3 Tips For Structuring Your Creative Nonfiction Piece

how to structure creative non fiction

Curious about writing creative nonfiction? Get started with these pro tips from Woburn, MA tutor Belynda C...


Creative nonfiction is a difficult genre in terms of development and writing, and yet it is one of the fastest-growing segments of the market in recent years. Memoir and personal essay were once limited to the rich and famous. These days, the Internet has made everyone a potential essayist. If you have a fascinating story to tell about your own life, you may feel daunted by the enormity of the task. Surprisingly, one of the best cures for writer’s block (in my experience) is good organization!

When I think about the structure of a manuscript or essay, I often consider the analogy of cleaning house. I’m not talking about a quick dust or vacuum. I’m talking the take-no-prisoners, deep-clean, three-trips-to-Goodwill type of house cleaning. Your work deserves the same treatment as your home—it should be free of clutter, have enough rooms for everyone, and be impeccably decorated. With this analogy in mind, here are three valuable tips to structuring your memoir or essay.

Keep, Throw Out, Donate

Sentimental attachment is tough, whether you’re cleaning up a house or editing a manuscript. You have to be in the right frame of mind to do the needful. With a house, the best approach is often to haul out the big cardboard boxes and decide what goes where, turning a critical eye to each item. The same is true for your writing. You only have so much square footage, and likewise have only so many words or pages to express your story. Pare down your story arc and your word count so that each anecdote, phrase, and plot progression truly moves the story to its ultimate conclusion. Aim to keep your story within the word count guidelines for its form. Be decisive, and you will be successful.

To begin this process, decide what you really want this memoir or personal essay to reflect. Are you writing about a difficult time in your life? A big lesson learned the hard way? Organize your thoughts around a central theme, and from there it becomes easy to determine what stays or goes. Keep the best elements of your story, and weed out the parts that don’t serve the central theme. Also, keep anything you love (but don’t love for this manuscript) in a separate document. You never know when those parts will become useful for your next project!

Only So Much Space for Guests

You wouldn’t try to sleep 15 people in your two-bedroom apartment. Likewise, your story only has room for so many characters. They have to serve the plot in a meaningful way. You might feel inclined to give Aunt Lila some space in your story, but unless she was a real catalyst for change or obstacle to success, she has to go. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how many characters to include in your story. Just be sure those you include are vital to the plot. If you can remove someone without impacting your narrative, they most likely weren’t a key player.

Expertly Decorated

Once you know the scope of events and the cast of characters, you must return to the idea that creative nonfiction succeeds by evoking emotion. Memoir is not autobiography. Emotional investment is achieved through great narrative, exquisite prose, and deep, unselfconscious examination of the theme you set out to explore. Those who enjoy memoir and personal essay want to be transported, just as they would when reading a work of fiction. The major difference in creative nonfiction is that your story actually happened.

Once you have worked out your cleaning and organizing, decorate with abandon. Write your heart out, make it beautiful, and take your reader with you on an emotional journey. Use the devices found in fiction writing to create a setting for your real-life experience. Lastly, leave your reader with a sense of longing that stays with them beyond the final page. Like handsome decorations in an ordinary home, transformative prose can turn a humble story into an irresistible escape.

For more help starting (or finishing) your memoir, here are some resources:

BelyndaBelynda C. teaches writing and knitting in Woburn, MA. She earned her Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University. She holds a Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience in writing fiction, literary non-fiction, and freelance writing for clients. Learn more about Belynda here! 



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5 Myths and Realities for Writing Fiction

Tips On Writing Fiction Writing fiction comes with a number of myths that keep many people from giving it a serious try. Don’t them get you down! Here are a few things that you might hear about the industry as you’re learning how to write fiction–and the reality behind them.

1. You Have to Be a Big Name to Write

Many aspiring writers are told that unless you’re Stephen King or you’re famous for something else, there’s no point in trying to get your work noticed. But the truth is, many publishers actively look for new writers. Plus, it’s also important to remember that every big-name writer started somewhere. Stephen King was a teacher struggling to pay his power bill when he wrote and sold his first novel!

2. If Your Friends Like It, So Will Publishers

One of the mistakes many writers make is asking their friends and family to read their work, and basing their worth on those opinions. After all, regular readers are your target audience, right? However, most friends and family won’t want to damage their relationship with you by saying they don’t like something you wrote. There’s nothing wrong with asking them for feedback, but make sure you’re also re-reading and being objective with your own work. Do the characters really resonate? Will the plot really keep readers interested?

Another helpful way to get feedback is by joining a writers’ group. These groups allow writers to critique each others’ works and get truly objective opinions about them. You can also hire a professional editor or work with a private tutor to get additional outside feedback.

3. Write Only What You Know

“Write what you know” is a piece of writing advice that has been around forever, but it doesn’t mean what you think it does. When learning how to write fiction, writers often hear this more than anything else. But if you have to write what you know, and you’re a college student in Illinois, does that mean you can’t write about pirates or geishas? Absolutely not. You can create a convincing world through research and imagination. If we only wrote about what we knew, we wouldn’t have fantasy, science fiction, or many types of horror stories. However, writing about what you know can be good advice if you look at it from an emotional point of view. If you know a lot about positivity, sadness, grief, or jealousy, for example, try incorporating that into your writing.

4. You Have to Write in Today’s Hottest Genres

Certain genres get red hot and draw in millions of readers. Think about the rise of vampire literature and dystopian teen tales. If you want to be successful, you have to pick one of the hot genres and write in it, right? The experts say otherwise. By the time a genre hits it big, it’s already too late to start crafting a similar story. Those works were accepted a year or two before they were published, and by the time something gets popular, the next big thing is working its way through publishers and getting ready to hit the stores. So instead, write what you are passionate about rather than what you think might be popular.

5. If the Publisher Wants It, Your Work Is Done!

Not so fast. You’ve put enormous work into writing a story that you love and that a publisher wants. But that’s just phase one of understanding how to write fiction that sells. You will have at least one round of edits from your editor , and that can often mean rewriting large sections of your work. You may have to cut characters out, shorten the work, clarify certain aspects of the plot, or even change the plot slightly for a different outcome. The fiction writing process can go on for months after you already have the work under contract–or even longer. In many ways, fiction is a collaborative process that starts with you but may end with you, an agent, an editor, and a publisher.

Writing fiction may not be easy, but it is one of the most rewarding of creative outlets. If you’re passionate about writing fiction, don’t let anything turn you away it! Keep writing and discovering your passions–you won’t regret it!  

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