Can Factual Writing Be Fun?
September 1, 2016
By Claire Crane, Graduate Assistant
Just as I remember the first novel that I drenched in highlighter and stuffed with reference post-it notes (The Scarlet Letter, if you're curious), I can remember the first college course where creativity and academic writing no longer seemed mutually exclusive. When you see the name of the class, Creative Nonfiction, you might wonder, "Isn't that an oxymoron? Nonfiction is always dry and stuffy, isn't it?"
Dear reader, I am here to tell you that writing informational and analytical works can, indeed, be fun. Factual does not have to mean matter-of-fact!
I majored in both English and history during my undergrad, and so I got a double dose of stories, both fiction and nonfiction. For my first college history course, I read The Killer of Little Shepherds, a nonfiction account of a serial killer in late nineteenth-century France and the forensic scientist who stopped him, and it read something like an episode of Criminal Minds. History doesn't have to be presented in bland black and white, and your next rhetorical analysis or exploratory essay doesn't have to be dispassionate and dry either. In Creative Nonfiction, I realized that, just like in a fictional account, in a factual narrative or an analytical paper you are telling your readers a story. As a narrator, you make certain choices about structure, diction, and tone which shape your audience's experience and response to your ideas.
Remember that plot development chart from your high school English classes? It broke down the steps of a story into exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or, if we're feeling fancy, denouement). In an essay you do the same things. You have your introduction, where you set the scene and send your thesis off on its quest for confirmation. You have your rising action, as you introduce evidence from the text and outside research, and you'll have tension as you put your ideas in dialogue with opposing perspectives. You have your climax by the end of your body paragraphs, once you've crescendoed through your evidence to the point where your reader sees, if not agrees with, your perspective, and you have your falling action and resolution in your conclusion, where you reflect, tie things up with a bow, and maybe pack one final punch. If you're not sure where to go next in a paper or you're struggling to break free of the five paragraph essay box (especially if you have a longer writing assignment), play with plot.
From the big picture, we're going to zoom in-and how much more zoomed in can we get than focusing on your building blocks, your individual word choice? You can work magic when you choose your words with care, and your words set the groundwork for your tone. When authors use words like dreary, gloom, and ominous, you know that they're setting up a dark scene for a ghost story. When they describe a character's face as slender and structured, rather than gaunt and angular, they're implying a more positive reading of that character. In your academic writing, you also set the tone with your diction. I think that the best way we can explore this is through examples. For instance, take a look at these two takes of expressing the same idea:
Nineteenth-century British and American authors influenced my writing style. This is evident in the long, complex sentences I construct and in the wordiness of my prose. While I enjoy writing this way, I often spend more time editing.
I blame Hawthorne and other nineteenth-century American and British writers for my tendency to write flowery phrases and long, complicated sentences. I love to write that way, but editing can be quite the task.
Each of these versions offers a different impression of my voice as a writer and a different response in a reader. In the first version, I use words like influence, complex, construct, and prose, while in the second I use words like blame, flowery, and complicated. The first version has a tone that is analytical and formal, while the second is casual and a little humorous. Which tone I would use would depend on the occasion and the audience: for a formal essay analyzing my syntax, the first might be more appropriate, while the second might work for a more informal reflection on the development of my writing style.
Finally, when it comes to diction, there's a certain elephant in the room that must be acknowledged. Thesaurus, I'm looking at you! When you're typing your paper, it's so tempting to see what the thesaurus might have in terms of more scholarly sounding synonyms to the word that you've used. Before you select a substitution, however, consider whether or not the new word exactly and vividly expresses your meaning. Does the word "admonish" capture the meaning that you expressed with the word "criticize?" Or would the phrase "take to task" sound more natural? Remember, too, how an individual word has the power to alter tone. That fancier word might look out of place, or it might muddle the sound of your own unique voice. As you often hear in class, describe your ideas, your arguments, and your analyses in your own words.
One of my favorite parts of being a writing center tutor is encountering written voices that are unique-they show me a new perspective of the world. I might sit down with two students from the same class, who brought in an essay responding to the same prompt, and yet the way that the students approach their topics and the way that they sound on the page are entirely different. Know yourself as a narrator who has the power to shape your (still factual) analysis with your own flair.