Want to perfect your process for writing creative non-fiction, or elevate your writing style? Maybe you’re making the move from fiction to non-fiction. Whatever your starting point, Freya Dean and Andrew Kenrick, writers and co-editors at Hinterland magazine are joined by their handpick of contributing writers to share their top tips for creating brilliant non-fiction writing.
1. Take notes
Simply: you must write a journal. Every day. Even if it’s two sentences about the bathroom, or breakfast, or a slight at work. And you must write what is real, to you, as long, silly, rote and deeply as you can. This ritualistic dedication to churning over your internal world in a journal will give you agency over the ultimate story of your own world, as well as those outside of it that you hope to tell. – Justin Kern
Whether on paper or screen, get into the habit of recording your moments, thoughts and emotions. Journalling provides valuable raw material for writing from your life, but re-reading what you’ve recorded also helps bring you back to that moment in the past. It enables you to remember details and write with an immediacy that’s not as easy to replicate from our often unreliable memories. – Yin F. Lim
2. Raid the novelist’s toolkit
One of the things that often defines the best creative non-fiction that we receive at Hinterland is that it applies the tools of a novel writer to real situations and settings: flashbacks, starting in media res, dialogue, rich descriptions of character and plenty of texture in the writing – colours, sounds and smells. – Andrew Kenrick
3. Share your work
Take every opportunity to have your non-fiction critically (and constructively) workshopped. Even more than a way to gain feedback, structured discussion is invaluable for the perspective it brings when you’re working with material drawn from your own life. It helps build that sense of ‘remove’, of feeling that what you have written exists as something in its own right, distinct from your self and your inner world. This in turn helps you to better craft and evaluate the work as you are writing. See also Vivian Gornick’s incredibly insightful The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. – Freya Dean
4. Go off track
Tangents can be your friend. Sometimes when I’m writing, my mind will start drifting. I’ve found that it can be productive to follow these tangents to determine if they are actually associations or resonances that deepen and need to be interwoven into the main story. – Josef Steiff
6. Develop an Editor’s eye
Try to have a ‘fallow’ period between writing projects where you read intensively and think hard about what you’re reading. The keystone of most non-fiction creative writing courses is exactly this: reading great writers to understand why their writing shines, which then helps you to develop a critical, editorial lens that you can apply to your own work. As far as non-fiction titans go, Joan Didion’s essays, and those by Gay Talese (see especially Frank Sinatra Has A Cold & Other Essays) are a great place to start. Take one short passage and really dissect it, right down to the last full stop. – Freya Dean
4. Listen before you write
Go and interview people and let them talk. It is not a conversation, more of what they say and think should be on the tape than your own questions or opinions. I’ve just recorded an interview with a tree surgeon: he spent five minutes describing a smell. I couldn’t have written anything like it from my own mind, not without experiencing it myself. The next trick is welding those bits of interview into what you want to write. They need to fit, and they need to have a strong join. Then you need to polish out the weld, so the reader can’t see the join. Craft and graft. – Peter Goulding
7. Be brave
When we write from our memories and our life stories, there’s a temptation to gloss over things and leave out the difficult parts. But to write a memoir or a personal essay well, we need to interrogate the truth as we remember it, and write with honesty and candour to achieve an authentic voice that allows readers to connect with our writing. – Yin F. Lim
I see so many people edit themselves before they even get the story out. Get the story on paper/screen first. Raw, complicated, contradictory. Then in the rewriting, continue to be brave. Not reckless, but brave. I often find that when I read the piece after it’s finished, I feel vulnerable. I’ve even blushed sometimes when reading something aloud to others. For me, this is my evidence that I’ve cut as close to the truth as I can. – Josef Steiff
8. Don’t forget to read!
I’m always reading nonfiction even during the writing stage of a project; I tend to write biography rather than memoir. Sometimes it will be for direct research, other times I’ll be looking for stylistic inspiration, and more often it’s entirely unrelated. But it’s all fuel for the fire, and often inspiration for a thorny problem can strike from the unlikeliest source. – Andrew Kenrick
I find I can’t read non-fiction during a period of intensive memoir writing. Its not that I’m afraid I’ll subconsciously copy from other writers, but just that my thought stream gets disrupted and I can’t keep the flow of my own work. Instead, I read fiction (just re-read Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit From the Goon Squad), YA fiction (my kids have got me into Philip Reeve), poetry (currently Lieke Marsman), and those big ‘coffee table’ art and fashion books, when I can afford them. – Freya Dean
9. Be patient
Some pieces, especially memoir that pulls from strong emotions, require time and distance. I can often recognize in the moment a story that I need to tell, but if I try to write it then, it can feel simplistic or dull. So I tend to let things percolate, to return to them in cycles — sometimes this can be on paper but other times it’s all in my head. Some stories take years to tell. With time, it’s less reliving and more excavating, seeing the events with insights and perceptions — making connections — that are often hard to process in the immediate. – Josef Steiff
10. Keep track of your sources
While you might not plan to extensively pepper your writing with footnotes or references, all the same keep a track of where you’ve found your information. This might be just to offer a credit or to supply a bibliography, but it can also prove essential if you find yourself needing to return to the same subject in the future – and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to forget where you’ve read something further down the line! There’s all manner of reference managers out there – I use Zotero but there’s loads available freely. – Andrew Kenrick
11. Shelve it!
So many successful writers I know consider this an essential part of the writing process. Whether they’ve reached a point where they’re stuck with a manuscript, or are reasonably happy that they’ve nailed it, they print a hard copy and put it away in a drawer, and then they don’t look at it for several weeks. This is helpful for all writing, no matter your subject, but is especially key when you’re writing anything that draws heavily on your own experience. When you take the text out again and read it with fresh eyes, you’ll instantly see the flaws in the writing, whether great or (hopefully) small. – Freya Dean
Images (c) Pexels
Hinterland publishes the best in creative non-fiction, showcasing new work by established, award-winning authors alongside an exciting roster of debut writers. The latest print and digital issue of Hinterland is available to purchase from their webstore here. Orders will be shipped bi-weekly.
For details on how to submit your work, or simply to get in touch, please visit www.hinterlandnonfiction.com
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