Creative Writing: Crafting Personal Essays with Impact | Roxane Gay | Skillshare

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Creative Writing: Crafting Personal Essays with Impact

teacher avatar Roxane Gay, Writer & Editor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Start With Your Why


    • 3.

      Key Idea: Looking Inward and Outward


    • 4.

      Key Idea: When Truth Matters


    • 5.

      Key Idea: Read to Know What Works


    • 6.

      Conducting Research


    • 7.

      Write Your First Draft


    • 8.

      Revise Your Work


    • 9.

      Getting Published


    • 10.

      Final Thoughts


    • 11.

      What's Next on Skillshare


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About This Class

Everyone has a story to tell. Join best-selling author Roxane Gay to find your story, craft your truth, and write to make a difference.

Roxane Gay is a writer, professor, and editor known for her honest, thoughtful writing on race, gender identity, culture, and more. She is the author of the New York Times best-selling essay collections Bad Feminist and Hunger, as well as the nationally best-selling Difficult Women. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's and Tin House, and she is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

How does such powerful writing come to be?

This one-hour masterclass is an insightful, inspiring look at how to transform your story into a powerful personal essay. Learn how to craft your personal voice with wider context—and write to connect with the people you want to reach.

By sharing her meditative, thoughtful approach to the craft of writing, Roxane invites you to take yourself seriously as a writer, empowering you to share your passion, take a stand, and make an impact on the world around you.

Packed with practical guidance, actionable tactics, and example essays, 8 video lessons will take you from first idea to a final, publication-ready work. Throughout, Roxane will help you:

  • Find a specific purpose for telling your story
  • Connect your work to larger conversations and timely themes
  • Conduct crucial research to support your work
  • Navigate personal memories to write your truth
  • Write and revise your final work
  • Submit your work for publication

Plus, the class includes a downloadable worksheet to support your ongoing creative nonfiction writing practice, as well as links to additional resources.

This class is for everyone with a desire to write. Whether you want to finish your memoir, develop your writing craft, or explore putting pen to paper for the first time, your voice matters. This class is a jumpstart to finding your voice, your story, and sharing it with the world. It's your time to begin!

Let's begin!

Images: Roxane Gay x Skillshare

Meet Your Teacher

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Roxane Gay

Writer & Editor


Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times best-selling Bad Feminist, the nationally best-selling Difficult Women and the New York Times best-selling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. She has several books forthcoming and is also at work on television and film projects.

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1. Introduction: One of the most interesting things that writing essays has shown me is that one person really can make a difference. My name is Roxane Gay, and I'm a writer. When you write a good essay, people gravitate toward that work and they tend to start thinking about the world in new and different ways, and that has been really gratifying as a writer and really exciting. In general, I think that people connect with my writing because I'm very honest on the page and I'm willing to be vulnerable, and a lot of people tend to gravitate toward that, and even if they've had different experiences, they find that my work and the way in which I share my work resonates with them. In this infomercial, in this class, I'll be talking about how to write a good essay from having a good idea, making sure that you're doing the necessary research, having a sense of purpose in your writing, and most importantly how to look both inward by writing from the personal and looking outward to make sure that people can relate to your story, no matter what it is. The hardest thing about writing a personal essay is having the belief in yourself that your story matters. A lot of people struggle with that and think, "Who am I to share my story?" But you are someone with something to share and that's really all that matters so long as you do it well. So, thanks for joining us and I'm looking forward to talking more with you. 2. Start With Your Why: A lot of times people say, "I want to change people's minds, I want to reach people, I want to share my story, I want to change the world." Of course, you do. But what do you want to do today? Let's start a little smaller and specific. One of the main things I ask my students after I review their first drafts of short stories or essays is, what is the "Why" of your work here? What is it that you're really trying to do and communicate to your reader? It's an important question for every writer to consider because writing without purpose just becomes aimless, words on the page and those words can be beautiful, but if there's no sense of purpose, you leave the reader wondering, "What did I just read? What am I supposed to take away from this?" I think it's important to inspire questions in your reader, but not those kinds of fundamental questions. A lot of times in non-fiction, what you're trying to do is increase awareness about a topic. So, when you're thinking about what you want the reader to take away, do you want to give them a call to action where they try and do something in the world? Do you want them to change the way they think about a given topic? Do you want them to write their own story or share their own story about what you've written? You never want to be heavy handed unless of course you're writing something that does call for a heavy hand. Instead, you want to think of cues that you can offer the reader and some of that may be examples of ways in which you have taken action on what it is that you're talking about or ways that they can take action because a lot of times people need to be told what to do. So, you just want to start to think about those kinds of cues that you can offer the reader. I actually have an academic background in rhetoric and one of the first things I think about are the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. Yes, those Greek words can be kind of unwieldy, but really ethos is all about the ethical appeal and making sure that you are being honest and true in your work. When we talk about logos, we're really talking about logic and how are you making sure that everything makes sense and that you are being rational and even-minded in your work. Of course, pathos is about the emotional appeal and finding ways in which you make your reader care. So, I oftentimes use that framework when I'm thinking about my sense of purpose in an essay and making sure that I have at least cursory answers to what my ethos, pathos, and logos are going to be for any given essay. I think the most common struggle people have when it comes to identifying the "Why" or the sense of purpose in a piece of writing is that they go too broad and they think that they have to write universally. You'd never have to write universally and universality should never be the goal. When I say universally, I mean either trying to write to an audience that includes everyone, which is this really broad, vague thing that people say, I want everyone to read my work. I mean, who doesn't. But that's never the goal. But also when I say don't write universally, I mean your work does not have to be relatable to everyone. Sometimes, you can write about a very specific experience and people will find things to relate to you even if they have not lived the kind of life that you have lived. Your individual and specific experience is enough to interest a reader if you write about it in the best ways. I read an article in The New York Times about a young girl who was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas and the Times wrote this article about how the victim was suffering because what this girl had been through and because so many of the young men arrested for the crime were on the basketball team, they were worried about what was going to happen to the school season, and I was just outraged because, what are you talking about? A young girl was violated in a really horrific way. So, I wrote an essay in a couple of hours called "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence" for the Rumpus. For me, the "Why" of that essay was thinking more carefully about how we talk about sexual violence both on a personal level and also how we see it in pop culture and that was the guiding principle that I used throughout the writing of that essay. It's important not to take this question of the "Why" of your essay too literally, for example, you would never want to say in an essay. In this essay, I'm going to be talking about one, two, three, four, and five. Instead, you just want to make sure that everything you do in the writing of your essay is deliberate and is working toward your sense of purpose. It's something that should just be inherent to your essay. In the next section, we're going to talk about how you can look both inward and outward, which is to say how you write about something very personal in ways that are going to be interesting to other readers. 3. Key Idea: Looking Inward and Outward: You always want to remember that your voice matters and your individual experience matters. You are simply finding ways to communicate the importance of it to other people. A lot of beginning non-fiction writers simply think, "I have an experience that I've been through, and I want to share my story with the world." That's a good place to start, but that's certainly not enough to write a good essay. Why is someone going to care about your story? Why are they going to care about whatever you've experienced, or what you have to say about the world? So, that's where the importance of looking outward comes in. I really think it's important for non-fiction writers to recognize that this is not a diary entry. This is not something that you're writing just for yourself, even though that's how most good writing starts. You need to find ways to reach your readers and connect with your readers. Give them the sense that they are being included in whatever it is that you're doing in your essay, that they're being part of the conversation, that they're having a conversation with you instead of being talked at. So, it really helps to look outward. Also, it's a way of showing the reader that you are interested in what they think and what they feel. I always just want to make sure that I'm not overwhelming the reader with too much of me and my own experiences, but I'm also not overwhelming them with too much of context and thinking about the broader social circumstances into which I am placing my experience. So, as with so many things with writing, it's a fine balance and oftentimes, it's an instinct that you develop over time. But when you're reading back your own work, you've just think, "Am I saying too much about myself? Am I saying too much about the outside world?" But you can definitely go too far in one direction or the other. If your essay starts reading like hard non-fiction and like a cultural history or something, then you know you've gone too far. But if your essay starts to read like a diary entry, and there's no sense of recognizing that there's a world beyond what you've experienced, then you know that you've gone too far toward the personal, but you have to develop that instinct over time. One of the best ways to start thinking about how you look both inward and outward is to consider context. Everything happens in a given time, and place, and cultural climate. So, you want to find ways of thinking about what the context around your issue or your experience is, and that can oftentimes help you to look inward and outward at the same time. I try to pay as much attention to the world as I can and what's happening in it. So, it is a constant awareness that I have about the world beyond me. A lot of it is just reading a lot, whether it's newspapers and magazines or books, and just making sure that I am paying attention. That's a key thing to also do as a writer of non-fiction. Nobody lives in a bubble, and so you want to show that you are aware of the world around you, and you want to think about the sociopolitical things that are going to be shaping how your reader is going to perceive your essay. When you're thinking about looking inward and outward, you also want to think about the emotional tone or tenor that you have in your essay. Are you going to be lighthearted? Are you going to be serious? Are you're going to be somewhere in between? If you're writing about difficult subjects, how are you going to write about them in a way that will not overwhelm the reader? So, you do want to think about emotional tone, and how you convey that emotional tone, and most importantly, how you control the emotional journey that the reader is going to go on throughout the reading of your essay. In a lot of my work, people talk about the humor that I use, and that's a very deliberate choice. I often find that humorous is the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down because I do write about difficult issues like women's rights, and sexual violence, and race, and class, and sexuality, and these are complicated topics in a complicated world. To reach my reader, especially the readers that aren't necessarily ideologically aligned with me, I find that breaking walls down through humor and lightheartedness goes a long way. There are, of course, times when there is no room for humor. In those moments, then I just try to treat a subject matter as plainly and openly as possible. Humor doesn't always work, and not everyone wants to be funny on the page, and quite honestly, it's difficult to be funny on the page. So, you can think about openness as an emotional tone, where you're just saying, "This is who I am without apology." You can think about tension and increasing narrative tension, where you are revealing, in a very deliberate and measured manner, the kinds of things that you've been through or that you want to talk about. You can think about anger, which I think is a very useful emotion, especially in non-fiction, and sharing your anger or sharing why the reader should be angry about a given subject. Also, even though we don't talk about this a lot, you can write with joy and happiness. A lot of times we forget that joy is a valid emotion, and it can absolutely be part of the emotional tone of your essay. I think as with a lot of things where writing is concerned, you want to think about what your instincts tell you in terms of the emotional tone. Oftentimes, emotional tone is something that you will find through the process of revision, rather than the original drafting process, but it also might be something that you know from the beginning I'm going to write a joyful essay or I have a lot of anger and I need to get that out. When I was writing "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence", I was really angry at the beginning. The more I researched for that essay and the more I wrote, the angrier I became. So, I wanted to find ways to communicate that anger, but in a rational way because anger without purpose is incredibly unproductive and doesn't really encourage the reader in terms of what I want them to do after they finish this essay. So, that was an essay where I had to control the emotional tenor, but I started doing exactly how I was going to feel and how I wanted the reader to feel. Next, we're going to be talking about truth and the importance of being honest as a non-fiction writer, but also that truth is relative and subjective. 4. Key Idea: When Truth Matters: It's called creative nonfiction for a reason and we call it creative nonfiction because we take the truth and we treat it as a story and we use elements of storytelling to enhance that story. But, there's a difference between enhancing and lying. Your story is enough. Your truth is enough no matter what that truth is and so stick to it. It's also important to be honest because lies have consequences and especially now the Internet is forever. If you lie in your nonfiction, people are going to find out and you will never be trusted ever again as a writer. That said, you don't want to be so married to the truth that you make yourself crazy trying to remember the color of the drapes in your childhood living room. The color of the drapes isn't what matters, what matters is what happened in that room. The details are less important and the details, that's where the creativity can come in. So, you want to think about essence of truth and honesty in addition to, of course, being factually honest. Did something happen in 1994 or 1993? That kind of detail does matter. No man or woman is an island and so we generally have other people in our lives and when we're writing from the personal we are also writing about those people. So, in addition to knowing what your boundaries are for yourself, you need to know what your boundaries are in terms of how you write about the people in your life. What are you going to share and why and how is it going to affect your relationships with those people? If someone has wronged you and you know that you need to write about that, you may not care what they think. But, if you have difficult things to say about people with whom you still have strong relationships, you do want to consider what is going to happen to your relationship with that person if you write about them in ways that are complicated, and that's definitely something that I think about in all of my nonfiction when I write about the people in my life, and I try to protect them as much as possible. I learned this from a great nonfiction writer Dinty Moore, who said "Never be a hero or a victim in your own work," and that is something that has stayed with me for years. Which is to say that I have done wrong and I have been wronged and the people in my life I've done wrong and been wronged by me, and so I try to offer that nuance and balance as often as I can. I found that so long as I'm fair in what I say about other people, it works out really, really well and the truth is I don't have anyone I could write about in my life that I could betray because I wouldn't, and I just don't have anything to unburden myself with. Of course, that may not always be the case, there are times when nonfiction writers write about people in their lives and they are fair and those people still don't take it well, and that's probably because they have guilty consciences, and there's nothing you can do about that. All you can control is what you put on the page. Before I published my memoir, Hunger, I did tell my family that I was writing a book about fatness and my experience with them and I was very fair to them in the book. But, I wanted them to know nonetheless, I wrote about these things, and you should know that before the book comes out. But, you can still go to church and hangout with your friends, no one's going to say anything about you. Fact-checking is something that often happens with publications that have the budget for it, but before you ever get to that stage, you want to find ways to fact-check yourself and there are a lot of different ways you can go about it. You can look at images from the past, pictures that you may have to help jog your memory. You can talk to the people in your life, who are oftentimes going to be the best stewards of the truth even though this is where the truth becomes subjective because oftentimes two people in a family are going to remember something very differently, but I find that talking to people can be really useful. If you're the kind of person that keeps a diary or a journal, you can consult your own work. I have gone back through old email sometimes to verify facts and I've looked at my own blog sometimes to verify facts. So, there are a lot of ways in which you can interrogate yourself to make sure that you're being truthful. I generally just trust myself and my experiences and I don't remember everything from my childhood in any way, shape, or form, and in fact I don't remember a lot from my childhood, but I remember what's most important, and that's what I always hold on to when I'm trying to tell the truth. Absolutely, I doubt my own memories and that's something you're going to come up against when you're writing, especially about your own past. Time does tend to frame certain kinds of memories, but I always trust that I know the core truth of whatever happened, and some of the details can be fuzzy, but that's okay. I give myself that forgiveness and I also know that most readers understand that, "No, she probably doesn't remember word for word, a conversation that happened when she was nine or 10 years old, but she understands the gist of what was said." So, you also have to trust the reader in those moments. Sometimes you are going to remember things very differently from how someone else remembers and experience and this oftentimes happens when people are writing about trauma. You have to trust your memory because oftentimes there's a reason why you remember something differently from say someone who has hurt you in the past. They probably see the world the way they want to and you see the world the way you actually experienced it. So, even though someone may have a different account, it doesn't mean that they are inherently the authority on the experience. In those instances, I try to use a few phrases of explanation and to ground my experience in subjectivity and just identify that this is my very subjective experience and that goes a long way with the reader. One of the most important things to remember when you're writing nonfiction, especially when you're writing about personal experiences is that you're allowed to have and are incredibly encouraged to have boundaries. You do not need to share everything of yourself. You do not need to share every single intimate detail. You simply need to know while you're writing and even before you're writing what your boundaries are. What are you comfortable sharing and what do you not comfortable sharing? Know those boundaries firmly and most importantly stick to them. You can write personally and hold things back for yourself. Everyone does it. One of the most difficult things I see with younger writers and newer writers is that they believe they have to share everything about themselves. They have to cannibalize themselves to get attention to make a name for themselves. Women and writers of color in particular are oftentimes expected to write about trauma and tragedy and to exploit their suffering to get attention and to get ahead, and it's really unfair and you do not have to do that to make a name for yourself. This is not to say that you can't or shouldn't write about trauma and tragedy. If you look at my own body of work, you'll see that I write about difficult things all of the time, it's that you don't necessarily have to, that is not the only thing that you have to offer the writing world. So, if and when you do write about those things, remember that no matter what you are in charge and you get to choose what you say and why. 5. Key Idea: Read to Know What Works: One of the greatest teachers a writer can have is another writer, and we are living in a wonderful time for nonfiction. So, there are essays being published every single day that you can learn from. I use a lot of examples in my classroom because I always tell my students that you need to read as much as you write to grow as a writer, and to this day, I continue to read every day and learn every day from the work of others, both in terms of what is working and what doesn't work. Sometimes bad writing makes its way into the world and it's just serves as a cautionary tale, don't do that. One of the most incredible essays I've read in recent years is Thanksgiving in Mongolia, which was published in The New Yorker and written by Ariel Levy. In this essay, she writes about taking a reporting trip to Mongolia while pregnant, and it is over the course of that trip that she has a stillbirth with her son. It's a painful, beautiful, deeply compelling essay. Because it is a very personal thing that she writes about, about being pregnant and going to Mongolia and having this reporting adventure that she considers at the time her last hurrah and then having this incredibly tragic thing happen to her. So, that's the inward. But this essay also looks outward because at the very beginning of the essay, she talks about always having this wanderlust and wanting to see the world. She talks about her ambitions, not only to travel, but as a writer and being ambitious is what compelled her to go on this trip to Mongolia, and she had received an assurance from her doctor that it would be fine for her to fly at that time, and so, she went. I think all, not all women, but I think a lot of women can relate to having to balance ambition and career and a desire to see the world with having a family, and the ways in which becoming pregnant change you and make you more landlocked so to speak. So, that's also where she starts to look outward and to allow space for her readers to enter the conversation and to enter that essay and to feel what she actually ends up losing. One of the things I admired most about the essay is the emotional tenor. She writes about a stillbirth alone in a hotel room, around Thanksgiving in Mongolia, and in many ways, it's a horrific scene. But she is really tightly controlled in how she conveys that horror, and in the middle of that scene, there's this beautiful moment where she's holding the baby, whose tiny, who can fit in the palm of her hands and she says it's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen. To have that moment of beauty, a missed the horror of blood all over the bathroom and the loss that she's just suffered, I think that takes a hell of a writer to do that, and that's a really great place to look at this how managing of the emotional tone of an essay because it could have easily become maudlin. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me, but she doesn't go there, she resists that. I think it's important to look at an essay and analyze it both globally in terms of how the essay is working as a whole, and locally to look at the sentence or the paragraph, both are useful and both are necessary. There are a lot of different ways that you can go about it, but it might be useful to just print out this essay and to start with different color highlighters, marking where you think she's looking inward and where she's looking outward so that you can start to see for yourself the strategies that she's using and how she's blending the inward and the outward throughout the essay. How she's talking about the personal and then she's going beyond the personal because it's a back and forth from the beginning of the essay through the end. In my essay, what fullness is I write about getting weight loss surgery and the difficult decision to do so and the immediate aftermath of that surgery. So, that was an essay where I was writing about myself and my own experiences, but I also understood that I was placing my experiences in a broader cultural context that we live in a world that is wildly inhospitable to fatness, and we live in a world where doctors have long been trying to quote unquote, "Solve the problem of fatness." So, I also did quite a lot of research on the history of weight loss surgery and the different kinds of procedures that are available, things like that. I chose what fullness is as an example to share with you because it is, I think a decent essay, and in it, I do try to balance looking inward and talking about myself, but also looking outward and really interrogating this cultural approach that we have toward fatness. It's also an essay where you can see research at play, but also personal narrative. As you're looking at what fullness is, you may note that I wrote the essay in sections and that I clearly demarcated those sections. That was one of the ways that I was able to manage looking inward and outward because I would go from personal narrative to broader cultural narrative back to personal narrative, and I found that having clearly delineated sections really helped to that end. In most of my essays, you won't see such a deliberate showing of how I'm looking inward and outward, but in this essay, it felt like a really useful strategy and structure to use. That is something that you can use in your own essays, where you have clear sections or you might use a numbered approach where you're writing an essay as a list. Oftentimes, you aren't going to do these things, and you're going to have a more seamless transition, but for me with this essay, having these clearly marked sections was really useful, and it also helped my thinking as I wrote the essay. When I'm having students analyze writing to see what they can take from it as writers, the first thing I try to do is make sure that they understand that this is not a literature class, this is a writing class. So, it takes a slightly different lens. It's about reading like a writer, which by the way, is an excellent book by Francine Prose that every writer should read. Because in that book, she talks about how to read like a writer and how to really undo a lot of the training that you've had in high school and college about reading for meaning. So, I give my students a task called a craft annotation, which was developed by another writer, and I really like to think of it as a craft autopsy, where you look at a piece of writing and you try and take it apart to see how it came to life instead of seeing how it died. You ask yourself craft questions, and those questions can be; How does this writer manage chronology? How does this writer manage emotional tenor? What is the point of view and how is that point of view working in this piece? Where do I see research coming out in this piece? So, when you're reading like a writer and trying to improve your craft, you really want to ask specific craft-based questions and then answer them by using the prose itself. So, when you are reading like a writer and you're looking at a different examples of work that you want to learn from, you can look at all kinds of craft topics from point of view to emotional tone, to setting a sense of place, scene, frame, and also, you can look at boundaries and what boundaries you see on the page or not. For example, in Thanksgiving in Mongolia, you'll note that she doesn't write a lot about her personal relationship with her partner. It's clear that she has a partner, and then at the end of the essay, she talks about losing that partner, but she doesn't give us intimate details about their relationship. So, that boundary is clearly there. So, you want to look for things like that because it can help to inform you in terms of how you establish your own boundaries on the page. There are a lot of great essays out there right now. There's a really great essay collection out in 2018 called How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee and every essay in that collection is really solid and interesting and engaging and embodies what I think a great essay is. Another great essayist is Rebecca Solnit, who writes about social issues and gender and does so in really beautiful ways. John Jeremiah Sullivan, who has an outstanding essay collection Pulphead always intrigues me. Every year, there's an anthology called Best American Essays that offers a really interesting range of what's happening in contemporary nonfiction. Kima Jones writes really beautiful essays. Morgan Jerkins, Randa Jarrar, there really is a golden age of essaying. Next up, we're going to talk about the thing that intimidates most writers but is oftentimes, the most fun, which is research. 6. Conducting Research: Research is really important for non-fiction writers because you need to know what you're talking about before you talk about it. So, there are all kinds of ways to go about doing research, but it should be a fundamental part of your non-fiction writing process. When I'm writing an essay, before I really get into it, I sit down and think about everything that I need to know to credibly write on a given topic because I may be aware and think I'm informed, but in general, I probably only have a surface awareness. So, I want to be able to go deeper, and so I tend to think about questions that I have about a topic, and I tend to also assume that the readers are going to have similar questions. So, I start with questions and I try to simply find the answers to those questions. To be well-informed is to be well-armed and to be well-positioned to respond to people who are going to disagree, particularly disagree without reading what you've actually written. So, when you know a lot about what you're writing about, you can refute nonsense, and oftentimes you can circumvent the kinds of nay-saying that readers are going to try and approach you with in the essay itself. One of the things that I always try to do is acknowledge that there are multiple points of view and multiple ways of thinking about a given issue, and then I use my research to support what it is that I'm saying and oftentimes to prove what it is that I'm saying because I'd like to be right. Depending on who you are and the subject position that you inhabit as a person in the world, it can really be useful also to refute claims that you are being emotional or that you're playing identity politics when you can back your claims up with research, when you can show how bias exists in measurable and quantifiable ways. You might be thinking it's not fair that you have to do this kind of work, where you have to support your claims, but frankly the world is unfair, and this is the world that we live in, and oftentimes we need to support what we say with evidence. As artists, we want to just write what we want to write and say what we want to say, but when you're putting non-fiction into the world and you want to be published, you have to think about how you can put your work into the world in the best way possible, and supporting your work with solid and thorough research is invaluable. There are a lot of different ways to conduct research. When you're trying to do research in terms of personal experience, you can talk to people in your life and interview them. I've interviewed my mom for an essay before. I've talked to other people that were involved in a given experience. I've gone through my old blogs, and my emails, and my notes, even my own writing. So it's important to do that simply because memory is fallible, and your understandings of your own experiences may be crystal clear, but sometimes it can help to just verify things for yourself if no one else. Then, of course, when I think about looking outward in context, I generally want to research what's going on in the world, and what's going on with regard to whatever specifically that I'm writing about. So, if I'm writing about reproductive freedom, then I want to look at whatever kinds of legislation various states have passed in the past year or two because that's definitely going to inform what I say and how. So research is important. Libraries are your friend. Sometimes, people wrongly assume that you need to include every piece of research that you've done in an essay, and that's simply not the case. Oftentimes, research is for you so that you have a stronger understanding of what you're writing about before you set about doing so. So, it takes time to develop the instinct about what to include and what not to include, but the best guideline I can offer is to think about what you think the reader needs. So, I'll give an example. I recently wrote a 750-word profile of Becky Hammon, who is the first woman who is a head assistant coach in the NBA. So, I had to do a lot of background on her and also look at the gender gap in terms of women coaching professional sports. So, I did about five hours of research on it and just reading through articles. I actually have a research assistant at this point in my career, and so I give her questions that I want answered and topics, and she does a great job of pulling articles, and summarizing, and telling me what to read, and then I read. So, I spent about five or six hours reading, just to write the 750-word piece, and it was useful because I learned a lot about who this woman is and her career, which has been really interesting. I also wrote about the kinds of biases in the glass ceiling that women face in the workplace to this day, and you won't see a lot of that research in the essay, but it informed everything that I had to say. I always start with a main research document and it includes summaries and links to everything that might be useful, and I use that to refer back to as I'm working on my piece. So I find that keeping notes and links is really useful not only in the present, but oftentimes when fact-checking comes into play, and the fact checker says, "Where did you get all of this from?" I actually just send the research document that I have, and they are able to find where I pulled a statistic from or a quotation from someone from. So, it's useful not only for yourself, but depending on where you're publishing your work and also will help you during what can be very rigorous fact-checking. At this point, you've done your research, you have a clear sense of purpose, and you've probably looked at a few examples of writing that you think you can learn from, and so now we're going to put it all together and talk about the actual mechanics of writing a really good essay. 7. Write Your First Draft: One of the most important things I can tell you is that you shouldn't overthink this idea of looking inward and outward. In many ways, it's going to come naturally to you, and so just start. So many writers have a really interesting story to share, but they get in their own way, and they overthink or they think that it needs to be perfect. This is your first draft. In general, no one but you is going to read it. So, just start putting words down on the page. You can do more later with it. You can always go back. You can revise. So, just get it done, get it down. Typically, the way that newer writers approach essay writing is that they simply offer testimony. They share all of the details of an experience that they've been through and that's it. So, that might be the way that you get it out in the first run, but then you want to think about, "Okay, what else do I need to do with this experience and with what I've shared from my life?" That's where you can start to offer these moments of looking outward and offer the kinds of contexts that a reader can use and appreciate. Every essay needs to start somewhere, and so it's really important to think about the beginning of your essay. How are you going to bring the reader into the essay, and why are you making that choice? When I say start at the beginning, it doesn't necessarily mean that you start at the beginning of your narrative. You just start at the beginning of what it is that you want to say and how you want to say it. So, it could be with a really strong line. It could be with a scene where you are sort of setting the stage for something that's going to come. It could be that you are going to start really broadly and set the stage and talk about cultural contexts in some form or fashion, like in 1937, 27 elephants were slaughtered and blah blah blah, and that changes the way we look at elephants. That's not a line, but it could be. So, you have to begin somewhere and you have to find an interesting way to pull the reader into the essay but then you have the challenge of maintaining the reader's interest throughout the essay. So, what is it that you're going to do to make the reader continue reading, to go from one paragraph to the next? I like to think of that connective tissue, really, as paper dolls. Everyone needs to be holding hands, and so every paragraph needs to be connected in some way. You want to find a seamless way of transitioning from one idea to the next, and you want to do so with prose that is going to hold the reader's attention and with ideas that are going to hold the reader's attention. I generally know the overall structure that I want to use when I'm writing an essay. I know where I want to begin, and I know where I want to end, and so the challenge for me is figuring out how to bring those two pieces of an essay together. So, when you're writing your essay, you do want to think about how you're going to structure it. One of the most effective ways for structuring non-fiction can be the use of a narrative frame, which is to say that you start the essay with a specific scene or moment and then you come back to that scene at the end of the essay and create a frame within which you've written about whatever it is that you have to say. In the careless language of sexual violence for example, I start with talking about this article that appeared in The New York Times, and I bring the reader back to that article at the end of the essay. So, in that way, there is this frame there. It's not something that's going to work for every essay, but if you are looking for a way to begin and end your essay and you're at a loss, a narrative frame can work. One of the most effective ways to really reach a reader particularly when writing about non-fiction is to create vivid scenes. So, you don't only want to offer summary of, "Once upon a time, this thing happened to me." You want to give the reader distinct scenes and fill them out with who was there? Where did this happen? When? What did the room look like or the environment where this scene took place look like? In this way, again, we're bringing in the creative part of creative non-fiction. You want to think about a lot of the techniques that we use in fiction writing to render a scene. You can bring that same level of creativity to creative non-fiction. So, scenes are really important because they're ways of bringing in the reader and connecting with the reader and giving that emotional relationship between you and your audience. When you think about the balance of the essay and how much time you should be spending on it, you really want to spend most of your time on the heart of the essay and the real body of the essay. I find that a lot of times people overthink the beginning and they overthink the end and overwrite the end. One of the most common pieces of feedback I give to my students is, we don't need the last two sentences. Oftentimes you have the end and then people Lord-of-the-Rings it, where if you've seen Return of the King, there are five endings to that movie. You don't need five endings, you really need one. So, don't overthink the ending and don't overwrite the ending, just end the essay. You can't say everything and you can't hold onto the reader forever. You have to let them go. Every writer is different in terms of how their first draft process work. Some writers are really just going to vomit words onto the page and then go back and pick out the nice chunks. I used to do that and I'm more controlled now and I do sometimes revise as I write. It just really depends on a lot of different factors including deadline. A lot of people overwork their first draft because they think they have to get it right the first time and I don't know where this comes from, this idea that you have to get it right the first time because you don't, and you don't even have to get it right when your work is published. It's okay to have imperfect work out in the world. It's not okay to have sloppy work. There's a difference between sloppiness and imperfection. There is no such thing as perfection. Too many writers, especially when they're starting out, thinks that perfection is the goal, when it's not. When I'm writing an essay for myself, I'm not necessarily thinking about length and essay is going to be as long as it needs to be, and I'm going to figure that out during the writing process. Also, remember that you don't need to share every single detail of your experience and drag on an essay. Brevity is the soul of wit and 3,500 words is generally the perfect length for an essay. I think it's really important for writers to take themselves seriously and to develop some sort of system with yourself for accountability. So, give yourself deadlines and give yourself word count goals. Sometimes you may miss these things but I have always treated my writing like a job and I have taken it as seriously as I take a job, and I attribute that seriousness to a lot of my success. So, take yourself seriously and keep your appointments with yourself even if you don't keep them with anyone else. I think you know you have a solid first draft when you read through what you've written and you feel like you've gotten most of what you want to say or all of what you've wanted to say on the page. That's when you can start to go back to it and think about, "Okay, how can I do this better?" So now, hopefully you have written a really good first draft or a really bad first draft. What matters is that you've written a first draft. In our next section, we're going to talk about revision and what you do with that first draft to make it stronger. 8. Revise Your Work: You know, in the academy, in particular, I think that we worship at the foot of revision, but I do not. I think revision is important, I think putting polished work into the world is very important, but I don't think that revision is the be-all to end-all of the writing process. A lot of times you'll hear writers say things like, revising is writing. But no, writing is writing and revising is revising. What's great about revision is that it really means to re-see something. So, hopefully you've given yourself some distance, whether it's a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, to really think about and re-see your piece, and see if there's a different and better way to approach whatever it is that you're writing about. But you don't need to overwork your piece. I sometimes hear writer say, "I've written nine drafts." That's not really something to be proud of, that means that you're afraid to let go of the work, and that you're writing toward perfection, which is an unrealistic and unhealthy goal as a writer. So, don't over revise, care enough about your work to put in the work, but don't care too much about your work and hold onto it for too long. When I think about revision, I generally sit down and read my work aloud. Because that allows me to listen for what is and is not working in my essay, both on an essay level, but also on a sentence level. It allows me to see if my thinking is sound, it allows me to see if I've said what I needed to say, if I've given enough detail, if I have included enough research. So, I highly recommend reading your work aloud, and making notes to yourself about things that you're stumbling on, as you do so. So, several years ago when I first started teaching essay writing, I found this really great resource online which was a handout about things that writers can think about when revising, specifically, creative nonfiction. So, this is a handout I offer to my students every semester, there's no name on it. So, whoever you are, good work. So, this handout suggests thinking about meaning and what your essay is about. So, what we were talking about, the why of the essay. Is your sense of purpose clear? Tension, and are you developing narrative tension throughout the essay? Are you evoking a sense of place? Who are the characters in your essay, and are they fully fleshed out, and interesting and compelling? How are you managing dialogue, and is the dialogue interesting? Is your voice clear and strong and steady throughout the essay? Is there a strong beginning, is there a strong middle, and is there a strong end to your essay? Is your tone throughout the essay consistent, and is it the appropriate tone to take for the matter at hand? You don't have to answer all of these questions, but they're good things to think about when you are revising your work. Oftentimes, people don't know where to start with revision, and this is a good place to start. One of the most difficult things for independent writers is getting feedback on your work. Once you're out of the classroom and the workshop system, and if you've never been in the classroom, you have to wonder, "Where can I get feedback on my work?" The best way to do so is with a writing group. Most cities, big and small, have writing groups. The very first and frankly only writing group I've ever been in, was in Charleston, Illinois, which is a really small town with about 15,000 - 20,000 people. It was also an incredible writing group. So, there are generally writers everywhere. Local bookstores, independent bookstores will oftentimes know about writing groups in your area. You can also put a call out on the internet. There are also websites where you can get feedback on your writing and participate in virtual writing groups. It's important to remember that feedback is subjective, both when you offer it and when you receive it. When you're giving feedback, you always want to judge a piece on its own merits and on what the writer is trying to accomplish. It's never useful to say, "Well, this is what I would have done." Because this isn't your essay, and so, it doesn't matter what you would have done, what matters is that you are responding using the writer's intentions. It's important to offer constructive feedback. So, you want to be positive about what's working well, and there's, always hopefully, going to be something that is working well. Then you also want to talk about what's not working well, and you don't want to be afraid to share these things. If a writer can't handle feedback, they're going to have a really rough go of it in the writing world, because most of what we do is receive feedback, whether from editors, or readers. So, as you think about what you're critiquing, you want to be judicious and you want to be fair. But you also want to be honest, and you want to make sure not to overwhelm. So, you don't need to point out everything that's not working with an essay, you want to point out the most important things that you think the reader needs to know to make the essay stronger. When you're receiving feedback, you need to have a thick skin and you need to be able to hear constructive criticism, and appreciate that you're not being judged as a person, you're just being helped in terms of what may or may not be working in the essay. It's the words that are being judged, not the writer, most of the time. If someone is judging you as a writer, they're doing workshop wrong. Then the most important thing to recognize, is that feedback is not something you have to take, it's suggestions. Some suggestions are going to work and some suggestions you know in your gut, are not going to work. You can leave feedback and just say, "You know what, I appreciate that, thank you." When you are on your own and you're considering the feedback, it's something you may not incorporate, and that's totally totally fine. You have to trust yourself, you have to trust your instincts. It can take time to develop that trust, but, if you have revised a piece once or twice, you have done enough, you have gotten the piece to a good and polished place, and you also want to make sure you proofread when you're done revising. But most of the time when you're sending your work to magazines, there are copy editors and editors who are going to take your work even further. So, you can trust that there is a firewall that is going to protect you and the integrity of your work. So, trust in the process and trust in yourself, and don't over revise your work. So, now we've figured out the why of our essay, we've done research, we've written the essay, and we've revised it. Next, we're going to talk about what you can do with a finished essay, and where you can send it. 9. Getting Published: It can be really overwhelming trying to figure out where you send your work out. A lot of times I hear from people that they say, "I don't have any connections to New York." Well, guess what, neither do I. We all start in the same place, which is not knowing much, but knowing we want our work out in the world, and this is where all of that reading that you've been doing comes in really handy. When you read work oftentimes that you like, that's a publication that you can aim for. Now, we have to manage expectations and recognize that we walk before we run. So, while you read an essay in the New Yorker and think it's incredible, it's really hard to be published in New Yorker, which is to say that the New Yorker still has not published me and I'm very upset about that. But, there are a lot of publications that are awesome and putting great work into the world that you can try and submit your work to in addition to The New Yorker. So, one of the things that I always did when I was starting out, and quite frankly I still do now, is when I read something from a writer I like, I look at their bio and see where they've been published, and I try to submit my work to those publications because I think if they like this person's work and I feel like my work is similar, then perhaps I'll be able to find a home for my work in that way. So, just reading a lot and being aware of the current marketplace is really useful. There is a publication that used to be in print, and I think it's still in print but it's also online called The Writer's Market, which is a list of pretty much every magazine in the country. Online, there's a website called Duotrope. It used to be free, but now it's a nominal fee of I think $35 a year, and it lists pretty much every single magazine. What's great about Duotrope is that it's an interactive database, and so you can put in search criteria like the genre that you're looking for, the word length that you're looking for, and it will give you a list of magazines that meet whatever criteria you enter into the search. Oftentimes, they offer response times and how often they accept works so you'll get acceptance rates. It will really help you understand your chances and what each market is like. There are websites like New Pages and Poets & Writers that also offer markets. The most important thing to remember is that you should not have to pay to submit your work, unless you're entering a contest, and you should only enter a contest if you really admire the judge, and you really think that it would be a good fit for your work for whatever reason. In general, contests are ways for publications to make money to print themselves. So, money should flow to the writer at all times, especially when it comes to non-fiction. Oftentimes, you don't get paid as a fiction writer in magazines, but you should always be paid as a non-fiction writer. So, don't let anyone take your work for free. Pretty much every single publication in this day and age has a website, and on their website somewhere, they have submission guidelines. If they don't have submission guidelines, that's God trying to tell you something, which is that they don't accept unsolicited work. You can look on the masthead or the about page, and really great magazine simply have a clearly demarcated submission guidelines section. Oftentimes, you have to write a cover letter with your submission, and a cover letter is a really simple document. It's literally a letter where you introduce yourself and your work and it can be one sentence if you need to. It's just Dear Editor and hopefully you have gone to the website of that publication or looked at the masthead if you have the print copy and you are addressing the actual editor or the non-fiction editor, and then you can include your bio. So, my work has appeared in Cat Fancy, and that's a real magazine, and other publications, and I am this person or that, I'm a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, whatever information you want to share. You should develop a writer bio. If you don't have any publication credits, don't worry about it. Everybody starts somewhere, and you simply say this would be my first publication, sincerely your name. Never explain what your essay is about ever; you want to let your work speak for itself. So, the cover letter should just be short and simple. One of the key things that you need to know as a writer is that rejection is an integral part of the writing process. You are going to be, especially early in your career, rejected far more than you will meet with acceptance. One of my first blogs was called I have Become Accustomed to Rejection, and I wanted to have a regular blogging schedule, so I told myself that I would write every time I got a rejection. So, sometimes that meant I blog five days a week, and sometimes that meant I blog once or twice a week. In each of those posts, I would write about the experience of being rejected and I would get all in my feelings, but I would keep that to myself and my 10 readers. Rejection is just part of the process and it hurts, and you can definitely have feelings about it, but even if you're writing a personal essay, a professional environment. So, you have to take that rejection and then move on and send your work somewhere else. You will be published eventually, and you just have to be patient and you have to persevere. I tend to take rejections in stride and just submit to another place. If you've written something and you've gotten like 40 rejections, then you might want to take another revision pass. Sometimes editors will be generous enough to offer feedback, and just as with your workshop or your writing group, you can take that feedback or not, but most of it is well-intended and can help you make your work even stronger. 10. Final Thoughts: At this point, we've talked a lot about what it takes to write a good essay. Hopefully, you found some useful bits here and there and we'll go forth and write a great essay. So, now that you've had time to think about all of this and hopefully get some writing done, I really encourage you to share that writing either here or in the place of your choosing, and get involved in the conversations that are happening around this class. Thank you for attending this class with me, and I can't wait to see what you guys come up with. I know it's going to be great. 11. What's Next on Skillshare: