What Kind of Writer Are You? Types of Nonfiction Part Two: The Message

What if your motivation for writing nonfiction goes beyond exploring a topic to sharing a specific message?

Many writers take up the craft because they feel they have a significant story to tell or message to convey. Maybe you’re convinced that playing chess can prevent Alzheimer’s. Or maybe a proposed waste site near your child’s school has made you question environmental legislation. Or maybe it’s as simple as a dead houseplant causing you to realize the frailty of life.

Whatever message you have for the world, the broad scope of publishing offers ample opportunities to spread it. Magazine and newspaper features are always a possibility, but the writer with a story to tell may want to make use of creative nonfiction as well.

Creative nonfiction is a term for writing that’s in narrative form but isn't fictional. In creative nonfiction, you tell a true story, with all the facts as close to reality as possible, but you tell it in the same way you’d tell a fictional story. You use characters, dialogue, scenes, and setting to advance your story, just like fiction. The difference is that you don’t create the characters or plot, but reproduce them from memory.

Creative nonfiction can take the form of personal essays, memoirs, auto-biography, even biography. Again, it’s a matter of matching the form to the message for a perfect fit.

Personal essays aren’t usually more than a few thousand words, although markets do exist for longer pieces, as well as for short ones. Think of them as the nonfiction equivalent of the short story. Told in the first person point of view, essays focus sharply on a brief period of time. They have rising action, a climax and a resolution, just like their fictional counterparts, with the main character (you) undergoing a change of some kind between the beginning and end. Your changing attitudes toward the environment as you fight a local landfill would make prime personal essay material.

Markets for this kind of piece will spring up everywhere once you’re looking for them. Check the last pages of your favorite magazines; that’s one of their favorite haunts.

If the story you want to tell covers a broader scope than essays allow, like the role of chess throughout your grandmother’s life, maybe a book of memoirs or an auto-biography is the vehicle your message needs. Here you get plenty of room to state your case, but beware. For this to work, your story must appeal to a wide range of readers. Unlike fiction, you can’t add cowboys or a love interest to spice things up. In creative nonfiction, you have to tell like it is, or was, with only the tools of strong writing to engage your readers.

If your message is based more on opinion than experience, never fear. Lots of soap boxes are yours for the standing on. Letters to the editor are the message-motivated writer’s best friend. They may not seem like much, but well-written letters on timely and controversial topics will get published in any newspaper in America.

Again, don’t forget that your local paper isn’t your only choice. If the environment is your concern, watch for other towns having the same problems as yours. Their papers will offer a whole new chance for your ideas to be heard.

When you write a letter to the editor, what you’re really writing is a persuasive essay. While personal essays share an experience, persuasive essays use logic to support a viewpoint. You wrote this kind of essay in school when your teacher assigned a four-page comparison of Shakespeare and Steven King. Only now, you get to choose your own topics and write about whatever is important to you.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of consumer markets for this kind of writing. Publications devoted to a special interest are always a good place to try.

So if you have a message for the world, write it down. Whether it’s the story of someone heroic, a danger we all need to be warned about, or a valuable lesson from your own life experience, the writer with something to say has many ways and places to say it.

For more varieties of nonfiction writing, read What Kind of Writer Are You? Part One: The Topic and What Kind of Writer Are You? Part Three: The Paycheck.

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