Some of the best advice you can follow is to make a lot of mistakes because it’s the only way you will learn. We grow from our mistakes. We move forward a little wiser. If we’re lucky, the next time we make a mistake, we can learn from it faster. If we’re really lucky we can avoid making the same mistake twice.
But what do I mean when I say making a mistake as a writer? If we’re sitting down to write, arguably the most difficult part of writing, is any of it a mistake to start with? Most days I’m just happy to be in my chair, pen in hand. If I’m worried about making mistakes, I might never write.
Dealing with mistakes comes later after you’ve written. It’s when the editor side of your brain picks up what the writer side has done and looks at it critically. These two sides of you need to work together but the writer side should try to not take anything too personally.
Let’s all agree now, as a writer, you’re going to write a lot of garbage. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s how we learn, and it comes with the territory.
It’s important to remember that we are not striving for perfection. We are aiming for the best way to tell our story. There’s no right way to tell your story. However, there are ways you can tell it that will make a reader want to keep going. That’s what I mean by mistakes. Things we do as writers that make a story difficult to understand. Things that take the pleasure out of what we are reading. So here are a few common mistakes that, if avoided, can help the readability of your story, and take your creative nonfiction story from a “shitty first draft” to a polished piece of work people want to read.
Thinking your reader is just as familiar with your family, your history, and your subject as you are
I love a story that drops you in the middle and says let’s go. I love a story that doesn’t hold my hand and trusts me to figure some things out for myself. Those are techniques that, when done successfully, create an enjoyable reading experience. But what can hinder a story is when there are introductions to too many people or references to things in the past that aren’t fully explained and aren’t necessary to the story. You might be able to keep your entire family straight in your mind, but you’ve had your lifetime to know them. If it’s crucial to the story to talk about your mother’s three aunts, then you’re going to have to give them distinguishing characteristics. Does Aunt Moira have an over-dyed blonde beehive and lipstick on her teeth the color of First Kiss Fuchsia? That’s a woman I’m going to remember and recall when she shows up again on page 3. It can be tough, but looking at your story after you’ve gotten it all down on paper with fresh eyes is crucial when you’re editing. Many writers give the advice of putting your first draft away for at least 6 weeks or even a year, before coming back to it. You’re more removed and can look at your writing with a critical and detached eye. This detachment can put you in the reader’s position and help you realize when situations or scenes are unclear.
Writing journal entries
It’s common when writing creative nonfiction to write about a time from your own life. This can be a cathartic chance to unburden yourself, to take what happened to you and turn it into a powerful story. But sometimes if we aren’t careful this can turn into journal entry writing—you list events in the order they happened to you like you’re explaining things to a non-sentient diary rather than another person who wants to relate and understand what you’re writing. This can turn your piece into being all summary and no scene. Lee Gutkind explains this difference in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, “Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.” Using your journal or daily writing practice entries can be a perfect place to mine for story ideas, but use them as a place to start. Think of them less as rough drafts and more as research for your creative nonfiction stories.
Not including literary devices
In a recent COALESCE post, I talk about improving your creative nonfiction pieces by adding in literary devices. A literary device is a tool used by writers to enhance their stories and add layers of depth. They can be used to speak to the larger themes and meaning behind your creative nonfiction piece. They can be used to heighten just a sentence or be woven throughout your entire story. These devices could range from adding a metaphor to foreshadowing a future event that will take place in your writing. If this sounds amorphous and open-ended that’s because it is. Literary devices are wide-ranging, and like any tool, it’s up to the user to know which one is right for the job and how to apply it. When using literary devices make sure to experiment, see what works, try different ones out, and find new ways to say things that have been said before. Play with using symbolism, allusion, irony, personification, juxtaposition, and foils. These devices can be used to add freshness to your creative nonfiction. Instead of using stale metaphors we’ve all read before like it was cold as ice, what if it was cold as an air-conditioned office building in summer? The more vibrant and visceral an image you create in the reader’s mind, the more connected they feel to your writing. Adding in literary devices can help with this.
Trying to tell the reader too much in one story
Unlike the first example where you don’t explain enough, this mistake feels more like overexplaining, worrying that your reader needs all the context of your life for them to understand the magnitude of what you want to say. But when everything is given the same importance, nothing becomes important. Try picking one event in your life, one subject of focus. You can use supporting events, but it’s about this one thing. A short creative nonfiction piece is a limited amount of space (at COALESCE our cap for stories is 2500 words). But as Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Get creative with how you tell your story. Every word has a job to do, and every word should be put to work.
COALESCE is running a themed contest that closes October 15, 2022. If you found this article useful, try taking a look at some of your creative nonfiction pieces with fresh eyes while keeping these suggestions in mind. You can find more information about the contest here . As always, I am honored to read the story you share with us and I’m looking forward to it.
Written by: Kate Sowinski, Editor and Artistic Director for COALESCE Community
September 10, 2022