How to Learn to Write Non Fiction

Shannon Barber
Dec 18, 2018 · 5 min read

Originally printed for Patreon 11/18

[image of two pages of a journal, there is a purple ink pen between the pages]

This month I want to talk about teaching ourselves how to write personal essays. Whoa right? One of the most common questions I’ve been asked in the last few years is how did I learn to do the personal essay.

The first time I read personal essays that were beyond the dry analysis and drudgery of high school English classes it was 1998. I had saved up some money for a new book and went to a now long gone bookstore I frequented. I found an ugly copy of an anthology called, Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire edited by Laurie Stone.

Reading that book combined with the things I talked about in this essay (HAHA see what I did there) were really the start of my love of the personal essay. If you want to write them, let’s talk about getting started.

First thing, why do you love a personal essay? I love them because I am insatiably nosy. I love an intimate look at another human being. I love them because in the personal essay, we have at the base of it storytelling. We get to be told a story and I dunno about y’all but I LOVE storytelling. So if you love a story you’re starting out at a good spot.

The second thing. The greatest personal essays in my opinion, have voice. What does that mean? To put it most simply, the Voice of a writer, is how they in particular do and say things. I’ve read a lot of very wordy and overly fancy tips for how to find your voice and ultimately here’s what you gotta do:


For me, I had zero intentions of being an essayist. None. Years ago, I didn’t believe I had anything relevant to say, I didn’t know –how- to do the thing. In truth I had a lot to say and started writing proto-personal essays by blogging. Way back then, it I was an ~~online diarist~~ and blogging was still a dirty word. I started out writing about my days, I wrote a lot about my body image and sex I was having.

I developed a bit of an audience and over time, I started paying more attention to craft and how I said stuff. I was uncovering my voice and the roots of the things I enjoy writing about to this day.

In terms of blogging let’s be real. There are several modes of blogging. There is the blog to become an influencer, blog for a book deal or blog to write. You can do what you like, I have mainly blogged to write. So we’re going to go from the standpoint of blogging to write.

First rule of blogging to write is that you have to do the thing. Write. Doesn’t matter if it is daily, or weekly. You just have to do the thing.

Second rule, blogging regardless of what any asshole on the internet has to say, isn’t journalism. You don’t need fourteen citations, you don’t need to have been edited with a fine toothed comb. You don’t. Just do the thing.

Third rule. It is your space. You can write whatever the fuck you want. Turn off comments. Don’t link. Etc.

Fourth, do the thing. Write the thing.

That is how I started to find my voice. Like most of my lessons, the big lesson is you have to do the thing.

Now, once you’ve got some practice writing those personal things.

For our example this month, I’ll be using my first ever published personal essay.

Looking back on it, I believe that the thing that really works in this essay is this bit: (I suggest having it open in another tab to follow along.)

The nurse never looked me in the eye; she spoke my name in a weird buzz heavy voice, Mizz Barr-Berrr. She made my name sound like an accusation, of what I didn’t know but I was guilty of course.

That was the first time I purposefully used that burnt tongue thing in a non-fiction piece. I can still hear her voice to this day, when I wrote the piece originally that is the memory that spurred the whole ding dang thing. I used that buzzing refrain and as you read it and if you’ve read a lot of my other work you’ll see some common things I do because it is what I do.

I (obviously) love the burnt tongue. It is one of my favorite areas to play with. This extends into my occasional purposeful misuse of language, I like to use words or even punctuation sometimes in a way that slows down the eye. That’s my shit.

I also love, using repetition. If we use my poetry as an example, I love to repeat imagery and play with repeating the same weighted meter to the lines. I like alliteration used precisely.

The next thing can be difficult when you’re just starting out but, I want you to try it anyway.

Don’t be afraid to be the asshole.

Now, this isn’t license to be an asshole all the time, nor is it a reason to have no perspective on being the asshole. This touches on something else very important.

If you were the asshole, before you tell the story, ask yourself some questions:

  1. Can I articulate in what ways I was the asshole?

2. Do I need to apologize?

3. What am I doing?

The last question is one of those that I tend not to answer until I’m done. Am I trying to be funny? Educational? Just showing that sometimes I show my ass?

Now my darling intrepid adventurers.

I encourage y’all to play. Make a wordpress blog, don’t give anyone the URL AND JUST GO.

A few tips to get started:

If you are SUPER SHY, get yourself an extra gmail account to associate said blog with. And in options turn off the ability to find it in search engines. Disable comments.

If you start out going totally anonymous, be adventurous. Write things that suck. Write about the time you peed your pants at the bus stop, write about cats, write about some weird hobby you have, write. Just write.

Level up?

Make a blog with your name on it. Send the link to your friends. Ask folks for feedback.

Now below find some links to some of my older essays, a GREAT resource for writers, noobs and not noobs. And

One of my early essays and first non fiction sex writing-

Me writing about JT Leroy and essaying:

A sad essay reprint about a dead lover:

And one of my fave resources ever. Yeah, Write. Check it out there and I HIGHLY encourage y’all to participate because they are good folks and it is a quality thing.

Until next time,

Write like a mother fucker.

Be cool to yourself.

Write some more.



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