I’ve had a lot of people asking me recently how I write nonfiction, and by that they usually mean how I think they should write. To that I say do whatever comes naturally and then fix the parts that suck. Highly enlightened and technical advice, I know.
But these questions got me thinking: how do I write?
The best personal essays are voice-driven. They sound like someone is telling a great story.
I start personal essays with an idea, like using my reading to cope with my dad’s death. Then I talk to myself. Lots of lying on the floor involved here. Tons of procrastination and avoidance. With “My Old Man and the Sea,” I waited so long that I had to spend the whole day before it was due hammering out a draft. All the feeling I put into it — writing that essay was viscerally painful. It felt like ripping my own heart out. But I’ve been told that it shows.
But moping and procrastinating weren’t the only things I did to prepare for that essay. The first thing I did was pitch.
Pitching Your Story:
I have almost no journalism background. I took one class in college called “Magazine Writing,” and another one recently called “Pitch Like a Honey Badger.” I learned how to pitch in the Honey Badger class. But there are places online where you can learn how to craft a great pitch:
“What makes a good pitch? NPR editors weigh in” by Alison MacAdam
You can also read some effective pitches on The Open Notebook.
My Pitch for “My Old Man and the Sea”:
Email Subject: [Pitch]: The Old Man and the Sea Helped Me Grieve My Father
Dear (Editor Name),
My father owned four copies of the Old Man and the Sea, one for each of the bookshelves in our house. When I asked him why, he said that the book was like a barometer, that with each new decade of his life, he would read the novel again, and it would tell him who he was. Every time he read it, he saw Santiago’s marlin as something different: his brothers’ deaths, loneliness, our failing horse farm, my mother’s mental illness. The biggest fish of all, cancer, took his life before he could turn 60 and read it again. I never liked The Old Man and the Sea, but left with four copies and the void of grief, I decided to read the book and, through it, to discover who my father really was.
I would like to write a 2,000 word personal essay that describes how I finally learned to like The Old Man and the Sea, how the fish in the book became a metaphor for struggling against my own grief, and how it helped me understand the many lives my father led before he died in 2014.
My essays have appeared recently in the Washington Post and Catapult. You can read some of my clips on my website: https://beckyrenner.com/nonfiction/
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
In the pitch I 1) Gave a brief synopsis in the voice and tone of the essay I would write, 2) specify length and specific topic, 3) give my credentials and why I am the best one to write this story. More heavily researched or technical stories will need different credentials. For example, if I was pitching a story about teaching, I might mention my teaching certification.
After the pitch is accepted, I do research. For “My Old Man and the Sea,” that meant rereading The Old Man and the Sea and taking notes. For a piece a wrote about hurricanes for the Washington Post, I read 10–20 articles and scientific papers, I consulted a meteorologist, and I analyzed data. Every story is different. Sometimes you’ll need to outline first to figure out what you need, but I usually do things backwards: get my information first and then decide how to arrange it into a cohesive story.
After I know everything I want to say, I copy the information that I’m going to use onto a blank document. Honestly, outlining is the easiest part. I slap the quotes in there, add a few words for what I think each section or paragraph should do, and then I’m onto the next step.
Put Some Flesh On Dem Bones
With my outline done, then I figure out what the connective tissue will be. For straight news stories, the only connective tissue needed is a flow between ideas, the kind of thing your high school English teacher should have taught you with linking sentences.
For reported essays, I try to tell a story. Imagery is your friend. You want to make it so the reader can feel like they’re right there in the action. I try to choose one or two key details. Jessica Bruder is truly a pro at this. Read this story of hers in Harper’s, and you’ll see what I mean.
Personal essays, as-told-tos, and immersive storytelling (See Jon Krakaur’s Into Thin Air) take imagery and story one step further. When I started doing this kind of journalism, I told myself: write it like fiction, except it’s all real. The drive of this kind of storytelling should be the plot and characters. Personal essays and immersive journalism lean heavily on voice, because the writer is one of the main characters.
On Shitty Drafts
After teaching creative writing for a few years, the biggest difference I’ve seen between novice writers and successful ones is this realization:
Your first draft is going to suck.
There are no such things as good writers. Only good editors. Sure, you can learn how to string a sentence together. You can find your voice. But really, the best thing you can do for your writing is to learn how to suck with panache and then edit out the shitty parts.
I call my first drafts “garbage” drafts. I do whatever I want in them. Weird asides and inside jokes to yourself? Go for it. An interlude with sock puppets? You do you, boo. Need 7,000 words to get a 2,000 word story? Guilty as charged.
Do whatever you need to do to make that first draft appear. It’ll be terrible. Enjoy the suck.
Once I have my garbage draft, I SAVE IT. Then I start another document. Copy/paste.
Save every. Single. Draft. Sometimes the changes you make won’t work, and it’ll be good that you have a version of your story that you haven’t screwed up.
I usually do one good draft for nonfiction. These are the main things I do to fix it:
- I cut stuff out to make my word count. One time I really did write 7,000 words for a 2,000 word story. I had to do major surgery on that draft, but it happened. I cut out 5,000 words.
- I make sure everything makes sense. Sometimes this means adding things for clarity. Additions range from descriptions to statistics.
- I make sure the prose reads fluently. This can mean rewriting sentences, even paragraphs. To check that the essay flows, I read the whole thing aloud. Whatever I stumble over, I rewrite.
- I’m also careful of overused words. Lately I’ve been having trouble with the word “including.” Sometimes I do have to pull out a thesaurus. When I do, I use the OneLook Reverse Dictionary. It helps me when I have a word on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t figure it out.
- For heavily reported pieces, I also double check my facts. More than once, I’ve had to come back to a fact checker with a “Nuh-uh” and my saved research.
After one last read through, I send the piece to the assigning editor.
We’re not finished yet!
The editor usually gets back to me with edits. Sometimes they’re minimal. Other times, an editor will want a serious overhaul of the piece.
Apparently there are some writers who will argue with editors. Don’t. The editor’s job is to make your work sing. They’re on your side. Don’t be a dick.
The only time I’ve ever disagreed with an editor was when she wanted to cut out a piece of dialogue that completely changed the meaning of my story. Without it, the story wouldn’t have made any sense.
Basically, there’s an art to not being a dick sometimes. But also, know when to put your foot down (calmly).
Once the editor is done, then the piece is in the hands of the magazine’s team. Then I start the process all over again with a new story.