Saturday, October 18, 2014

Revising Creative Nonfiction (updated)

Revision in five passes.

Here's my 'quick and dirty' method of revising nonfiction. It's a combination of a my own experience and things I learned in Susan Orlean's Skillshare class on creative nonfiction.

Pass 1. Revise for dialogue.
Note: Never deliver information via dialogue, instead use dialogue to illustrate character.

Pass 2. Revise for description.
Note: Cut description to absolute minimum, make all descriptions vivid and memorable.

Pass 3. Revise for expert opinion.
Note: Avoid literal quotations by experts. Don't say "Professor Foghead says 85% of studies show that peas are demonstrably good for most people..."  Instead, speak in writers voice and say: "Peas are good for you."

Pass 4. Revise the conclusion.
Note: Avoid the 'recap.' Instead of summarizing information, communicate a feeling. When reporting, look for anecdotes you can 'hoard' for the conclusion.

5. Revise for pacing.
Note: Aim for an engaging mix of dialogue, description, expert opinion and commentary. In terms of filmmaking: dialogue=closeup, description=medium shot, expert opinion and commentary=long shot.

Update 1: 
I now believe that the revision listed above overlooks structural revision. If the structure is not right, the piece will not work no matter how much revision and polishing you do.

Two questions arise in my mind after this realization. 
   1. How does Susan Orlean structure her stuff so beautifully? 
   2. What can you and I do to improve the structure of our work?

First: How does Susan Orlean structure her stuff so beautifully? 
I suspect it's a combination of pure genius, an 'ear' for writing, thousands of hours of work, and a brilliant mentor or two somewhere along the way. Asking why Orlesn's stuff is so beautiful is a little bit like asking why a hummingbird hovers delicately in front of a flower. It just is. It's her nature. (Um... and also that 10,000 hours of painstaking work.)

Second: What's the most effictient way for a 'mere mortal' --someone without Orlean's genius--to analyze the structure of a nonfiction piece?  That would be Shawn Coyne's Story Grid process.  The Story Grid process is extraordinary. What Coyne has done is up there with Aristotle's Poetics in terms of importance. Really. It's that good. Coyne explains the process in his book, The Story Grid.

Update 2:
Coyne is storygridding the best-selling nonfiction book, Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. You can read the analysis here.

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