writing, travelogue, history and confessional memoir – and blurred the boundaries between these forms, looking at some brilliant examples. Finally, we’ll briefly talk about finishing a manuscript – the art of editing (and being edited), and of letting go and walking away. How do you know when a book is finished? (‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’: Leonardo da Vinci.) Those who wish to practise shifting between voices may try one of these (unassessed) exercises: Either take a personalised first-person narrative and rewrite it in the third person, substantiating the character’s assertions with citations… or take a dispassionate third person narrative and write it from the character’s point of view, conveying their emotions but ensuring that you can prove they felt that way. (Two texts, TBC.)
Final Assessment: write a 1500-word piece of non-fiction displaying all the skills we’ve acquired in the last three months – either a standalone piece, or the opening of a manuscript you’ve begun during the course, or an extract from a work-in-progress.
Your Certificate of Completion will be sent to you on the successful completion of your final assignment.
About your tutor
Dan Richards was born in Wales in 1982, grew up in Bristol and graduated from UEA in 2004. His first book, Holloway — co-authored with Robert Macfarlane & illustrated by Stanley Donwood — was published by Faber in 2013 and became a Sunday Times bestseller. The Beechwood Airship Interviews, (HarperCollins, 2015) took a journey into the creative process, head-spaces and workplaces of some of Britain’s celebrated artists, craftsman and technicians including Bill Drummond, Judi Dench, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers & Stewart Lee. Climbing Days (Faber, 2016), was an exploration of the writing and climbing lives of Dan’s great-great-aunt and uncle — Dorothy Pilley & I.A. Richards. Outpost (Canongate), a book about far flung shelters and eyries, isolation and wilderness was published in the UK, Commonwealth and USA in April 2019. Dan has written for publications including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Monocle, Slightly Foxed, Lodestars Anthology, Ernest Journal, and The Quietus. His Twitter handle is @Dan_Zep