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Tricks of the Trade: Why Take a Class in Creative Writing?

Most students are unaware that the best non-fiction writers, whether they are crafting narrative essays or entire books, employ the exact same tricks of the trade fiction writers use to make their prose jump off the page. We are not talking here about the dry, journalistic version of who, what, when, where and why that appears in our daily newspapers, but the true stories we read that we will never forget, the ones where a stranger’s life unfolds as we read, where suspense and the unknown keep us reading, and where we feel what is happening on the page in the same way we would while engrossed in a gripping novel.

One of the largest hurdles for students when writing personal essays for high school or college admissions is this challenge: How to get the reader’s attention and keep it for 500 to 1000 words? It isn’t easy, but it is possible, and one way to get there is by learning the components of fiction. For instance, say you are writing about a big debate or a piano recital or a Math Olympiad. Readers are less interested in whether you won or lost than they are about experiencing the event with you — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some places to start:

  • Setting the Scene: When you see the event in your mind’s eye, ask yourself: Was the room hot or cold? What color was the paint on the walls, how comfortable were the chairs? Did you smell a perfume or cologne you recognized? Did you spot an arch nemesis across the stage?
  • Accessing Your Unique Voice: Were you nervous or calm? Who in the audience were you thinking about before, after or during? Did you suddenly decide what you were wearing was all wrong? Did your mind empty entirely the split second you needed every brain cell? Did someone say something to you just before you performed that you’ll never forget?
  • Tone: Do you want this piece to be funny, serious or a combination of both? Fiction writers create tone in many ways: through dialogue, descriptions of characters, depicting tension in the way people react to one another and by cataloging the events happening in the background. Look at the whole picture of the scene you are writing about, and use these details to build your tone.

Other fictional elements or “tricks” that non-fiction writers can use to create strong essays:

  • Story Structure: Open with a scene that leaves the reader wondering and curious. Reveal more about yourself as you tell your story, through action and scene, then leave them with an ending that is both clear and unforgettable, and hopefully ties back into the place you started from.
  • Dialogue: Writing dialogue isn’t about capturing verbatim what people say. Can you imagine all of the ums, likes and whatevers? Dialogue should be used to capture the essence of what was said, in a way that reveals more about you or the story you are trying to tell.
  • Write for Just One Person, Not the Whole World: To steal a few lines from Kurt Vonnegut, “In my opinion, a story written for one person pleases a reader, dear reader, because it makes him or her a part of the action.  It makes the reader feel, even though he or she doesn’t know it, as though he or she is eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two people at the next table, say, in a restaurant. If you open a widow to the whole world, your story will get pneumonia, so to speak.”

An additional benefit of learning how to write from the imagination? Students learn to get outside themselves a bit, and perhaps imagine life from another person’s perspective or city or culture. This, in turn, allows a more of freedom when it comes to writing about themselves by creating a way to see their own situations from the outside, which will further their ability to tell these stories with increased awareness, and with a sense of the larger world in mind.

Staff writers

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