Writing "Non-boring" Nonfiction

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A concise compilation of techniques that can help you pump life into nonfiction short-story & lyric writing

Writing "Non-boring" Nonfiction

by Dennis Goodwin


A concise compilation of techniques that can help you

pump life into nonfiction short-story & lyric writing


Revised 2020; original copyright 2015 by Dennis Goodwin


My thanks to the founding fathers of the Waffle Houses, Huddle Houses and similar institutes of higher education.  I have spent countless hours there poring through thousands of pages of writing resources – many of which still have the coffee stains to prove it.

 Also to "Muffins" the dog who sat patiently at my feet as I wrote and, if the truth be told, actually did most of the brainwork.


Books by the author

Ten-minute Tales

More Ten-minute Tales

Out of the West

Brass Bands and Snake Oil Stands

Fate, Flukes, & Fame in Country & Bluegrass

Lives and Times

The Activity Director's Bag of Tricks




So what is this "Non-boring" nonfiction?

The gleaming silver needle plunged beneath the crimson-coated skin, reappeared, then dived again into the dangling remains of Jedediah Smith's ear.  The needle's steel-nerved operator, James Clyman, set his jaw and continued the grim task of stitching his captain's head back together with a needle and thread from his supply pack.  There had been no time for second thoughts. He knew Smith wouldn't last long unless he could contain the flow of blood from the gaping wounds the marauding grizzly bear had inflicted.

Stitch by agonizing stitch, James Clyman pieced together the mangled portions of Smith's ravaged head. When Clyman had seen the grizzly's teeth clamp firmly on Jedediah's head, it looked like the end of the expedition for his friend and captain. But James Clyman was in the process of becoming a "mountain man." And in the mountains there was no room for the faint of heart.  Because of James Clyman’s unfaltering response, his captain would live to tell about the near-death attack.  Clyman's account of the harrowing incident in an 1823 journal entry, was a classic piece of frontier understatement.  "This gave us a lisson," he reflected with more spirit than spelling ability, "on the character of the grissly Baare which we did not forget."

That is what non-boring nonfiction is - it‘s true-life writing that does more than informs and educates, it actually makes you want to turn the page and continue reading.  True storytelling doesn't need to slowly turn a reader to stone. Interesting writing is interesting writing, whether it's about events the writer creates or those that actually occurred.  Yet when many people sit down to write a true-life article for their club newsletter, local newspaper or favorite magazine, their personality slowly drains through the soles of their shoes.

The same individual, who delighted her card club last night with warm funny stories, suddenly transforms. Her jaw tightens. Her eyes glaze over. And beads of perspiration dot her forehead. Then, ever so slowly and painfully, she begins to mechanically crank out ice-cold dribble that has all the charm and interest of an assembly manual for an aluminum shed.

It doesn't have to be that way. Most of the lively writing techniques that make good fiction come alive can just as easily be used with nonfiction. They can pull the reader into the action of a true story, just as they do in a captivating novel, and make the writing entertaining as well as informative.  As writer Rebecca McClanahan put it,facts, information and real-life events do not have to be presented dryly, like encyclopedia entries.  They can emerge, wrapped in the skin of story.”

This method can not only make the writing more fun for the reader, but for the writer as well. The techniques that create that “skin of story” are not floating clouds of inspiration that envelop the poor slaving writer as he or she hovers over the typewriter in an isolated cabin. This might seem like a romantic concept, but in reality, captivating writing that can pull a reader into a nonfiction piece, is not something that just happens to us, it is an activity we learn and then do.

Writing, like woodwork or pottery, is a craft. And like any other craftsman, we need to learn the tricks of the trade and practice them until they become second nature. It's amazing though, how many people seem to miss this point. No one would expect to create an ornate walnut bookcase or an intricate ceramic vase without having a thorough knowledge of the craft. But many people feel they should be able to plop themselves down in front of a computer screen and immediately turn out highly polished and compelling writing.

There's a great story about a heart surgeon who met a professional writer at a party. "I think someday I may just write a book too," the surgeon told her."That's nice," she responded dryly, "And I think someday I may just perform a quadruple bypass."

Fortunately, unlike the heart surgeon, we don't need to have a total mastery of the techniques before we undertake our first writing "operation." We can perk up our stories, week by week, with each skill we master. Just as with musical or mathematical ability, some people seem to have a natural way with words. Nearly anyone, however, with enough time and effort, can add color to his or her writing and become proficient at creating captivating nonfiction short stories.  Incidentally, that is a logical way to view the genre of the magazine-article writer – the nonfiction short story.  The same techniques can also breathe life into true-life story-song lyrics, which I will discuss more later.

Writers of fiction have long recognized the value of learning and applying these craft techniques. Non-fiction writers, on the other hand, have been slow learners. Most have followed the century-old British tradition which demanded that the writer's voice paint a "neutral background" so the information presented in the writing would stand out by contrast.

Tom Wolfe, a past master of creative nonfiction, refers to this method as "beige writing." If the information itself happens to be of direct and immediate value to a reader, this technique works relatively well. But if the reader isn't highly motivated to soak up the data itself, this form of writing can slowly bore him into a coma. Most of us simply have to recall the textbooks from our high school history classes in order to vividly relive the effects of beige writing.

A scattered few early writers who wrote both fiction and nonfiction began to transfer some of the techniques they used in writing fiction to their nonfiction. Charles Dickens, Samuel Clemens, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Jack London all found they could sprinkle some lively writing techniques into their nonfiction to make it more interesting without sacrificing accuracy. In fact, Hemingway first used many colorful writing methods in his early journalistic nonfiction, which he later transferred to his fiction.

Even though these experimenters dabbled with the concept, there was yet no concentrated push toward writing true stories with a literary flair. This would come, like so many other social reforms, during the 1960s. This crusade, often referred to as the "New Journalism" movement, was primarily spearheaded by a small group of New York newspaper writers working for papers such as the Herald Tribune, the New York Times and the Daily News.

As Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and the rest of these literary rebels battered the barriers of traditional journalism, others were attacking conventional viewpoints about writing nonfiction books. Truman Capote, a well-accepted novelist, exploded the beige-writing shackles in February of 1966.

Suddenly hundreds of thousands of readers were turning the pages of his chilling nonfiction book, In Cold Blood, with the same anticipation they felt while reading a captivating novel. Capote had proven the case for the writing style of the new movement. His book was extremely accurate. Truman had carefully researched his material for over five years. Yet it was immensely readable.

A couple of years after In Cold Blood hit the bookstores, Norman Mailer, another well-known fiction writer, wrote The Armies of the Night. The book was a nonfiction account of an anti-war demonstration he had attended. Like Capote, he colorfully crafted it with tools of the writing trade previously kept hidden in the toolboxes of fiction writers.

By the end of the sixties, enough writers had joined the movement that it was clear the New Journalism concept was not going to be a passing fancy. Since then, the practice has inherited several names, including creative nonfiction, personal journalism, dramatic nonfiction, literary journalism, the literature of fact, and others. Whatever it's called, the concept of relating true-life situations and information in a colorful story form has finally become an accepted literary style.

The creative aspect of this new style doesn’t come in the creation of characters, plot lines and events, but in their re-creation.  As the writer sifts through interviews, personal notes and primary and secondary research, he or she begins with a heap of yet-unrelated potential story pieces.  These raw chunks of observations, quotations, facts and all the rest are no more of a complete story than the made-up characters, plots and conflicts swirling around in the mind of the fiction writer in the early stages of novel writing.

As the nonfiction writer proceeds, he or she, rather than making up the story, will be discovering the story.  And rather than developing the incidents and people who will inhabit the article, the nonfiction writer will be revealing them to the future reader.  Other than these differences, the writing process will be quite similar. 

Just like the fiction writer, we want our readers to live in our stories.  In the fiction field, this willingness of the reader to leave his or her previous reality and enter our word-world is usually called suspension of disbelief.  That same concept, in the nonfiction arena, involves the process of the readers floating away from their less-interesting existence to inhabit someone else’s equally real world.  Hopefully, they will actually merge with the character or characters in your story to see, feel, hear and smell their new surroundings through their senses.

Incidentally, as Philip Gerard pointed out, it's interesting that true-life writing is one of the few things that is labeled not by what it is, but by what it is not.  We don’t call an orange a non-apple or a car a non-truck…or for that matter, fiction writing non-true writing.  It’s as if the piece is suppose to be fiction but is not, or the writer should write fiction but can’t.  Anyway, I digress.Now, let's get down to specifics and discuss some of the creative techniques we can use to reveal the factual but fascinating people, places and events that will once again come alive in our "non-boring" nonfiction.


Writing "life" into true short stories

First of all, with the death of the old beige writing concept, it's no longer considered  a crime to entertain the reader with a nonfiction piece. Rather than merely throwing out a laundry list of facts, we can express them with the same gusto we would use to tell an interesting story at a party.  They can be sprinkled throughout the piece.  In writer, Cork Millner’s terms, “The facts should be the raisins, not the pudding.“ 

Nobody enjoys the company of a high-brow “fact-spewer” trying impress everybody around him with his Trivial Pursuit brain.  And if we come off this way and don't keep the reader good company, there is a strong chance he or she is not going to stay with us. There's an awfully lot out there competing with our little story, like television, the internet, computer games and about a zillion other attention-getters.

Here's an interest-measuring stick we can use. If we sat down beside someone on a bus who was telling the same story we are writing, would we pay attention? If we would fade away and begin to gaze out the window, then very likely our future reader would as well. We need to open that writer's tool chest and get some tools out to perk it up.

How do we start the process? Well, first we shouldn't be afraid to let our "child" come out and play while we write. That child always enjoyed telling colorful stories to playmates. Fortunately it is still buried down there somewhere beneath the layers and layers of English teacher training that shrouded it. We need to save that critical grammatical stuff for later.

Remember, no one but you will ever know what you originally put on that paper or computer screen. Just as with the writing of a song, you have a solitary composing period followed by the public performance period. Only the composer knows what odd contortions a melody went through during the early stages of its creation.  Therefore, he feels free to let his musical imagination have free reign. We need to develop the identical attitude.

During this freewheeling composition period, we should brainstorm and let our imagination and creative right-brain functions have free reign. Theodore Cheney said we need to “periodically let the mind go wild and woolly.” We can write for the pure enjoyment of writing and experiment freely with the sound and rhythm of words.

If we can't think of the perfect word, we can simply pick a similar one or just leave a blank space and skip over it. Tomorrow, after we sleep on it, the ideal word will likely jump out at us. When we wage a battle with the blank page - it will usually win.  If we break our writing stride to find that perfect word or stop to ponder punctuation, our burst of creative energy will fizzle and die.

Later, when we are revising our story for our "written performance" before a potential reading audience, we can switch on our more critical left-brain hemisphere. Then we can begin to polish the piece and edit the sections where we got a little carried away. Marshall Cook compares the check-and-balance functions of the two brain hemispheres to the characters in The Odd Couple. We need to let sloppy Oscar have his fun before we call in fastidious Felix to straighten up.

In fact, if we turn on Felix, our inner critic, too soon, he will hover over our shoulder like a high school English teacher - correcting, criticizing and circling things with a red pen. Our creative spark will smolder and die just as it often did in school. Mark Twain once said, "If we taught our children to speak in the way that we teach them to write, everyone would stutter."

If we were sculptors or painters, we would be applying globs of clay or freely painting the raw brush strokes during this early stage. Later, we would likely subdue them...but who knows? They may contain enough pure energy that we would only need to make slight modifications. In fact, they might turn out to be the most compelling parts of our creation. We develop our unique writing voice in this phase. Anne Lamott feels that "writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then un-hypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly."

Being in this hypnotized state can be a very enjoyable and satisfying experience. In fact, it should be. It's vital that we enjoy the process of writing itself. Later, our readers will be glad we were relaxed, contented and living in the present when we wrote for them. If we don 't enjoy the writing, the odds are, they won't enjoy the reading. 

During this step it is essential that we put some words on that inhibiting blank page. As author Sophy Burnham put it, "the act of writing produces ideas, not the other way around." Or in E. M. Forster's viewpoint, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" But writer Andre Gide may have phrased it best. "I too often wait for the sentence to finish taking shape in me before writing it," he noted. "It is better to take it by the end that first offers itself, head or foot, without yet knowing the rest, then to pull; the rest will follow along."


Much of the enjoyable playing with sounds and rhythms our creative right brain will use during this early writing phase, involve the repetition of sounds or patterns. Like the rope-skipping chants of childhood, there's something soothing and compelling about the rhythm of reoccurring words and sounds. When someone makes a comment that writing has a lyrical quality, they are often referring to repetitive sounds and patterns woven throughout the piece.  Professional storytellers often rely on rhythmic patterns to rivet the attention of their audience. So do the authors of many children's books, especially Dr. Theodore Suess Geisel who wrote the famous "Dr. Suess" books.

We should use these techniques subtly, so they don't draw too much attention to themselves and away from our subject. They can, however, help to unify a story and captivate a reader in the same way the childhood songs and chants once did. Throughout this booklet, I've dreamed up some examples for each technique to hopefully give a little substance to theory. Here are some interesting repetitive patterns we can use:

Word echoes - This pattern "echoes" the last word in a sentence by placing it at the beginning of the next sentence: "He knew he could complete the project if only he could find the time.  Time, unfortunately, was a luxury he didn't have."

Beginning or ending-of-line repetition - Like the word echoes, these tricks use the repetition of the same or a similar grouping of words. We can place them at the beginning of two or more back-to-back sentences: "Still, the panther approached the explorer, step by measured step. Still, the explorer breathlessly waited, hoping he wouldn't have to shoot." Or we can stick them at the end: "If she wasn't chosen for the play, she knew it wouldn't just be the end of her audition. It would be the end of her dream.

Famous orators have often taken advantage of the attraction of beginning-of-line repetition. One of President Kennedy's most quoted sayings used this technique: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech also made excellent use of it.

Repeated word patterns - We can restate a word or a pattern of words throughout a paragraph: "The barefoot Ohio farm boy sat high on the hillside, taking in all the rich green color of the mid-May grass. It wouldn't be too many years before he would be taking in the rich green dollar bills of his neighbors, as his inventions began to pay off."

Repeated "word parts" - We can create pleasing chants by repeating consonant sounds like bold and brassy. Or we can link together the same vowel sounds with lean and mean. We can employ both repetitive vowels and consonants with back to back or time and time again.

Parallel construction - This pattern can link together totally different thoughts by using a similar sentence construction: "While her hands were busy sweeping away the dust on the floor, her mind was busy sweeping away the obstacles to her dreams."


Most fiction writing relies heavily on the time-tested principle of conflict and resolution. The tension rises and our hearts beat faster as the hero's boat is nearly capsized by the swirling white water. Then the author lets us relax a little as the battered canoe finally reaches calm water. But wait, isn't that a band of cutthroat outlaws on the shore?

And so it goes, with one tension-filled challenge after another rising up to test our poor hero. As readers, we find ourselves rooting for the hero as he or she battles the rushing rapids and takes aim on the treacherous bandits. While we root, we find ourselves slowly merging with the story. Suddenly, we drift into a far more interesting place than our daily world, surrounded by gun smoke and the roar of the rapids.

Let's face it, as readers most of us are basically soap opera fans. The more problems the characters encounter, the deeper we sink into the story. As writer Janet Burroway put it, in literature "only trouble is interesting."  In fact, the soap opera itself was born from that realization.  Several companies, which produced soap and other household products contacted an advertising agency in 1930, to develop a radio program designed to appeal primarily to women. 

The agency’s office manager, Anne Hummert, snapped into action and turned to their newly hired advertising writer, Robert Hardy Andrews, to write the script for the first “soap opera,” which he would name The Stolen Husband.  As Anne gave him tips for the story’s approach, she informed him that, “Worry, for women, is entertainment.”  Action-based dramas and spy-thriller books and movies through the years have proven that the same also holds true for the fellows.

Sometimes the nonfiction writer lucks out and finds his research full of conflicts. True-life dramas like Apollo 13, All the President's Men and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff have held readers and viewers with gripping suspense similar to that in fictional stories.  Often, however, in researching a nonfiction piece, we simply don't uncover such stirring scenes and obvious conflicts. If we do, of course we'll use them. But what if we don't? In some scattered cases, we simply need to admit there isn't a story to be told. If we find nothing while we're researching the story that interests us, we won't be able to interest our readers. In these cases, we need to move onto another story topic.

Fortunately, however, this is the exception.  Often when we haven’t found a story to tell, we simply haven’t dug deeply enough…or haven't followed up on every lead.  We sometimes need to treat ourselves like the young cub reporter that hears his grumpy old editor bark, “You don’t have the story yet. Don’t come back to me until you do!”  When we dig through our interview notes and library and internet research to uncover that story, we need to keep our eyes open for any twists and turns that might send us (and our future readers) in an unexpected direction.  It might turn out that the real story is hiding in the shadows just beyond our previous expectations. 

In fact, we shouldn’t go into a story with a predetermined “slant.”  The research itself will help decide what slant to give the piece. And that, in fact, is often the most enjoyable part of our investigative journey.  If we don’t uncover things that surprise and sometimes shock us as we dig through our research, we won’t have much of a story to pass on to the reader.  Even though we won’t spend as much total time excavating the research for a two-thousand-word article as an eighty-thousand-word book, we need to burrow just deeply during the time that we dig. 


We have another trick in our writer's toolbox. Even when we don't run across obvious conflicts, we can often pump our story full of dramatic energy using contrasts. Contrasts, in fact, are formed when one piece of information "conflicts" with another. When several contrasts are sprinkled throughout an article, they can combine to produce energy that can pull the reader from paragraph to paragraph and page to page.

As we conduct our research, any unexpected bit of information that makes our eyebrows raise, or brings about a thoughtful "hmmm!" can also elicit that response from our future readers. An intriguing discovery that is in contrast with our expectations captures our interest. The tough football player who enjoys needlework, the great invention that resulted from a freak accident or the wealthy man who lives in a rundown shack, all contain the potential energy to pull a reader deeper into the story.  Here are a few examples from some of the research for a book I wrote, titled Fate, Flukes and Fame in Country and Bluegrass Music:

A painful case of extreme sun poisoning would obviously seem to be a piece of bad luck. However, (in contrast to our expectations) the condition actually turned out to be a "blessing in disguise" for country musician, Roy Acuff. During his prolonged recuperation, he learned to play the fiddle and sing.  We would ordinarily expect a song that has become strongly identified with a particular singer to be one he or she especially enjoyed singing, right?

That wasn't the case, however, for either George Jones or Kitty Wells. George Jones simply didn't feel "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was anything special and argued against recording it for nearly a year. The song later won worldwide recognition. And Kitty Wells only recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (her signature song) for the session fee...convinced it wouldn't sell well. 


We're storytellers, not lecturers.  When we write our true tales in a story form, we can pull the readers into our story just like a novelist and make them wonder, “what’s going to happen next…and to whom?”As they sink deeper under our spell, they will soon want to know things they didn’t even realize they wanted to know.  The primary attention magnet that lures them into the story is the inclusion of interesting people.  Most good stories, even if they are about events or inventions, are actually about the people behind them. This makes sense because nothing is more interesting to most people, than reading about other people.

Even in a nonfiction article on a specific invention or historical event, we need to dig a little deeper into our research until we find the people behind the scenes. Was there an unknown street kid who became famous during the event? Did the individual who discovered a well-known invention, actually get help from his lowly assistant? We need to keep searching until we find the interesting people (and hopefully, interesting conflicts or contrasts). Readers want to read stories in which "someone's heart is beating."

The vivid writing used in the dramatization of these scenes can make the difference between an engaging piece of writing and a story that reads like a high school term paper. We need to strive for a level of writing dramatic enough that if it weren't a true story, it would be captivating fiction.  Remember, however, it is a true story! There is a crucial distinction between dramatizing and fictionalizing. As we are dramatizing a particular scene, the temptation may arise to "stretch" the facts just a bit to increase the dramatic energy level of our story. We need to resist that temptation and call upon our writing skills to develop that energy - not our fantasizing abilities. Remember, the reader who picks up a nonfiction piece will expect us not only to entertain them, but also to teach them things they didn't know. We need to make sure the information they walk away with is correct.

Unfortunately, when some people hear the term creative nonfiction, they mistakenly interpret the genre as giving us permission to embellish the story by using a little literary license. Any manual on creative nonfiction writing will dispel this impression. Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction, states the case well. Although he says the creative nonfiction writer should employ all the literary techniques available to make the story as dramatic, appealing and compelling as possible, he or she "may not alter the truth to enhance the story or the dramatic narrative."

Although we are not going to stretch the truth, we will definitely be molding and shaping it.  Simply the fact that we might be dramatizing an event that may have transpired over a period of days or even years into a 2,000-word article or 100-word lyric, calls for some obvious trimming and shifting of reality.  In other words, we will not be simply recording reality, we will provide our readers with a fascinating extract of reality.

It is essential that we seek out the most vital and compelling aspects of the event or individual’s life to use for our word-scenes.  As those scenes flash before the reader’s eyes, and hopefully through his or her mind, they might leap through the years or miles to expose the essential elements of the story.  Without injuring the truth, we can condense conversations, cut out pieces of pertinent interactions and dab them with splashes of meaningful description.  Nobody wants to wade through the boring stuff of life to get to the good parts. 

Keeping the need for truth-telling in mind, how do we write about an incident that is essential to the flow of the story but happened when there was nobody there to witness it?  And how can we give the reader the enjoyable experience so often used in fiction, of spending a few seconds inside the character’s head?  The answer is surprisingly simple - just tip off the reader that you are inserting your own thoughts and expectations into the subject. 

Words such as likely, probably and surely let us stretch the reader’s experience without stretching the facts.  We can say that the airplane passenger surely said a little silent prayer as the foam-soaked jet came to a stop ten feet from the end of the runway or that the explorer likely smiled at the birds and squirrels that greeted him after he wandered for ten days in the stark desert terrain. 

In addition, we can often illuminate a character’s thoughts by describing his actions.  We may not know the exact inner-conversation that’s taking place while the Olympic athlete bites his lip as he stares vacantly at his score that placed him in fourth place by two-hundredths of a second or the specific thoughts of the grade school spelling-bee winner who ran to kiss her English teacher after she won the contest, but their actions give us the gist of their thoughts.


Moving pictures are usually more interesting than still pictures. Rather than stopping the story dead in its tracks to describe a scene, we can weave the description in with the action. Description itself should not be the focus but should be employed to make the people and events more vivid, while the story remains in action.  That is, of course, the way we see things in real life - in motion, one piece at a time.Since stopping the scene for a clump of description seems artificial, readers often tend to skip over those boring clumps to get back to the action.

As an example of inactive description, we could stop the "word camera" that's following a chase scene, and describe the pursuing car: "The car behind him was a sleek red Buick, with brass and chrome wheel covers." Then we could continue with the chase.  Or we could add some movement to the scene:  “The pursuer in the sleek red Buick topped one hundred miles an hour as the car‘s brass and chrome wheel covers seemed to leave the ground." Like when panning across a historical photograph in a Ken Burns' documentary, a previously static scene comes to life.


When we focus our reader's attention on a person or an object, we shouldn't always pick the most obvious characteristic. There are clichéd descriptions, just as there are clichéd phrases. Rather than reaching for the first impression that springs to mind about a city for instance, we need to look for unique descriptions that will set that scene off from the hundreds of other city scenes the reader has viewed.

Instead of pointing our language lens at the typical "towering skyscrapers" or the "throng of busy shoppers," we could focus instead on a more unique aspect of the scene. We might show the reader the fragile little purple flower that somehow manages to survive in the crack of the filthy city sidewalk. Or we could point out the gentle Christmas scene in the store window, surrounded by peeling paint and pornographic graffiti. Ironic contrasts like these create a vivid and lasting picture in the reader's mind.

Specific nouns paint our word pictures with bright memorable colors. Heaping adjectives on a weak nonspecific noun to make it more precise dilutes the impact of the writing. As William Strunk graphically points out, these needless adjectives are the "leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

For example, rather than writing about a large heavy wooden hammer, we can mention a mallet. Instead of pointing out a sleek black shimmering luxury car, we can simply call it a limousine. The reader will already have a picture in his mental file box to associate with these specific nouns. Since we can now elicit a complete image with less description, we can generate more pictures per words.

Similarly, by using specific verbs, we clearly portray the exact action without a string of words to modify a less precise verb. Rather than having a character walk proudly, swaying from side to side like a sailor, we should let him swagger. And we shouldn't let someone wander aimlessly with no apparent place to go, when we can simply have him meander.  Like directing sunlight through a magnifying glass, as we increase the power-per-word, we concentrate the focus and multiply the strength of the sentence.

This process, however, can be overdone. We don't need to go on a witch-hunt, slaying every adverb and adjective we run across - only the ones that are doing a job that should be done by a more specific noun or verb. Adjectives and adverbs can add color and feeling to our scenes. But we shouldn't use them merely to save ourselves a trip to the thesaurus.

One culprit that often takes up room and isn’t needed, is sometimes called an amplifying adjective or adverb.  Words, for example, like very, quite or extremely simply amplify the verbs they are attached to.  Rather than wasting word-room with “she screamed very loudly,” we can say “she bellowed.”  Similarly, we don’t need to tell the reader “the monster is extremely ugly” when we can say it is “hideous.”  As William Brohaugh points out in Write Tight, if we find groups of unproductive words just "hanging around" or several of them doing a job that could be done more efficiently by one word, we need to "fire" them.


Active verbs put people in our stories. When we say, "The towering left fielder snagged the ball several inches above the left-field fence," the reader first sees an image of the player on his or her mental movie screen.  If, however, we write, "The potential game-winning ball was snagged by the towering left fielder, just inches above the left-field fence," the reader's first picture will be that of the ball.  Even if we want to focus the reader's attention on the ball, we could still pump action into the scene and have the ball "soar" toward the left field wall, only to be snagged by the left fielder's glove. 

Not only do active verbs create more captivating stories, they tend to highlight the people behind the action.  This is not only more interesting, it is logical.  If it weren’t for the people, there wouldn’t usually be any action.  Repeated use of passive verbs can suck the life out of your writing.  The reader wants a story full of people doing things, not things being done by people.

And, of course, there are exceptions.  (what would writing rules be like without exceptions?)  Rarely, we might want to emphasize the passive nature of the person or object we are writing about.  For instance, we could mention the tiny ship that was tossed around on the crashing waves, or the timid student who was intimidated by the class bully.  As a general rule however, just as with a movie, the more action in a story, the more audience involvement.

We need to keep our reader on the right path, by using clear-cut transitions. We know where we're going with our story, but none of our future readers do. We are their tour guide in our unfamiliar story world. Just as in a play, we need to clearly set the stage for the next scene. We don't need to use an obvious transition like the old "meanwhile, back at the ranch," but we want to make sure we lead the reader to the ranch, and not leave him rambling around in the woods.

Also, the best transition is usually the shortest and simplest.  Rather than spewing out a twenty-word description of the next scene, we can use a brief transition like, "In 1923..." or "On the old Nebraska farm..." We should save our creativity for writing the actual scene. The purpose of the transition is simply to set the next stage. We only need to go into descriptive detail if the setting itself is a vital part of the next scene. Otherwise a bulky transition simply slows the telling of our story. Like the elimination of useless modifiers, every transition we trim helps increase the overall impact of the article.  Remember, most magazines will set our limit at about 2,500 words.  That's really not many words to tell our story.

The same need for brevity applies when we've finished our last scene. The ending should also be definite and succinct. When the final picture flickers across the reader's mental projection screen, we should quickly fade to black and end the story. Since the ending of an article or book is so important, writers sometimes have the tendency to overact during the finale. But when we've said what we came to say, we simply need to take our bow and look for the nearest exit.


One of the most satisfying ways to end a nonfiction piece is with a circular ending. This technique frames the story by tying up loose ends and bringing the tale full circle. The ending refers back to a setting, situation or character that was highlighted in the opening scene. Often, the focus is on change (or an ironic lack of change) during the time-period covered in the story.

As an example, we might use a lead like: "As the young boy daydreamed inside the drafty old Oklahoma farmhouse, he had no way of knowing that someday he would own half the state it rested on" Then, after we traced his path to success, we could close with, "Looking down on that Oklahoma farmhouse, still old and drafty, he reflected on the thousands of miles he had traveled and the millions of dollars he had earned since he daydreamed about a life he eventually lived."


We need to avoid "stepping in front of the word camera." The reader wants to see our story - not us. Although we can definitely add our own voice to the scene, we should avoid doing anything that would interrupt the reader and remind him there is a writer at work behind the story. Unfortunately, there are any number of ways we can jerk the reader's attention away from the story and onto us.

One sure way we can yank him out of his pleasant hypnotic reading state is by trying to impress him with fifty-dollar words we proudly dug out of the thesaurus. Stephen King said that embellishing your story with elaborate words is like "dressing up a household pet in evening clothes." Constantly adding our own thoughts about the story, in parenthesis, can also jar the reader. And using unnecessary punctuation, like two or three exclamation points at the end of a sentence, can also burst the fragile bubble of the reader's dream state.

Anytime we make the reader stop and wonder about something we wrote, his attention shifts from what we are writing about to the writing process itself. Like waking abruptly from a pleasant dream, he momentarily leaves his intriguing story world and sadly realizes, "Oh that's right, I was only reading."

By stepping on the "word accelerator" or tapping our brakes, we can control the pace of the story. Long sentences tend to set a leisurely reading speed. Short sentences quicken the pace and can increase the dramatic tension.

As an example: "Above the rippling water, the eagles seemed to be practicing figure-eights for an air show. Far below, the two men in well-worn leather jackets suddenly stopped rowing and stared straight ahead. They both heard it. The sound. That eerie shriek. High-pitched and animal-like.  It grew louder."

Another "speed control," lies in our decision whether to show or tell portions of the story.  Dramatizing a scene slows the reader as he or she pauses to take in more of the sensory illustrations we have provided. When we tell, in a narrative summary, we can pick up speed and skip over unimportant incidents.  We usually reserve the showing segments for those sections of the article where we want the reader to linger and take in the scenery or think more deeply about a specific action or event.

As a writer, you are in full control of the accelerator and brake as you take the reader on his or her tour.  Not only can you slow down for relevant scenes, but even throw the story in reverse (using a clear-cut transition of course) and flashback to a previous incident vital to your true tale.  You can change scenes with a couple words and instantly transport your passengers from the serene countryside to a raucous city sidewalk.  As long as you don’t confuse your travelers, they will enjoy your 2,500-word journey and leave with souvenirs of facts and feelings that will remind them to hunt you up again for another story-ride.

We should try to end a sentence with a bang instead of a whimper. The best way to do this is by finishing it with a noun or a noun phrase. Like the ending note of a song, we should complete sentences and paragraphs with a good solid beat that lingers in the listener's ears.

As an example, we could rearrange a sentence like: "The bloody knife, however, was the one piece of evidence the jury never saw." By moving the noun "knife" to the end of the sentence, we can add a dramatic punch to the image: "There was one piece of evidence, however, the jury never saw...the bloody knife."

The impact of a noun at the end of a sentence is probably the best reason to usually avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (as the "grammar police" English teachers always told us). This, however, is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes we would have to radically distort a sentence. When an editor tried to change one of Winston Churchill's sentences to avoid ending it with a preposition, Churchill responded with, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."

In short, just because the subject we are writing about may not be innately brim-full of fascination, doesn't mean we can't perk it up. We can add energy to our story by mixing in some unexpected quotations, interesting paradoxes, intriguing facts, enjoyable anecdotes and humorous observations. As we focus on the conflicts and contrasts within the story and describe vivid scenes filled with sensory triggers, we can pull the reader right into the story with us.  We can make him wonder what's going to happen next.  As Natalie Goldberg observed, "nonfiction can be as much an act of imagination and exploration and discovery as fiction or poetry." 


Keeping your story "reader friendly"

If we develop a service orientation to our writing, we will naturally tend to see through our reader's eyes while we write. Writers are in a unique position of trying to please a potential consumer they haven't even met. Fortunately, we can simulate that future reader by showing our work to relatively objective critics at a writers' critique group.

The best future-reader representative, however, is usually our own internal reader.  If we have a funny feeling about that last sentence, or a word just didn't seem to fit properly, we need to follow our instincts. Those subtle feelings usually mean that internal reader has noticed something that could be improved.  Perhaps our transition is a little tough to follow or we reached for an easy cliché rather than thinking up a fresh new description. When we begin to listen closely to those faint messages from our inside critic, we always have a future-reader representative watching over our writing projects.

Now comes the hard part. Once we have heard from our inner critic, we need to actually make changes. This is one of the toughest things for many new writers to do. They often tend to become "word drunk" and believe that the insights gushing from their creative fountains are pure nuggets of finished wisdom. These nuggets, in reality, are usually raw chunks of thought that need to be refined, reworded and beaten into shape before being presented to the reading public. This polishing process has been termed layering to compare the procedure to that of gradually perfecting an oil painting layer-by-layer.

In fact, as often as not, some of our raw material may be a little too raw and should be painted over. We don't need to hold on to a piece of writing that simply doesn't work. We should turn it loose and replace it. There are plenty more good sentences or paragraphs where that one came from.  Remember, writing is a craft. And just as in woodworking or pottery, no amount of final polishing can correct something made from a warped board on a lump of gritty clay.

And now, listen up! This is likely the most important trick of the trade in producing a non-boring nonfiction short story. During the intermediate polishing process, when we are "layering our word-canvas," we have to stay enthusiastically involved with our writing. Even if the suggestion to change a section came from another person, we are still in control of our writing. The end product will be one hundred percent ours.

We need to permanently bury that old English teacher concept of writing a first draft and later correcting it.  Correcting, by its nature, is not a creative procedure. It is simply a process of remedying an existing problem. But that is not what we're doing when we are shaping and polishing our original work. The revised product will still spring from our creativity. The entire composing process, when we are massaging and smoothing our writing into shape, is a crucial part of the creative continuum.

In fact, many writers feel that the concept of writer's block springs primarily from our feeling that we should be turning out a perfect story with our first attempt. Ridiculous! No other craftsman expects perfection during the early stages of creativity.  Artists don't paint and re-paint. Woodworkers don't build and re-build. Have you ever seen an amateur carpenter staring dejectedly at a half-finished chair, dangling his sandpaper limply at his side as he sinks deeply into woodworker's block?

We should slow down, live in the present, enjoy the journey and not rush toward the destination. Remember, nobody forced us to get into the writing field.  We thought maybe we would enjoy it, right?  Well, we can.  In fact, it can provide one of the highlights of our day.  We can experience the same anticipation as we reach for our word processors that avid fishermen or hunters feel when they grab their rods or rifles.  This will never be the case, though, if we are looking over our own shoulder with a red pen from the minute we sit down.

And just as hunters and fishermen read up on the latest decoys and lures, we need to grab writing magazines and books on writing techniques with the same enthusiasm. Every trick of the trade we soak up will eventually show up in our stories or lyrics.  As I pointed out in the little story about the writer and the surgeon at the party, nobody just sits at the word processor and produces a captivating piece of writing.  As James Michener once said, “Many people who want to be writers don’t really want to be writers.  They want to have been writers.  They wish they had a book in print.” 

Just because we need to “begin at the beginning,” though, doesn’t mean we need to present our efforts to our fellow writers at a critique group with our head hung low and a quiver in our voice.  As long as we tried our best at the time to inform and entertain, we shouldn’t flinch and fret over the gaffes they may point out.  Everyone at the meeting has made the same gaffes more than once.As Peter Elbow points out in Writing With Power, the fear of making a mistake can cause a writer to lose trust in his abilities. He becomes a "defensive writer," always on guard against making errors.


The same advice of taking your time applies to the research-gathering part of our story.  Whether we are going to be working with our interviews, primary research like diaries and journals or secondary research like biographies or other articles and accounts, we should take our time and enjoy it.  This is not just a fact-gathering activity, it is a journey into a world we want to know more about. 

Granted, we will not be dedicating the time that a novelist would, when we dip into the lives and times we are planning to write about.  But we can settle back with our written or verbal resources like we are curling up with a good book on a rainy day.  As the famous creative nonfiction writer, Gay Talese, once told an audience, “You’ve got to have an affair with your subject.”

If you enter into this “affair” with an open mind and alert senses, you may end up writing about an entirely different character or incident than you began researching.  The cool thing about the research part of our writing project is that you are also learning interesting things…which you can later relate to your future readers.  In fact, if you don’t find anything that makes your eyebrows raise or your head shake in wonder, they won’t either.


Our reader will expect us to be selective and include only that information we feel he or she would enjoy.  Like a guide on a tour bus, we're not expected to talk about every house we pass, only those that have an interesting story behind them.  On the other hand, if we run across a piece of information that surprises or fascinates us, we shouldn't ignore it simply because we hadn't planned to include it. We need to find a logical way to connect it to the story. It's easy to become too rigid and overlook potentially interesting scenes that don't fit into our original concept.

This selection process, in fact, lies at the heart of the "non-boring" nonfiction writer's craft. Theodore Cheney highlights the author's task in Writing Creative Nonfiction.  "His creativity," he points out, "comes in with his selection of the details to be brought before the camera, from all the many he had in his mind and notebook…"  He says this includes, "the sequence with which he brings them on stage, the selection of which captured conversational bits to report and the word choices he makes."

We make an agreement with our readers. Like school children who give their wide-eyed attention to the teacher during story hour, the readers expects us to tell them a story in exchange for their time and mental energy. Our part of the bargain is to enthusiastically use every ounce of our knowledge and skill to weave together a true tale that will lure them into our story-world so they can leave their more boring day-to-day worlds behind.

Taking the time and effort to entertain, excite, mystify or educate the reader is not an extra attraction we toss in, it is simply our part of the bargain. James B. Stewart said, "People seem hungry for emotion. Yet so much writing seems almost deliberately distancing; it drains material that is inherently funny or moving, of any emotional content, substituting arid analysis and commentary."

Nonfiction writers have often been guilty of this. But remember that just because we are re-creating a story from library research and interviews, rather than creating it with our imagination, doesn't give us a license to be dull. We can educate and entertain the reader at the same time and turn re-creation into recreation. Students always learn more from an interesting teacher who uses vivid examples.

One of the best gifts we can give the reader is something he can show off.  A nonfiction story chuck-full of interesting facts and insights can give him some valuable information and anecdotes to share at work the next day with his friends. We shouldn't overload our writing with dates and statistics, but  while we entertain our readers, we should throw in enough factual information to give some intellectual meat to our story. 

Keep in mind, we can weave the information into the story much like we do with description.  No one likes a big glob of facts or chunk of statistics - except maybe a college professor.  We shouldn’t forget that all the components of our writing have one basic purpose - to tell the story.  Chunks and globs slow down the pace of our storytelling.  As we weave together the facts, description, narrative, action and all the rest of our story pieces in easy-on-the-mind portions, our stories not only educate, they will sparkle and engross our grateful readers.  In fact, our facts and statistics will become much easier for them to recall, since they were wrapped in emotion when they entered their brains.

Another unwritten agreement we make with the reader is that all of our story will be worth telling. We can become so involved in how we tell the various sections of our stories, that we overlook the importance of whether or not they are actually interesting. No amount of writing skill can spice up a boring incident that contains no dramatic energy or novel information.

We need to ask ourselves, "Would we listen if someone told us that anecdote or fact at a party?" If not, we should drop it and keep snooping through our research for something better. When we review our notes, we need to select the portions we uncovered that impressed, amused or entertained us. Then we need to make sure we communicate them to our reader.


Readers often "talk" in their heads as they read. We should make sure our words "sound" like good conversation to the reader. Run-on sentences, for instance, can leave a reader mentally "breathless." Too many sentences of similar construction can sound like monotonous droning. And fifty-dollar words that require total concentration and trips to the dictionary begin to sound like a classroom lecture.  The reader, after all, has a lot of cool stuff to do rather than reading something he or she isn’t enjoying.  And as author, Theodore Cheney reminds us, “A writer unread might just as well have stayed in bed.

The reader can tell when a writer took the time and effort to make his story reader-friendly. He or she can also sense when a writer cared more about showing off his vocabulary or flexing his literary muscles than providing an enjoyable reading experience. We form a friendship with the reader the same way we do with anyone - by being friendly, interesting and genuinely concerned. When a reader finishes our story, we want him to feel as if he is saying good-by to a friend. He will then be more likely to pick up one of our stories later for another "visit."


Bringing them into the picture

Words can trigger images we "see" in our minds. In fact, our writing technique can simulate the zoom lens of a camera. We can focus on specific detail and bring the reader within inches of a vivid "close-up" scene. Then, to add an interesting contrast, we can back away for a long shot and set the larger context of the scene.  This technique adds another layer of variety to our reader's experience.

As an example: "He finally looked up from the busy little world of the protozoa that collided like jelly-filled bumper cars under his microscope. (close-up...very close-up) Suddenly, he surveyed the rows of eager lab-coated students around him. (wide-angle long shot) He didn't recognize anyone. He had actually worked straight through to the next class period."

And, of course, we can reverse the process: "The sprawling intersection reached out its tentacles of steel and concrete (long shot) far beyond the little world of the dedicated robin, only a few yards away, that kept to her task of tucking dried leaves into her future nest." (close-up)

In writing nonfiction term papers and essays in school, we learned to pack them full of gobs of impressive national and regional statistics. That may have impressed some of the teachers, but that form of storytelling will bury most readers under a dizzying blanket of disconnected information.  Jon Franklin, in Writing For Story, points out the problem with this technique. He discussed one of his early manuscripts in which he had included too much scattered information. The result was like the quick panning of a movie camera by an amateur photographer. It created a meaningless blur without focus.  "Having no emphasis," he concluded, "it had no drama. Having no drama, it had little interest."

The solution is to focus on individual details. We can usually generate more emotional impact with a specific incident than a basket-full of examples. A close-up word-picture has the power over readers, as one writer put it, to "transport them into the scene on the magic carpet of details."

As an example, let's say we wanted an opening hook for an article on the homeless epidemic. We could either present a cluster of statistics about homeless people in all the major cities, or we could paint a vivid word-portrait of a single child. We might describe a sad-eyed homeless girl staring longingly at a department store Christmas doll display as her anguished parents tearfully watch her.

Since our reader is an individual person, he or she is more likely to identify with another individual than with statistics about groups. As Brenda Ueland put it, "The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular." The power of specific anecdotes which lead the reader to broader realizations is demonstrated in the Bible.


The concept of viewing your article in terms of scenes like a cinematographer, can help you create a story that appeals to more senses than most nonfiction articles typically do.A scene, unlike narrative summary, brings the past into the present for the reader to see.  As we present a series of scenes, tied together with narrative summary, our readers will step into our stories to “see” for themselves.

We should remember, though, that seeing only involves one sense.  We need to act not only as the eyes, but also the ears, nose, fingers and tongue of the reader.  A variety of sensory illustrations can make a scene come alive. It's amazing how many senses we can set in motion with just our squiggly little lines of black ink.  For example, by describing the tempting smell and taste of the hotdog, the brisk feeling of the September wind, the thunderous roar of the hometown crowd and the fierce scowl on the batter's face, we can bring the reader right into a ball park with us.

Since he likely hasn't actually seen the park we are describing, he will substitute one from his memory bank...but that's okay, we want it to become his story anyway. Like the mind-pictures that the listeners of early radio programs projected in their heads, each reader will see a somewhat different scene. That's one reason many older radio fans have such fond memories of The Green Hornet, The Shadow and the rest of early radio's heroes - in essence, the listeners were co-writers and helped to create them.

That is also what makes the reading process more personalized than watching television or movies. As Tom Wolfe stated, "The most gifted writers are those who manipulate the memory sets of the reader in such a rich fashion that they create within the mind of the reader, an entire world that resonates with the reader's own real emotions."  These sensation-coated bits of information and description will also linger longer in the reader’s memory, since we all remember events more clearly that triggered our emotions.  That’s the reason most of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing during the 9/11 tragedy or (if you’re as old as I am) the Kennedy assassination. 

There's another trick of the trade that can help to create a sense of being in the picture, even with historic scenes in which the characters have long-since died. This can be executed with a somewhat unusual writing tense sometimes called the historical-present tense. This tense treats the past as if it were the present. The process requires a clear-cut transition so the reader won't get lost. It shouldn't be over-used, but the historical-present tense can be a powerful tool to transport the reader through the decades.

As an example, we could use the traditional past tense and say: "The famous Houdini felt comfortable that he could open the foreboding brass lock. After all, he had previously obtained the patent papers for every lock made in England, France, Germany and America."

With the historical-present tense, however, we can bring the reader right by Houdini's side: "Houdini's jaw sets rock solid. His eyes focus intently on the massive brass lock. As his nimble hands steadily work their magic, he feels once again, the reward of having previously obtained the patent papers on every lock made in England, France, Germany and America."

If the reader notices the sudden change in tense, he will understand that Houdini is no longer living, and that we are simply taking the reader back through time to provide a more immediate and dramatic experience.  In fact, every time we create a scene, regardless of the tense we use, we are in essence bringing the past into the present so the reader can peek through the window and watch the characters interact and the events unfold before his eyes.

The importance of the writing concept - show, don't tell, has long been accepted in the fiction arena. The idea rings just as true, however, in bringing nonfiction to life. When we are doing library research or interviewing someone, we automatically form mind-pictures from the words we read or hear. As we turn these images into words, we need to paint our word illustrations with rich specific details abstracted from our own mental images.

Otherwise, the reader will not have the material he needs to match them to the images in his own mental file box and transform them back into pictures. If he has no picture as he reads, he will have no after-image in his memory.  Remember, writing began with pictures, like the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians. 

Images are important not only in entertaining the reader but also in transmitting information.These “mind pictures” we paint in the reader’s head actually help the reader experience what they are reading about.  As Gabriele Lusser Rico pointed out, they “add facets to meaning, stimulating our minds to see, understand, play with ideas, wonder, interpret emotional nuances - in short, come alive.” 

 Most of us tend to pay more attention to what we see than what is being told to us. A picture remember, is "worth a thousand words." Fortunately, we can create an intriguing mental picture with far fewer words.  These mental pictures (or scenes) can impart information, feelings and viewpoints by themselves with little help from you. 

It is often difficult, however, to resist the temptation to interpret scenes for the reader. Let's face it; it's more fun to spew forth a stream of beautifully flowing interpretations, than to simply display a scene.  Unfortunately, in giving ourselves too many of these joyful experiences, we take away the reader's fun of actively living in our stories.

When we constantly over-interpret the elements of our article, we are not only taking away the reader’s creative enjoyment, but are insinuating that he or she is not capable of understanding and imagining the scenes without our help.  As Theodore Cheney points out, that is a “good way to lose friends and readers.”  That reader, as Natalie Goldberg recognizes, doesn't want your philosophy, they want "the meat, the marrow, the bone." We need to mix plenty of concrete detail painting with our interpretive writing, and let the reader "see the scenes for himself."

For example, rather than writing about the "rippling beauty of the graceful river effortlessly streaming through the lush green North Carolina hillside," we could describe the diamond-like ripples as the cold water splashes over the tiny brown pebbles. And we could point out the many tiny yellow butterflies making figure eights over the green hillside. Then we can simply shut up and give the reader credit for being able to realize the river is "graceful" and the hills are "lush." As Ayn Rand put it, "When you understate something, the reader is aware of what you are saying; his own mind then supplies the rest, which is what you want."

Fortunately, the reader has emotions tied to memories of butterflies and green rolling hills, just as we do. That reader may have witnessed the ripple-splashed pebbles and tiny yellow butterflies in Arkansas or New Jersey rather than North Carolina, but when he or she conjures up mental images of them, the stored emotions will come along and actually physically produce the peaceful feeling we had when we wrote the description. It’s not until the reader “feels” the story that we have truly pulled him or her into our story world.  As Stephen King said, "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."

Think back to your grade school show & tell sessions. Which part was more interesting - hearing a fellow student talk about something, or seeing it?  As the kid stood in front of the class, rambling on about his neat rock collection, didn't you want to yell, "Open the stupid box!"? By opening the box for our reader, we are giving him the primary experience he was looking for when he picked up our story. He wanted to escape from his mundane work-a-day world and take an active trip through his own imagination. In a sense, he wanted to become a collaborator in the story.

It takes more writing-room, however, to describe than to interpret, since we usually need several sensory details to trigger a mental picture. So even in the most sensory-appealing writing, we usually tell more than we show. That's all right, because we don't want to merely project a steady stream of illustrations like a picture book. Deciding whether to tell or show an event isn't always easy. In most cases, since the scenes take up more space, we tend to save them for the more significant and dramatic elements of the story.

Even when we decide to interpret a setting for the reader, we should usually back up our personal viewpoints with at least one specific detail. If, for instance, we describe an old barn as "broken down" we might mention something about "winding vines" or "weathered boards." Whenever we are referring to the scenery in our story, we should keep enough pictures in our writing to help the reader see what we're saying.  As you may have noticed, by using the adjectives “winding” and “weathered” to modify the vines and boards, we are choosing showing over telling. Adjectives that label or explain, like weird, ridiculous or wonderful, tell - while those that describe, like bumpy, frayed or rust-covered, show.

The same concept applies to eliciting the reader's emotions about characters. We don't need to label people as being "mean," "stupid" or "obnoxious." We merely need to describe the way the criminal kicks at the cat as he runs down the alley...or how the get-away driver ran out of gas as he waited outside the bank...or the way the politician pushed his way past the school children to get to the front of the stage. The reader will get the picture.


Similarly, we shouldn't always describe conversation. The reader wants to not only see the scenes for himself; he wants to hear our characters talk. If we sprinkle in a good quantity of direct quotations, he can hear them speak firsthand. Direct quotations in writing can have the same lure that intriguing dialog has as you walk down the isle of a movie theater. It can pull you into the story. As Mark Twain said, "Don't say the old lady screamed - bring her on and let her scream."

Also, we don't need to prompt the reader as to how the person being quoted felt. The body of the quote itself should cue the reader as to whether the individual was angry, happy or sad. We don't need to tack on "he said gloomily" or "she said angrily."  Sometimes these prompts and interpretations can sound a little like someone starting out a joke with, “This is really funny!”  Most of us would prefer to make that decision for ourselves.

When we are using quotations, we need to maintain control of our story. We should edit away the boring sentences. Then we can break up the rest into interesting segments that follow the natural rhythm of our writing style.  Like the early rough stages of our own work, we need to view the original quote as "raw wordage that needs to be refined." Otherwise, as Philip Gerard notes in Creative Nonfiction, "the really eloquent, startling informative or funny lines get lost in a thicket of background talk."

As long as we don't alter the meaning of the quotation, there is nothing wrong with improving its impact. If we have made considerable editing, and the individual being quoted is still available, we can show him or her the article prior to publication to make sure we captured the correct intent. He or she will usually be delighted that you made the quotation a little more fluent.

As an example, let's say the person actually said: "Well, you know, I'm not really sure why the bear was so angry about my camping in his woods. I can't believe he started to chase me.  Boy, I'll tell you, I didn't know what to do at first. I mean it. But I'll say one thing, he can have his woods for all I care!"

We can break up the quote, slice away a few repetitive parts, and weave in a little action and narrative description to give the reader something to watch as he listens to the speaker: "Roger's eyes seemed to focus on a faraway scene as he reflected on his near-death bear chase. His voice quavered as he described the extreme anger the animal showed because he had camped near him. 'I'll say one thing,' he declared as his voice suddenly turned strong and deep, 'he can have his woods for all I care!' "


In our descriptions, we should include only pertinent details. It is worth taking a little time and effort to select the appropriate detail triggers. They should elicit only the scene we want the reader to project in his or her mind. The more specific the detail, the more individualized the scene. We shouldn't settle for a "flower," "car" or ''bird." We can go a step deeper into detail and mention a "pink tulip," "Dodge pickup" or "robin."

For example, if we are trying to convince the reader that a certain politician might be a self-serving phony, we could distill the impression to capture his essence and only need to focus on a couple of specific details: "Stretched across his face like a plastic banner, senator Fluff's unceasing smile greeted every man, woman, and baby, yet somehow kept his five-dollar cigar perfectly erect." We would have selected the pasted-on smile and the five-dollar cigar from among the dozens of possible details in the scene because they would help our reader thumb through his or her mental scrapbook of phony politicians to select an appropriate picture. Interestingly enough, many of us likely used a very similar picture - overweight, fat lips curled around the cigar, beady little eyes, flamboyant three-piece suit...right?


Keeping the readers on their toes

Variety is the spice of writing, just as it is the "spice of life." A constant dose of anything gets boring. Remember, we are creating a "word show" for our reader to view in his mind. We need to provide him with an interesting range of "camera angles and viewpoints" as well a variety of mental and sensory experiences. As Cork Millner put it, “Like a juggler, the competent writer needs to balance anecdotes, quotes, character, action and dialogue to keep the reader turning the pages.”

As I mentioned in the previous section, simply looking all the time, rather than also hearing, smelling, touching and tasting, would not be a very intriguing way to observe our world. Similarly, it is a boring way to read. When the writer involves a variety of the reader's senses, we can enter the story, as Rebecca McClanahan puts it, "with our whole body, not just our eyes."

Often the smell of a certain brand of cologne or the particular sound of footsteps provide a more memorable depiction of a character than a physical description. When we are describing places and objects, we should remember to also throw in some interesting sounds, smells and textures from time to time. We need to let the reader know he will be experiencing our story world in the same way he experiences the real world - with all five senses.

A reader's interest is also rejuvenated when we reach for a refreshing new metaphor or simile.The comparison of something the reader might not be familiar with to something that is more universally recognized can be a wonderful way to help him or her create mental images.  But many metaphors and similes have become so hackneyed, they're boring. If we take an extra minute, we can often create a novel comparison. For instance, rather than settling for the timeworn simile that a huge crowd is like a "sea of people," we might try equating it to a "patchwork people-quilt."  And instead of using the metaphor that "life is a journey," we might say, "life is a novel full of unwritten pages."

 Even if our simile or metaphor isn't as image evoking as the clichéd version, it will likely cause the reader to stop and picture our comparison on his or her mental movie screen. The over-used examples have become so commonplace that the reader's eyes will tend to skip right over them. We want to serve up some new images so he will slow down and savor his word journey.


One of the easiest ways to shake up the look and feel of our story is to vary sentence and paragraph length. We can write a couple of long sentences, followed by an emphatic five-word sentence. Then, after a couple average-length sentences, we can throw in a longer one.  We can also do the same with paragraphs. No longer are we held to the old English teacher rule that a paragraph ends only when we shift our topic focus.

Modern writers have found that long blocks of text appear foreboding, so they often break paragraphs at a comfortable place even if they are still discussing the same topic. If we try not to get stuck into easily discernible sentence and paragraph-length patterns, we can keep the reader interested and on his toes. As Gary Provost put it, "The ear must have variety or the mind will go out to lunch."

Still another trick that can add diversity to our writing is to shift between concrete detail and abstract impression within the same sentence. As an example, we can begin with concrete detail: "His torn faded blue shirt and grease-smeared face (concrete detail) made him look like a train-hopping hobo (subjective impression). Or we can reverse the process: "The old mansion was positively creepy (subjective impression) with cobwebs in every corner and a 1938 calendar still hanging on the wall (concrete detail).  This technique not only adds to the variety but also helps to substantiate your impressions.


We can also vary the emotional flavor of the writing. There is nothing wrong with tossing a little humor into a serious nonfiction piece. Have you ever listened to someone endlessly relate the details of his broken marriage or bankrupt business? Even though you empathized with him, didn't your ear long for a little lighthearted break? An interesting anecdote or funny observation would have been a welcome relief.

Conversely, the non-stop party jokester who is convinced he should be the next Tonight Show host can also get old in a hurry. His jokes and humorous tales might be entertaining, but you leave the conversation having gained nothing but a few laughs. We need to provide the reader with more than a one-dimensional experience as he or she passes through our story world.


The lead, usually the first couple paragraphs of an article, sets the tone for the story. In fact, if the remainder of the piece doesn't follow the mood established in the opening, the reader might feel he has fallen for the old bait and switch and stop reading. During our fleeting but vital audition for the reader's continued attention, we either hook him or lose him. Much like the editor of a magazine, the reader needs to be sold in order to invest his or her time in the story.

Once again, variety can be the key. One of the best "baits" for the hook is a unique and fresh opening.With a lively captivating opening, you can sometimes lure in someone who might not have had a particular interest in the actual subject matter itself.  Once he jumps into the story though, he is often glad he did and will learn about something that may never have otherwise entered his world.Here are some time-tested leads that can get the story rolling on the right track:


We can bring the reader into the scene with a descriptive lead: "The huge building shuddered once, then crashed down in a billowing fog of dust and rubble..."

Or we can try an anecdotal lead: "The scene the policeman witnessed seemed so much like another crime in another time. Like this one, it had happened on a rainy summer evening, but it was the during the summer of 1971 and he had been..."

A focus on a specific detail lead begins the description with a "close-up" lens: "The tiny doll with its neat red dress and straight yellow hair lay still on the living room, a stark contrast to the mounds of scattered earthquake ruins that surrounded it."

A questioning lead can plant a seed of curiosity in the reader:"Why did an otherwise ordinary middle-aged businessman find it impossible to walk past a jewelry store without feeling an urge to put on a black hood and enter the store through the air vent?"

The imagine what it would be like lead can quickly pull the reader into the action: "Imagine for a minute, that you were on a jury that was hearing the testimony of a tear-filled witness who said she had been only twenty feet away from the crime scene. And that she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she now recognized the killer…as she pointed straight toward...you!"

The philosophical observation lead can add a thoughtful personal flavor to the opening: "Like mom's apple pie and the Fourth of July, the opening comments of the candidates' debates fairly reeked with heartfelt wholesome all-American family values."

A paradoxical lead can intrigue the reader. The innate conflict of two statements that appear to negate each other sets up a dramatic entrance: "Doctor Smythe was the most beloved professor in the English department...and the most despised."  The lead from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, - one of the most famous leads in literature - was a paradoxical lead: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

A simile lead gives the reader an everyday comparison for an unfamiliar experience: "The steady native drum beats, like the rock and roll songs of his youth, seemed to somehow soothe the explorer's nerves as he crept deeper into the African jungle."

A shocking lead can rivet the attention of even the most casual reader: "The spiraling bullet splattered flat as it landed with a thud, directly between the criminal's eyes. As the smoke cleared, Sergeant Hopkins slapped the trainee on the shoulder. 'I hope you never have to shoot at anything but this metal dummy,' he said, 'but it's good to know you can shoot straight when you need to'."

A shower of information lead can sprinkle the reader with enough knowledge bits to whet his appetite for more: "The high lonesome sound of bluegrass music has roots that reach back much further than the old pickers and grinners of the Appalachian mountain ranges. The haunting sounds of Scotland, England and Ireland also echo across the oceans...and the centuries."

An historical reference lead helps to quickly place a story in its proper time-period: "Two years before Nebraska became a state, Luke Guthridge had already written enough songs to keep his family - and the occasional visiting Indians - stomping their feet for hours at a time."

A this is the situation lead sets the stage for the article to follow: "It was another balmy Sunday afternoon at the racetrack and the usual cast of characters was there sporting gaudy short-sleeved shirts, expensive stogies and hopeful expressions."

One of the most widely used openings for nonfiction articles comes straight from the fiction-writer’s toolbox:  throwing the reader right into the thick of the action.  That toolbox, in fact, dates back to ancient Greece.  The concept of starting the story in the middle, then "flashing back" to the chronological beginning was used by Homer and other Greek writers. Called, in medias res (Latin for in the midst of a narrative), this technique starts the story with one of the most interesting or dramatic parts.

It’s technically not a flashback since nothing proceeds it.  It is actually a flash forward that contains one of the most compelling parts of the story.  You merely have to reflect on the opening of most action movies to understand the power of this tool.As the projector splashes the screen with images of mobsters, terrorists or raging dinosaurs on the verge of shooting, blowing up or eating our poor hero-to-be, most of us were hooked like a trout on a fly rod. 

Transferring the concept to a magazine article can have much the same effect.  Once we’ve set the hook, we can backtrack and begin at the beginning.  Don’t forget, of course, to make that time transition clear.  A flashback is the most potentially disorienting point in your story.  Incidentally, you might not actually want to use the most dramatic scene for your opening, since that can make the rest of the story seem anticlimactic.  It should, though, definitely be one of your most riveting scenes.  As the sample query letter on the next page shows, we can sometimes use this writer's trick of the trade to hook an editor as well as a reader.

With a novel compelling lead, we entice the reader with a tasty mind-treat. Then, when he finds we have taken the time and effort to present a variety of vivid scenes, fascinating information, dramatic moments and all the rest - word-by-word and scene-by-scene, he will travel deeper and deeper into our story-world. And that, of course, is exactly where we want him.


A sample query letter to an editor, using an in medias res lead:

Throughout her harrowing pioneer journey, Mary Rockwell Powers somehow kept up her courage and strength - like the time she was pummeled by a hailstorm in Wyoming Territory.  While the storm surged, the wagon pitched from side to side as the terrified horses lunged with each flash.  Clad only in her nightclothes, the young mother dived across a trunk and held down the corners of a blanket over her children.  She wrote that for two and a half hours, she sheltered the children from the rain, with "hailstones beating upon my head as though they would crack my skull."  Amazingly, after the storm subsided, the children were dry and safe.  In fact, she noted "they did not wake at all." 

I think Mary Rockwell Powers might be a good subject for a piece in your Westerners section.  She headed across the prairie to Sacramento in 1856 with three small children and a husband, Americas.  Unfortunately, Americas, as she wrote in her diary, intermittently sank into "sullen moods and occasional spurts of irate ranting."  He  had squandered his money on a team of fine Canadian horses to pull their over-sized wagon across the plains.  Needless to say, the poor animals gave out along the way.  When they finally reached Fort Laramie,  Americas went to the fort to trade off the weakened horses for an ox team.

While he was away, his hired hand, Richard, decided that he had enough of the situation and simply rode off, leaving Mary and the children alone on the prairie.  "Then it was," Mary lamented, "that I felt like sitting down and crying."  Unfortunately, her situation didn't improve when Americas returned from the fort.  Without explanation, he told her he hadn't made a trade at the fort and hitched up the poor fading horses again.  The lead animal, Mary reported, was so thin "his bones stuck out so sharp it seemed as if the skin was glued to them."

Equally amazingly, after a series of heartbreaks and setbacks, they actually reached their destination safe and sound.  Nearly thirty years later, she would compile her journal entries into a book titled, A Woman's Overland Journey to California.  At the end of the book, she reflected on dark memories of the icy panic of being left alone in the wilderness and the dying gasps of the stately animals sacrificed along the way.  "Our journey across the plains was a long and hard one," she wearily recorded, "We lost everything but our lives."

I would use her journal as my primary source and date and fact check with several secondary sources.  I would keep the word count to 2,000 and search for appropriate pictures.  I've previously been published  in True West, Old West and Wild West  magazines.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you.



Writing Nonfiction Song Lyrics

Many of the same techniques we have discussed can be transferred to other forms of writing.  If you want to spread out your horizons from writing magazine articles and short-story compilations, here’s another form you might want to consider - true-life song lyrics.  The same smile that spreads across your face as you peruse your newly published magazine article, will reappear when you hear your song story set to music.  Whether it’s at a party, in a local coffee house or on the radio, it’s hard not to nudge whoever is sitting next to you and let them know, “Those are my lyrics.”

Although it might seem like a bit of a jump from story writing to lyric writing, many of the techniques we’ve been discussing, easily transfer from nonfiction short stories to nonfiction “song-stories.“  Since the Americana  genres of Folk, Western and Bluegrass often specialize in story songs, they are natural markets for a nonfiction writer who wants to hear his little stories sung back to him.  Although they are all logical styles to write for, I’m going to use examples primarily from the bluegrass world - from classics as well as more recent songs.  One reason for choosing bluegrass as an example is because there are a bunch of bluegrass groups across the country to pitch your lyrics to.


Sructure and style

First off, bluegrass lyric writing is still writing.  Just because we might be writing about plow-mules, hunting dogs and moonshine stills doesn't mean we might not need to polish up our writing skills.  Just like the big-city pop-music lyric writers, we have to paint our little three-minute song-stories with specific nouns, action-verbs, vivid metaphors, lively word play and all the rest.  After all, we're writing with a pen or pencil...or maybe even a word processor - not a hoe or a shotgun.  So let's dust off our modifiers and make sure our participles aren't dangling. 

We've got to serve up our best Sunday-company spread if we want to hear our lyrics sung back to us from the radio and the festival stage.  Here are some polishing tips to consider.  For one thing, you'll want to decide if you are going to write lyrics or complete songs.  If you happen to be a band member yourself, you may plan to write complete songs or co-write with a partner in your band. 

If you are like many of us, though, and the only instrument you play is the radio, don't despair.  You'll likely want to focus your energies strictly on lyric writing.  But don't feel bad; there are some definite advantages to co-writing with members of established bluegrass, folk or western groups.  For one thing, if a band members decides to write a melody for your lyric and comes up with a finished song, he or she will have a 50% interest in the songwriting credits...which translates into a vested interest in recording the song.  More about this later.

Now, let's get to the writing part.  Where can we find ideas for song lyrics?  Remember the adage that truth is often stranger than fiction.  It can also be just as  interesting.  A good place to dig for lyric ideas is in the daily newspaper or on the six o'clock news.  If historical events are our cup of tea, we might want to look into reference books like encyclopedias of the Old West or the Civil War. 

Once we find an interesting topic in the paper or a small write-up in the encyclopedia, we can flesh-out the research in a library or on the Internet.  We then have the double payoff of writing a ballad about a fascinating contemporary or historical character and learning some pretty cool stuff as well. 

Old sayings have also given bluegrass lyricists a lot of material.  Often these sayings can be linked to actual people and happenings.  Some great resources for these are The Dictionary of Clichés, the 21st Century Dictionary of Slang and the Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms.  These are all available for a few bucks in most bookstores or the internet.  As we gather possible lyric material from all these sources, we should write them down to review later when we're stuck for a title or catchy line.  Throughout this section of the booklet, I've tried to tie theory to actual lyrics.  Some examples are from classic bluegrass lyrics; some are from more recent songs.Not all of them are taken from nonfiction songs but as we discussed in the short-story section, a writing technique is a writing technique - usually equally functional with either “made up” or “dug up” information and situations.

Here are some examples of titles and lines taken from common sayings or classic old sayings…

"Red Letter Day for the Blues"

"Ain't That the Way It Always Seems to Go?"

"Fit to Be Tied Down" (a little clever tinkering with an old saying) 


Now then, let's look at the form and structure of bluegrass lyrics.  For one thing, most modern bluegrass lyrics are written in a verse/chorus format, with only one verse before the chorus.  Even though the verses tell the actual story of the song, the chorus is the fun sing-a-long part that most of us remember best.  Just think back to the last concert when the audience sang with the group.  Most people were content to let the lead singer handle the verses and then jump in on the choruses.  So, since listeners love catchy choruses, we shouldn't make them wait too long for their treat.  This basically holds true with folk and western songs as well.  There is, in fact, an adage among popular-music lyric writers – "Don't bore us, get to the chorus."

Although modern bluegrass verses are often eight lines.  In reviewing several hundred classic bluegrass lyrics, I noticed that well over half of them had four-line verses.  The four-line verse is still used relatively often.  One likely reason is that short verses allow more room for brief instrumental breaks between the lyric sections.  Though the chorus is usually the best-remembered part of the lyric, we should give the same time and effort to each verse, that we give to the chorus.  The verse is not there just to "get the listener to the chorus."  It is the story-telling part of the song, and the story is usually the reason we started writing the lyric in the first place.  Each line should move the story forward.  Remember, we don't have that many lines in which to tell our little tale. 

The modern bluegrass lyric will usually have either two or three verses, each followed by a repeated chorus.  The chorus can change slightly, but nearly always contains the song's primary message as well as the song's title.  Other styles of music often employ a bridge...usually placed before the last chorus.  In bluegrass, however, this is often an instrumental break where several musicians "pass the break" by taking turns playing the lead instrumental.

Actually, the best way to get a solid feel for bluegrass lyric structure is to listen intently to the songs in your CD collection or on the radio.  You can also "Google" up the lyrics of some of your favorite songs on the Internet.  In addition, you might want to buy a few bluegrass "word books" like those of Joe Morrell and Slim Richey, and study them in detail.

If you also write the melody to your lyrics, the concept of prosody is vital.  Pronounced PRAHS-a-dee, this involves the way the words fit the music.  With "good prosody," the words will sing as they would usually be spoken.  The traditionally emphasized syllables will also receive musical emphasis. 

Even if we don't write the music, we need to be aware of this concept and remember to end a line, for example, with a strong emphasized syllable as we usually do in speaking.  A working tune, sometimes called a dummy melody will help us make sure the words don't sound distorted when they are sung.  We'll dig into this more in the "rhyming" section.

Also, with good prosody, the overall mood of the song will also match the melody.  A sad serious lyric obviously should not be matched with a bouncy melody and visa versa.  Just imagine how ridiculous it would sound if the slow haunting melodies of "Man of Constant Sorrow" or "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" were traded with the upbeat bouncy tunes of "Keep on the Sunny Side" or "Rocky Top."

One ear-catching way to hook our listener's attention is to imply both a literal and figurative meaning to a phrase simultaneously.  The line, "running straight from my heart to my soul," in Tennessee Roads, for instance, makes the listener's mind flash from actual Tennessee country roads to the emotional ties between the singer and the old home place.In The Bluegrass Has Never Been So Blue, we instantly know that the lyric is simultaneously referring to the genre of bluegrass itself and our sadness at Bill Monroe's passing.  And similarly, in Go Back to the Well, we know the Daughters of Bluegrass are describing not only the actual wells in the yards of their long-gone relatives and early musicians, but also the "wellspring of inspiration" they can tap for their current music.

We can bring things to life through the technique of personification.  By giving human qualities to inanimate objects or abstractions, we can pull the listener closer to them.  Listeners naturally care more about other people than objects, because they happen to be people too.  Advertisers have used personification for decades.  Just look at all the dancing popcorn boxes and talking cereal boxes they've employed through the years.

For example...

Julia Belle (The Riverboat talks to us about "her" adventures)

This Old House (The house itself speaks to the owner who's leaving it)

Don’t Neglect the Rose (the rose, with its “head bowed,” represents the loved ones that the listener might be neglecting)

An Old Memory Found Its Way Back Home


A distant cousin to personification is the concept of using an object to symbolize an emotion or a situation.

For example...

I Know Rain (the rain symbolizes pain and suffering)

Georgia Peaches (the peaches stand for the lovely ladies in the state)


Another popular lyric-writing technique utilizes the comparison of one thing with another.  This can be done either directly, by using a metaphor and saying one thing is another thing or indirectly, with a simile by saying one thing resembles another thing.  With either type, we don't want to get too far fetched.  A comparison should make a point, not be the point.  Also, keep in mind that if you will be using more than one comparison, it's best to use a simile - otherwise, you might say a beautify lady is a "rose" as well as she is a "melody."  Well...which one is she?

Simile examples...

"The tears for me will be falling, Like a tree shedding its leaves"

- Making Plans


"Where the ivy rocks were black as ink"

- Fair and Tender Ladies


"Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun" 

- Fox On the Run


Metaphor examples...

"The twelve disciples are my road signs"

- I'm Using My Bible For a Road Map


"She's my rose of old Kentucky"

- My Rose of Old Kentucky


"You are my flower...that's blooming in the mountain so high"

 - You Are My Flower

 Even though we write a lyric in separate sections, we want the listener to think of all the verses and choruses as a seamless unit.  One method of firmly tying together the segments of our story, is to use a technique called a return.  With this devise, the listener is transported "full circle" in the lyric by hearing the same line or lines the story began with.  The first line or two is repeated at the end - sometimes sung slower and with more emotion than previously, to drive home the key point of the lyric.


For example...

"I'm glad I had the nerve to talk to you that day."

(repeated verbatim at the end)

- I'm glad I Had the Nerve


"In a sixty-eight Camero, a little girl, and big four lanes,

Oh, she's flying like an arrow out across the Pontchartrain"

 (also repeated verbatim at the end)

 - Too Good to Be True


One of the best-known returns is in the country classic, Sixteenth Avenue.  Remember the eerie quality of the lyric when Lacy J. Dalton repeated "From the corners of the country, from the cities and the farms"?



Like the return, one of the primary functions of rhyming is to tie the various parts of the lyric together.  In addition, there is something pleasing and reassuring about the soothing echo of rhyming sounds.  That's why so many children's books are written in a rhyming format.  Dr. Suess of course, was a master in this area.  Few of us would have remembered his silly line "I do not like green eggs and ham" all of our lives, if it hadn't rhymed with the equally silly line, "I do not like them, Sam-I-am."  In fact, it has been said that songs are "adult nursery rhymes."

We will need to use a dummy melody if we don't create our own tune or write to someone else's melody.  This is a working melody that provides something to sing to ourselves to test the various sound aspects of the lyric. Remember, we aren't writing a poem - we are writing a three-minute musical.  We don't need to worry about not having a great melody - nobody but us will ever hear our dummy version.  In fact, it's best not to ever sing it to potential co-writers.  Let them use their own creativity from the start - which will most likely put our little dummy tune to shame. 

The purest form of rhyme is a "perfect" rhyme, where the ending of the rhyming word contains the same vowel sound, and if a consonant follows the vowel, it is also the same - like free & be, game & name or now & plow.  But what if our little smoldering brain and worn-out rhyming dictionary just can't find a perfect rhyme that fits the thought we wanted to put down.  Should we just settle for a "kinda-close meaning" perfect rhyme?  Not at all.  Usually we can rework the sentence to say the same thing and end with a better rhyming word.  If this doesn't work, there are several other rhyme possibilities.  It's usually better to veer off the rhyming path a bit than to warp the story line.

Sometimes a near rhyme can fill the bill, as long as it doesn't jar the listener's ears and draw too much attention to itself.  One variety of near rhymes is sometimes called a "family rhyme."  If the word ends in the same consonant family as the one you're trying to rhyme, it can sometimes slip past the ear and sound close enough to a perfect rhyme not to disrupt the listener.

Three main consonant families are plosives (includes b, d, g, p, t, & k); fricatives (includes letters & pairs like v, th, z, zh, j, f, s, sh, & ch) and nasals (m, n & ng).  Incidentally, they got those strange names because plosives tend to "explode" with a louder sound, fricatives are created from the "friction" of your tongue against your teeth and of course nasals have a "nasal" sound. 

All right now, turn off that "Why the heck would a bluegrass lyric writer need to know a stupid 'plosive' from a 'fricative'?" attitude.  You can call the groups "corn," "beans" and "wheat" if you want...just jot them down in three rows somewhere so you can use them later.  Now, let's get past the speech theory stuff to see why you need to know a little about these groups.

Let's say that none of the perfect rhymes you've tried to match with the word "grass" fits what you're writing about.  You've already hit the thesaurus for synonyms and followed up on those in your rhyming dictionary - nothing!  Okay then, look at the three groups of consonants.  A word with the same vowel sound, which ends in a letter from the same consonant family, is going to sound better than one from another family.  Since the "s" sound at the end of grass is in the fricative family, we might try to match it with "path" or "patch." 

If either one fits your lyric's story line, try it out and see what it sounds like.  It will likely sound better than a word with the same vowel sound, ending in one of the letters or letter-pairs from the two other groups... like "pack" (plosive) or "pan" (nasal).  If you want to dig a little deeper into this topic, check into Pat Pattison's Writing Better Lyrics and Sheila Davis's The Craft of Lyric Writing. Another way to open up more rhyming options involves adding a consonant to the end of the same vowel sound. 

Let's say, for example, you are stuck with a logical rhyme to "free."  You've checked your rhyming dictionary and nothing really fits what you're trying to say.  You might add the consonant "d" and use "seed."  No, it's not ideal, but listen to songs on the radio and notice how often this type of rhyme is used.  If you never noticed it before, then the process must not stand out too much, huh?

One thing to keep in mind when adding a consonant is that some of the consonant families simply make more sound when they're being sung and are more obviously not an actual rhyme.  Let's zip back to the consonant families for another minute.  The letters or letter pairs in the "plosives" make the least sound; the "fricatives," make the next least noise and the "nasals" the most.  Therefore, try to use a less-noisy consonant first.

We can also create a rhyme by reversing the process and dropping a consonant after the matching vowel sound - like dropping the "t" from "past" and rhyming it with "class."  In this case, since we're taking away a sound, we don't need to worry about what family the consonant belongs to.  We need to remember too, that rhyming the accented syllable of both words is stronger than an unaccented syllable.  For instance, rhyming "shine" with "design" would sound better than rhyming "shine" with "headline" since line in headline is an unaccented syllable.

We can entertain our future listener by surprising him or her with an unexpected "inner rhyme," which is a rhyme within a line.  Remember, though, if you use an inner rhyme in one verse, the listener will likely expect a similar inner rhyme in the same place in the next verse or verses.  If it's used in the chorus, that's not an issue - it will just be repeated.  The inner rhyme is another great tool to tie thoughts and scenes together into a unified whole.

For example...

"Listen to the rain pat on our window pane"

- Little Cabin Home on the Hill 


"Men have tried and men have died" 

- Matterhorn


"I'm on my way this very day"

- Eight More Miles to Louisville


Another method of stitching our lyric together is to repeat a similar phrase structure in different lines or verses.  This can be used in addition to rhyming lines or even in place of them.

For example…

Similar sentence beginnings can give a rhythmic consistency…


"Gonna play loud music

Gonna drink hard liquor

Gonna chase wild women"

- My Night to Howl


"I'm tired of bein' lied to, tired of growing old,

Tired of livin' my life for love grown cold"

- Love Grown Cold


The concept can also be used in mid-line


"…sewing oats and raising cane"

- Breaking New Ground


"…hoein' corn and mowin' hay,"

- Bill Monroe for Breakfast


And the technique can work well at the end of lines…


"I was raised on a song there

I done right I done wrong there"

- Pineywood Hills


"Faded love the game is over,

Misery River don't step over"

-  This Old Martin Box


Another popular method of linking words together, also creates some catchy phrases.  Alliteration, or the repetition of consonant sounds, like "bold and brassy" or "time after time" pops up in tons of bluegrass lyrics.


For example...

"Rollin' long and lonesome..."

- Hillbilly Heartache (In fact, the title itself uses alliteration)


"Rocking and a reeling, spouting off the steam" 

- Bringing in the Georgia Mail (This one gives us a double dose of alliteration)


The best words to use at end of a rhyming line are those that end with an open vowel sound - like free, say, die, blue or flow.  They are much easier for a singer to hold for a second or two, so they will be more likely to ring in the listener's ears.  If you use a word ending in a consonant, try to avoid the "plosive" consonants like p, b, t, d, g and k.  (remember the consonant families?)  They end the word abruptly and don't leave a lasting sound to match with a rhyming word.

The easiest way to test out the "rhymability" of a lyric is to sing it aloud to your dummy melody.  While you're at it, you can test it for "singability."  You will find out, for instance, if a singer would have problems with hard-to-enunciate words.  For example, back-to-back words in which the consonant at the end of the first word is the same as the one at the start of the second word, are very difficult to separate.  A "lost train" can sound like "lost rain" or the "wind's sound" could paint a mental picture of "Wynn's hound."  Don't worry about how bad you sound singing your lyric.  Just close the door and sing it softly.  Nobody's going to hear you.


Think video

Just as with the non-fiction short story, the old writer's adage of show, don't tell, applies perfectly to bluegrass, folk and western lyric writing.  A valuable trick-of-the-trade to help us think in terms of showing a story rather than telling it, is to imagine producing a video of our finished song.  As we create scenes to illustrate the lyrics, we form mental images we can then transmit to our future listeners with specific sensory triggers.  Rather than telling them, for instance, that a jilted lover is sad, we can describe or show the poor guy sitting alone at a lounge table, ordering drinks for two out of habit.  Then we can let him realize his mistake and drown his sorrow by gulping down her drink too. 

Or instead of telling about the emptiness a farmer feels when he has to auction off his farm equipment, we can make him wince with every slamming of the gavel.  And if a cowgirl misses her rodeo-bound boyfriend, rather than just telling the listeners she's lonely, we can picture her watching television alone, hugging his beaten up old cowboy hat.  We won't need to further describe the scene with bland words like "sad," "lonely" or "sorrowful."  The listeners will get the picture. 

Another trick of the writer's trade that transfers to lyric writing is that of changing our visual perspective in mid-lyric. Switching from a wide-angle to a close-up lens can bring the reader closer to the action.  In the classic song, Gentle on my Mind, John Hartford starts his word-painting with long-shots of wheat fields and rusty junkyards.  He then zooms into the scene with close-ups of the main character's scraggly "roughening coal-pile" beard and his "cupped hands 'round a tin can." (I know it's a country song, but it had a banjo in it, didn't it?  In fact, it makes a great bluegrass cover - just ask IIIrd Tyme Out.)

And here's one more technique to help us illustrate a story rather than simply telling it - let the listener hear what the characters are actually saying.  Every now and then, whether our lyric is fiction or nonfiction, we can step out of the way of our characters and let them speak.


For example...

"Oh Willie dear, don't kill me here

I'm unprepared to die"

- Knoxville Girl


“He said, ’a boy’s no match for the shotgun blast

From the gun of a revenuer man‘ ”

- Run, Rufus, Run


"I'll go with you my lover Douglas,

You've left me no one else to love"

- Douglas Graves


"I'll put you on the good road for a while"

 - Doing My Time


Like the actor who asks the director "What's my motivation?" our lyric's characters need logical listener-identifiable motivation.  If the listener wouldn't react in a similar manner as the main character, he or she will not identify with him and will stay "outside" the lyric.  In fact, we have many of the same pitfalls to avoid in lyrics as movie directors do - like a plot that's too hard to follow, an unlikable or unsympathetic lead character, or an unrealistic or unrecognizable situation. 

Just as with the short-stories we discussed, a lyric - especially a story-song lyric - should usually contain some type of conflict that the hero of the story must overcome.Conflict and resolution in a bluegrass lyric can add the same dramatic energy that we experience in action movies and television shows.  We are pulled into the thick of the action, waiting to see if the hero is able to overcome the raging fire or the approaching tiger. 

An accepted guideline of screenwriting is that the script should clearly lay out the plot of the movie in the first two or three minutes.  And within the following eight, the conflict should be identified.  That means that in approximately the first tenth of the movie, the viewers should know the basic story and the conflict of the story.  Translating into lyric length, we have about two or three lines to do the same thing.  So we can't dally!  The listener likes to know the "when, where, why, what and who" of our little musical movie as soon as possible, so he or she can settle back and enjoy the show.  Several classic bluegrass lyrics provide great examples setting the stage for the conflict early in the lyric.


For example...

"Poor Ellen Smith, how she was found.

 Shot through the heart, lying cold on the ground."

 (No beating around the bush in this one.)

- Poor Ellen Smith


"I was driving down a lonely road, on a dark and stormy night,

A little girl by the roadside showed up in my headlights"

- Bringing Mary Home


"In a dreary Yankee Prison,

Where a Rebel soldier lay"

(Charlie Moore sets the whole scene in just ten words).

 - The Legend of the Rebel Soldier



Triggering their senses

Just as with the short-story writing we discussed, vivid and specific words create concrete and colorful mental images.  They trigger the senses.  If words are abstract and hard to visualize, the mind of the listener won't be able to concoct pictures of the song's scenes as he listens.  Remember, he wants to walk into those scenes and experience some of the same emotions the subject of the lyric feels.One of the best ways to lure the listener into your lyric’s world is to paint pictures with specific nouns that turn shadow into substance.  Abstract nouns like "flower" "tree" or "building" tell the listener about the story's scenery, but specific photo words like "rose" "dogwood" or "cabin" help show scenes that linger in the memory.

Nouns aren't the only tools we can use to illustrate our little musical word show.  The same concept applies to verbs.  When we replace a bland verb with a more image-producing one, we can ratchet up the visual level of our story.  Photo verbs like "lunged" "stormed" or "swaggered" add action pictures.  Of course, we can't just sprinkle them into the mix for their own sake.  We need to be sure a more picturesque verb fits the character's actual action.

And we can't forget adjectives.  Noun modifiers can also evoke the senses and reel in the listener.  Adjectives like "smoky," "freezing," "piney," "shrieking" or "fiery" tickle various senses.  Just as with short-story writing, we need to remember that the listener experiences the world with all five senses, so the more senses we trigger, the more fully he will tune into the story world of our lyric.

The classic Wabash Cannonball gives us some good examples of stimulating a variety of senses with specific triggers.  Our ears perk up with the "jingle, the rumble and the roar" as well as the "mighty rush of the engine and the lonesome hoboes call."  At the same time, our eyes watch the "hills of Minnesota where the rippling waters fall."  And we even feel the movement of the train as "she glides along the woodlands, through the hills and by the shore."  Notice the specific image-evoking words - Minnesota hills, rippling waters and woodlands, not just hills, streams and trees.


It's okay if we get a bit melodramatic in describing the scenery and telling our story.  Bluegrass has a history of vivid and high-emotion scenes.  In one of the most lurid, the classic murder ballad, Knoxville Girl, the line about the "flames of hell around my bed" as the murderer tries to sleep, leaves a vivid picture in our minds.  Similarly, but in a more mellow way, the specific nouns and sensory images of White Dove paint a lasting melancholy scene with the lines, "White dove will moan in sorrow, The willows will hang their heads."  Again, notice the specific nouns, "doves" and "willows" not just birds and trees  - and the sense-evoking verb, "moan."

Remember that since the chorus is primarily a recap of the main point of the verses, it usually doesn't move the story ahead.  So we actually have only about 16 to 24 lines to tell our tale.  We need to create as many sensory triggers as we can to project scenes on the listener's mental movie screen.  Our little bluegrass mini-movie doesn't have a couple hours to unfold, peak and become resolved.

Since every word counts, we should be sure that the people, scenery and objects we include - and especially those we describe  - are pertinent to the story.  Usually one or two details are all we need.  If a girl, for instance, has "raven black hair" and "emerald green eyes," the listener can assume the rest of her is also strikingly attractive, so we don't need to waste valuable story-words.


Molding and polishing

It's been said that a professional writer looks at a newborn project as a first draft, and an amateur looks at it as a finished product.  This definitely applies to bluegrass lyricists.  Our lyric, from start to finish, is "a work in progress."  Even though we have all heard stories about famous songwriters who scribbled down the golden words to a classic song on a bar napkin in twenty minutes, that is the exception, even for that writer.  In most cases, to paraphrase an adage about books, great lyrics are not written, they're rewritten.

Rewriting checklists are valuable tools for applying the final polish to our lyrics.  Shiela Davis's book, The Craft of Lyric Writing has an excellent "post first-draft checklist" on pages 290 through 292.  This and others like it help us make sure we haven't missed something in our initial writing phase.  It's easy to turn our attention toward one aspect of the lyric and overlook another part.  And there are so many parts waiting to trip us up - like keeping the tense of verbs consistent, maintaining the rhyme scheme, moving the plot forward logically, and so on and so on.  You'll likely find a checklist useful.

The title of our lyric is, in essence, the name of our product.  Therefore, we need to be sure it is catchy and makes the listener want to tune in and spend three minutes of his or her valuable time listening to our lyric.  As a rule, the strongest place to put the title is at the first of the chorus. 

The last line of the chorus is usually the next best spot.  In fact, we might want to "frame" the chorus and put the title in both the first and the last lines in order to really hammer the "product name" home.  Next to the title, the first line of the lyric is likely the most important.  This can be our "audition" with the potential listeners to see if they want to put our characters on stage in their mental play.  There is a useful checklist for critiquing first lines, on pages 107 through 109 of Pamela Phillips Oland's The Art of Writing Great Lyrics. 

A song lyric has no footnotes to explain it, so our story must be instantly clear.  One confusing word or line can derail the listener's attention and stop him mid-story while the rest of the lyric rolls on past.  We should remember that the listener has never been in our little story-world before.  We are his guide for a three-minute tour, so we don't want to lose him.  One of the easiest ways to lose a listener is with a cloudy transition as we move from one place to another or one time period to another.  We need to make sure any time or place transition is crystal clear.  Usually a short phrase will do the trick, like "back in my childhood days..." or "I remember daddy's farm...."

Like a cloudy time or place transition, a "mood transition" can jar and confuse the listener.  If our lyric has a serious slant, it should usually stay serious to the end.  If it is light-hearted or humorous, that should be the dominant feeling throughout.  Since a bluegrass lyric is so short, it's very tricky to change the emotional slant mid-stream.  A book or play might switch between serious, scary, sad, humorous and other modes, but a listener is usually confused when a lyricist switches gears. 

We can check out a lyric for clear transitions and a logical story progression by simply leaving the choruses out and reading the verses in order.  If anything in our little 16 to 24-line tale seems confusing, we can tinker with it until it becomes crystal clear.  After all, it's not the listener's job to understand the lyric; it's the writer's job to clarify it.

Just as with the early stages of creation of a non-fiction short story, however, it's vital that we enjoy the process of writing the lyric.  If we don't enjoy the writing, the odds are that nobody will enjoy the listening.As we drift into a pleasant semi-trance and run around in our right brain's playground, we can play with words and thoughts like they were jungle-gyms and slippery slides.  The bluegrass radio stations, in fact, are packed with the results of lyricists joyfully playing with words. 


For Example...

“Wild and Blue”

- Alan Jackson plays with the “wild blue yonder”


“99 Years and One Dark Day”


"If I set a steak upon a plate, I wind up eating crow."

 - The Way It Always Seems to Go


“I’m Leaving You and Fort Worth Too”


"I'm living it up, while she's home living it down."

- Living It Up


"a real master of disaster"

- Long List of Heartaches


"raising kids and raising cane."

- Putting New Roots Down


"Handmade Nails and Homemade Love"

(I had to throw in one of mine)


“an old-age home for fleas”

- Tennessee Hound Dog


"hit the deck and hit the dock"

- Roustabout


"The only thing you left me when you left me, was no choice."

- Breaking New Ground



Now what?

Okay, so after you have soaked up these tips and checked into other resources and practiced until you can turn out professional-sounding lyrics - what will you do with them?  Well, I'll tell you what to do - e-mail them out!  No, I don't suppose that's how Bill Monroe or Jimmy Martin did it, but hey, the times, they are a changin'.  We can, of course, still "shake and howdy" at festivals and bluegrass organizations and sometimes have some pretty good success.  But we shouldn't forget about our little high-tech networker - the computer.

After you have practiced and polished your craft to the point that you feel your lyrics might well be ready for co-writing, crank up your computer.  Then put several of your best lyrics in an e-mail attachment (with a line beneath each title, stating they are copyrighted by you, and the year they were).  Microsoft Word is a good universal program for the attachment, since it is easily downloaded.  Incidentally, if this is beginning to sound like a foreign language to you, enlist an "expert" like your kid or grandkid, or the neighbor's child - they'll know what to do.

Now, write a brief letter with whatever word-processing program you use.  Start off by introducing yourself and explaining that you are a free-lance bluegrass lyricist interested in co-writing.Don't personalize it yet; you'll do that later.  Then say you would like to work with melody-writers who are interested in co-writing and plan to record in the foreseeable future.  Let them know they would get a 50% songwriting credit of any finished song.

If you have had any of your lyrics recorded in songs already, be sure to subtly "blow your own horn."  Then include one of your best new lyrics underneath the letter (with a copyright notice), in the body of the e-mail.  Inform the reader that you have also included other lyrics in an e-mail attachment so the e-mail letter wouldn't be too long.  Then finish by letting them know you have e-mailed this letter to others and that you will be happy to place a co-writer's hold on any lyric or lyrics they select - on a first-come, first-served basis. Here's a sample of a letter that netted me some pretty good co-writers:


No, this isn't "spam." This is my high-tech version of a shake and howdy with distant musicians.  I'm a free-lance Americana lyric writer in Snellville, Georgia, and if you or a member of your group ever co-write melodies to lyrics, I'd like you to consider some of mine.  I particularly enjoy writing historically based ballads, and have had an interest in the American West and the Civil War for years - writing numerous articles for Wild West, True West and Old West magazines. 

I have co-written several folk, bluegrass, and western songs which have been recorded by artists and groups including Randy Kohrs, The Dave Rowe Trio, Jean Prescott, Susan Nikas, Bill Barwick, Rick Pickren,  Aaron Ramsey, Runaway Freight & Marvin O’Dell - including three charted songs…"Handmade Nails and Homemade Love" (#4 on the Power Source Top 20 charts), "Rockwell's Gold" (# 3 on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts) & “Devil of the Trail” ( # 12 on Bluegrass Music Profiles Top 30).Most of these started with e-mails like this.  I got your e-mail address, incidentally, from a talent directory in a folk, bluegrass or western music website. 

I have included several lyrics in a Microsoft Word attachment for your review.In case you run across anything interesting and have an upcoming album planned, just let me know and I'll give you an exclusive 6-month "co-writers hold" on the lyric.If you record the song, I would simply receive 50% of the song’s performance royalties through BMI (and primarily…the good feelings of knowing my little “song-stories” are being heard and enjoyed).  I am sending this out to other groups, so be sure to call or e-mail me if anything looks promising to you The hold is “first-come, first-served” and of course, is no type of commitment.


Once you have finished your letter, save it in your word processor program so you can "copy and paste" it into the emails you'll be sending out.  When you do send them, be sure to personalize the letter with the band member's name, as well as to attach the file with the other lyrics each time.  Keep track of the people you've e-mailed to, so you don't double-send them. 

Of course, the next step is to cross your fingers and toes and wait.  Fortunately, though, so many people check their e-mail every day or so, that responses usually come pretty quickly.  If any band member asks you to hold a lyric or lyrics for him, be sure to document it somewhere so you don't promise the same lyric to two people.  I would suggest keeping a list on a file in your computer and updating it with each response (and copying it, in case you mess up and delete it). 

One of the best places to find bluegrass band emails is in the annual "Talent Directory" of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.  Folk and Western singers and groups are listed in several websites, including those for the World Folk Music Association and the Western Music Association.Since you are issuing holds on a first-come, first-served basis, you can send out as many e-mails as your little fingers can crank out.  Remember, the more lines you cast out, the more bites you might get. 

As I say in my email letter, this is basically a high-tech version of grabbing a handful of lyrics and walking up and down music row, knocking on doors.  Anyone can easily delete your e-mail if they're not interested, but it's heartening how many are not only interested when you knock on their "virtual door," but glad you stopped by for a visit.  Keep in mind, though, we don't want to "spam" the bluegrass community with truck-loads of immature produce.  But once your lyrics are ripe and tasty, this little trick can be a great way to get professional bluegrass artists to crack open those virtual doors. 


The wrap up

So whether we are writing short stories, lyrics or any type of true-life tales, we now know that we don’t need to use the bland recipes of yesteryear to concoct our literary treats.  We can mix glittering bits of description, generous doses of drama, snatches of lively dialogue and rhythmic word play into our batter along with the facts and figures.  As we shake the same literary spices on our entrée that the chefs of fiction have used through the generations, we can serve up treats that will not only inform but thoroughly entertain our readers.

Once this mixture has enticed the readers to enter our story world, we can grab hold of them and pull them in even further. Then, of course, comes the hard part.  We need to keep juggling our active verbs, vivid contrasts, unique descriptions, specific nouns and all the rest until the last word has rolled past their eyes or their ears.  This is no easy job but as our grandparents used to tell us, “nothing worthwhile is easy.” 

In Rebecca McClanahan's words, "good writing is a dance between showing and telling, between scene and summary, between the concrete and the abstract." Once we learn this dance, we can begin to master factual but fascinating storytelling. We will know that somewhere out there, someone will be savoring our words and information, just as we have done with other writers of "non-boring" nonfiction.


I hope you enjoyed my guide.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thanks!



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Submitted: August 09, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:



This was an invaluable read, concise and full of very useful information for writers of every level and calibre.
I was surprised how many of these techniques I have actually used, but never knew they had a name of real purpose to embellish your writing.

A big thank you! for bringing all of this information under one umbrella and presenting it in an interesting and informative narrative.

Tue, August 11th, 2020 7:36am


Thanks so much for the good words and best of luck in your writing ventures.


Tue, August 11th, 2020 5:45am

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