Quick Tips from The Writer’s Digest for Non-Fiction Neophytes

From Kim Schwarm Acosta’s “Writing Personal Without Hurting Your Relationships” published in The Writer’s Digest’s Online Newsletter published November 23, 2009:

These tips gleaned from top essayists may have come too late for me, but I hope they can keep you from ending up in a similarly sticky situation with your writing.

BLUR THE DETAILS

Essayists have a distinct advantage over other kinds of writers: The accuracy of the details is often not crucial to their pieces. So make your best friend have red, wavy hair instead of platinum blond, or make her a dental assistant rather than a nurse. And know that readers don’t need to know someone’s name to get your message. “The point is not to out your friends,” says Marion Winik, author and NPR commentator. “That’s not the truth you’re trying to tell.”

Writer Corey Levitan changes identifying characteristics as general practice, but his first draft always includes real names and every “stinking, gory detail.” “If you start using a fictional name off the bat, you’ll get lost,” he says.

An added benefit to this rule is that many times people don’t recognize themselves in the final version. “I’ve written about girlfriends and they think I’m describing an ex,” Levitan says.

COME CLEAN—BEFORE PUBLICATION

Sometimes your writing may involve descriptions that can’t be disguised. In this case, many writers show or discuss the piece with the person ahead of time…

DRAW ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES

Self-deprecating humor works every time, essayists agree, so look inward for writing fodder instead of relying on the missteps of others. “I try to keep the most embarrassing stuff about myself,” says Levitan, who began inserting himself into his stories years ago. “I realized I was leaving stuff out where I looked bad or was humiliated … but that’s what people relate to, because it’s human.” When in doubt, focus on your bed-wetting in the fourth grade, not your brother’s affection for wearing tights…

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