How to Write Creative Non-Fiction: An Introduction

Meghan MillerMeghan Miller
Student Representative, High Plains Region, 2015-2016
Zeta Psi Chapter
University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO

So, you want to write creative non-fiction without boring your readers to death by sounding like a textbook. You are not alone. Creative non-fiction is a fascinating and exciting genre when done properly. It can be informative and fun. Here are a few thoughts to consider while beginning your next non-fiction piece:

What do you want to write about/how do you choose a topic?

Writing is the painting of the voice! - VoltaireFirst, what are you passionate about? The answer to this question will lead to writing what you care about and enjoy. Anything you are interested in is worth writing about. Aside from writing about interests there are plenty of other questions and topics that can get your creative juices flowing. Do you have a pet peeve? Is there something you think the world should know? Think about your life experiences; are there any you can relate to a broader theme? Any of these questions will guide you to an exciting topic. Whatever you choose, your topic should have a message or purpose. Avoid writing about something you know nothing about (don’t forget, this is non-fiction).

What type of creative non-fiction do you want to write?

CreativeYour topic will help determine the type of creative non-fiction you write. Several non-fiction writing styles exist; the most common include personal essay, memoir, argumentative, and persuasive. After you have chosen a topic, you will have to decide what style in which to write. Some styles do not fit with certain topics. For example, you wouldn’t want to write an argumentative essay about your deceased grandma; you likely would choose a memoir.

Who is your audience?

Audience is a really important element when writing anything. To whom do you want to appeal? Who do you envision reading your work? It is important to keep the audience in mind as selfish writing likely will disengage the reader. Being aware of your audience will help you manage elements like tone, humor, and jargon.

As a creative non-fiction writer, you must remain a reliable narrator. An audience reading creative non-fiction expects the content to be truthful. Although some truths are stretched in writing for stylistic effect, make sure what you are writing is true and an accurate representation of the topic. Your credibility will be damaged if you fail to do this.

How do you incorporate stylistics into non-fiction writing?

Word CloudNow, this is the fun part. Incorporating stylistics into your writing is what keeps your reader from falling asleep. As in any writing, you want to show, not tell. Since you are writing non-fiction, everything you write should be true. However, this should not keep you from using figurative language like hyperboles, metaphors, and similes, because these are the details that separate your writing from textbook writing. These tropes also make your writing unique. Using a personal anecdote is another great way to express your ideas and engage your reader. Make sure everything you use in your writing—down to every word—has a specific purpose.

Vary your sentence structure. Pull out the thesaurus. Let your voice shine through. Just because you are writing non-fiction does not mean you have to leave out all the fun stuff you see in fiction. Happy writing!

What additional advice do you have for creative non-fiction writers?

Submit to The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle

Follow these helpful tips and submit your creative non-fiction to The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle. The Rectangle is an annual journal of creative writing that publishes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Submissions should not exceed 2,500 words.

The journal is refereed, with jurors from across the country selecting those members to be published. The best writing is chosen, from around 1,000 submissions, for publication. Not only do these publications go to chapters worldwide, but they also honor the best writing in each category, with six awards totaling $2,400. There is also an annual reading at the international convention by any of the published writers in attendance. Additionally, 2017 marks the first year the Sigma Tau Delta journals will be cataloged by the Library of Congress.

The submission deadline for the 2017 journals is Monday, May 9, 2016, 11:59 p.m. CDT (Central Daylight Time).

View: Submission Guidelines

What To Do With An English Major: Library of Congress Internship

Emily SpanglerEmily Spangler
Associate Student Representative, Eastern Region, 2015-2016
Alpha Gamma Kappa Chapter
Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV

People always assume I, as an English major, want to teach, and they always are so unapologetically wrong. An English major offers countless paths to travel, and I chose the path to library science.

Reading has been my passion since early childhood, so pursuing library science only made sense to me as a teenager, and it still does now. I only ever wanted to protect books and indulge in the knowledge they offered, which essentially is what some librarians do every day. Imagine my elation when I found out I received a paid summer fellowship at any prospective librarian’s dream institution: The Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Working for the federal government, and especially the nation’s library, I realized early on how critically important was the work I was doing there. I think I realized this not as a college student, or a reader, or even a federal employee. I only initially understood the impact of my time at the Library of Congress as an English major.


Meeting With the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Bilington

I feel as if only English majors, in our own way, truly can appreciate the new and old. We respect Shakespeare, and cherish Harry Potter. It’s a dynamic unique to English majors, and I was grateful for it more than ever within the context of my fellowship. For 10 weeks, I was a first-time mother, and over 3,700 Portuguese Pamphlets were my children. These pamphlets originally were in the Rare Books Division, but were transferred to the division I was working under—Collections, Access, Loan, and Management—because many of these pamphlets originally belonged in a different collection.

My entire purpose was trying to locate items within the Portuguese Pamphlets that belonged to the Carvalho Monteiro Collection, a collection of over 30,000 items the Library of Congress acquired in the 1920s. I went through every single pamphlet, checking for a stamp indicating it was part of the Carvalho collection. I entered the titles, years, reference numbers, and other information into two databases I created. I sifted through 75 reels of microfilm, looking at pamphlets that weren’t physically present. I individually photographed each pamphlet, and then rehoused them. Rehousing is relocating an item from its previous enclosure to a new, more adequate enclosure. While extremely technical, the job taught me that to care about something old is to care about something new.

The Junior Fellows class of 2015 closes their 10-week inernship program with a ceremony, August 5, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Receiving the Fellowship Certificate of Completion

By cataloging, photographing, and rehousing these beautiful pamphlets (the oldest are from 1572, while the newest are from 1920), I managed to come to terms with the fact I was helping future researchers, because I was making these items more accessible. I was the one behind the scenes, making the magic happen, and that’s all it took for me to confirm pursuing library science as an English major was the best choice I ever made.

What do you (plan to) do with your English major?

McIntosh & Otis Internship: Preparation for a Dream Career

Lisa BonvissutoLisa Bonvissuto
2015 Sigma Tau Delta Summer Internship Stipend Recipient
Beta Delta Chapter
Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

This summer, I interned at McIntosh & Otis, Inc. Literary Agency in New York City. I had been working remotely for McIntosh & Otis for the past few months, but I knew being in the office would be different. I would be able to interact with people with whom I previously had only shared emails, and I would get to take on more responsibilities.

At the parkArriving in New York I was thrilled with the energy of the city and my neighborhood, just two blocks from Madison Square Park, and even with my tiny dorm room (I was less thrilled when, a couple of weeks later, I discovered a not-so-tiny cockroach in my tiny dorm room, but that’s a story for another day).

At the office, I quickly became immersed in my work: reading manuscripts, writing reader reports and editorial letters, going through the giant slushpile of query letters, and writing cover letters to foreign co-agents and clients. McIntosh & Otis is one of the oldest literary agencies, and as such, they have a long list of clients that prompts foreign translations and movie requests.

I never felt like I was being asked to do busy work; from the beginning, everyone at McIntosh & Otis made me feel like a valuable member of their team, and I feel lucky to have worked at such a great office with very talented agents and assistants.

I’ve always known a publishing internship is necessary in order to get a job in the industry. After completing my internship, though, I now understand why. I learned so much through firsthand experience that never could have been explained to me about how the industry works and what kind of skills I would need. I learned about the differences in genres, how to articulate why I liked or didn’t like something, how to trust my instincts, but also how to ask for and listen to advice from those who have been in the industry longer than I have. This was the most intellectually challenging and rewarding job I have ever had. It caused me to really think about the structure of a book, what works and doesn’t work, and what people actually want to read and expect from their books.

City skylineI am so grateful for receiving the Sigma Tau Delta Summer Internship Stipend. Living in New York is expensive, especially while working at an unpaid internship. I truly appreciate the fact that Sigma Tau Delta understands these difficulties and has made this opportunity available for those wanting to pursue an English-based career. I could not imagine gaining the same experience in any other city or with any other company. Not only did I have the best summer of my life working at an amazing job in a fantastic city, but I now am prepared for my dream career once I graduate this coming spring semester. Interning in New York proved to me without a doubt that I want to work in publishing, and also showed me I have what it takes. Going forward, I feel confident in myself and in my abilities, and confident that the book publishing industry is where I belong.

What invaluable lessons have you learned from unpaid internships?

Sigma Tau Delta Summer Internship Stipend

Application Period: February 1 – March 21

Sigma Tau Delta offers funding for current undergraduate and graduate student members accepting non- or low-paying summer internships. The Summer Internship Stipend is a competitive program providing a limited number of stipends of up to $1,500 each.

The internship must involve working for an “organization” while being directed by a supervisor/mentor within that organization, and the internship’s duties must be consistent with the applicant’s level of education, area of study, and career goals. Financial need will be taken into consideration. Applicants are responsible for obtaining and providing verification of the internship. Decisions will be made by May 2.