A weird idea exists in the world of writing.
When writers talk about creative writing, they only refer to fiction.
As if non-fiction can’t be creative …
What a crazy idea.
Of course, non-fiction can be creative. Any creative writing technique can be used to improve any kind of writing.
Shall I show you?
Creative writing examples in non-fiction
When reading non-fiction, I often find myself speeding up. I try to grasp ideas quickly, and I do not pay much attention to words and sentences.
The ideas feel worthy of my time, the writing not.
I’m currently read Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs. It’s a book about whales, and the relationship humans have with whales. It’s half science, half philosophy. You may think that’s a recipe for boring writing.
But no …
I find myself slowing down, paying attention, savoring the words like a good wine. This is especially true for the first chapter.
What makes Giggs’ writing so enjoyable?
She knows how to captivate her readers; she knows how to choose words; and she’s added a large dollop of creativity to her writing.
Let me show you …
1. Zoom in
In her first chapter of Fathoms, Giggs describes how whales remain part of the ecosystem after they die.
But she starts by zooming into the story of one specific whale—a beached humpback whale:
I put one hand briefly on the skin of the humpback and felt its distant heartbeat, an electrical throbbing like a refrigerated truck, sealed tight. I wanted to tap on the outside of the animal and whisper to it: Are you in there, whale? Neighbour, is that you? Life on that scale — mammalian life on that scale — so unfamiliar and familiar in turns. Oh, the alien whale. The world-bound whale. A stranger inside. I hated to watch it.
Non-fiction writing is often abstract. We want to explain trends or general tips. But such writing is hard to grasp and easy to forget.
So, the trick to writing engaging non-fiction is to zoom into specific stories that illustrate your points.
For instance, when writing a blog post with tips, share a story—real or imagined—of someone who implemented those tips. On a sales page, a testimonial can take the shape of a miniature story demonstrating how a product or service has changed one person’s life.
Stories belong everywhere, in fiction and non-fiction.
How to weave stories into your writing: The Zoom-In-Zoom-Out technique >>
2. Paint vivid imagery
Giggs paints vivid imagery, making me feel like I’m looking over her shoulder:
The whale was black like piano wood, and, because it was still young, it was pink in the joints under its fins. Waves burst behind it, sending spray over its back. Every few minutes, the whale slammed its flukes against the wet sand and exhaled loudly — a tantrum or leverage. Its soft chest turned slack, concertinaed by the pull of the swell.
Can you picture the beached whale and hear it exhaling?
Vivid writing makes readers feel like they’re present in the story. Readers look through the author’s eyes, seeing what the author sees. They listen with the author’s ears, hearing what the author hears.
Readers experience stories and that’s what makes stories memorable.
In non-fiction writing, you have several opportunities for painting vivid imagery. First, on a sales page, let readers imagine what it’s like to use your product or to work with you. How will you improve their lives? How will that make them feel?
Secondly, make testimonials more like real life. Ask clients to describe in more detail what it was like to work with you. What specifically did they enjoy? And how has your service changed their lives?
Lastly, tell your own stories. For instance, on an about page or in a blog post, explain why you do what you do. What drives you? What makes your heart sing?
Use the 8 life forces to let readers imagine a better life >>
How to write powerful testimonials: Templates + examples >>
How to write an inspirational business story >>
3. Hook readers
Straight from the first sentence in Fathoms, Giggs hooks her readers.
Here’s how her book starts:
A few years ago, I helped push a beached humpback whale back out into the sea, only to witness it return and expire under its own weight on the shoreline.
That sentence makes me want to learn more. Why did the humpback whale return? How did it expire under its own weight?!!???
I read on to the second sentence, which is even more intriguing:
For the three days that it died, the whale was a public attraction.
So much drama is in that one sentence. How could it take the whale 3 days to die? And how could that be a public attraction? There’s so much tension in the contrast between dying and being an attraction.
You may think your task as a writer is to explain, to educate, to inspire, or to sell. But if you don’t hook your readers first, you won’t get an opportunity to share your ideas or to communicate your sales pitch.
How to hook your readers >>
4. Show and tell
The official advice in creative writing is to “show, don’t tell.”
But in practice, we often show AND tell.
Telling means giving a brief, factual statement. Showing means using sensory details and describing actions to direct a mental movie in your reader’s mind.
For instance, here’s how Giggs tells us how oceans were feared in the past:
People once feared there was a terrible, existential emptiness in the ocean, an unpeopled and unending openness.
It’s an example of telling because we can’t visualize it. It’s simply a statement of people’s existential fear of the emptiness in the ocean.
Here’s how Giggs finds a way to show this is true:
In antiquity, cartographers populated the seaward frontiers of their maps with drolleries. Hand-drawn pictograms, drolleries are whales hybridised with sea serpents; monsters adorned with antlers and tusks, scales and sprigs of feathers.
Showing requires a writer’s ingenuity to find an example that can demonstrate that a statement is true. It not only increases credibility, but also makes the writing more interesting.
So, each time you make a generic or abstract statement, ask yourself: How can I demonstrate this is true? Can I share an example or two?
18 show don’t tell examples >>
5. Play with your words
The usual writing advice is to use the words everyone else is using, right?
Yes, plain language helps make your writing easy to read.
But your writing doesn’t need to sound like everyone else. You can add a little flourish here or there to let your personality shine through.
For instance, Giggs uses sensory language to help us imagine what it’s like to hear a whale breathe:
Stood ankle-deep on the beach at night, you hear them. That is, you hear the whales breathing. How the sound carries across the water, I do not know. A whale sneezes: you jump. It sounds like a roller-door slamming.
And note the strong verbs Giggs uses to describe the sociable noises that humpback whales make:
The whales grunt, rasp, thwop, and moan; they shriek, whine, bubble, gurgle, and fin-slap on the sea’s topside, as well as generating what are called ‘pulse trains’: subsonic resonances, only recently discovered, that thump across the lower thresholds of human hearing like rain drubbing a tarp.
The words you choose help create your writing voice so readers can recognize your writing and look forward to hearing from you again.
So, when you’ve finished a blog post or a sales page, look for two or three important sentences, and then play with the words. How can you make your words more powerful?
Imagine your reader …
It’s Monday morning 8 A.M.
She feels tired, a slight headache. The weekend was far too short.
She switches on her computer and checks her inbox, while sipping green tea.
There’s your email …
Will she click away, uninterested in more dry advice?
Or is there a story to engage her?
Are her eyes lighting up because she’s delighted to hear from you?
Book mentioned in this post:
- Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs