Why does some writing work, and some doesn’t? #4

grapes of wrath We have been touting the need for all writing be principle-based, be it fiction or non-fiction, screenplays, memoirs, etc. A relatively new form, dare we say genre, is creative non-fiction. Here is a definition of the term. A branch of writing that employs the literary techniques usually associated with fiction or poetry to report on actual persons, places, or events. Source.

Here’s one more, from academia as you can read.

Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more “creative”) than standard nonfiction writing. Source.

Our question is, What’s the genesis of the form? We think we have an answer.

In 1963, Francis Christensen published Notes Towards a New Rhetoric. Without reviewing the book, his argument predicated that effective writing was a result of a cumulative effect. He argued that a base sentence (Subject-Verb-Object) was not what created effective writing but the modifiers a writer added at the beginning, middle or end of a base sentence. (Examples to follow.)

Fast forward to 1976 and A New Rhetoric by the Francis Christensen and Bonniejean Christensen. In this work, they are taking their theory from the earlier book and applying it to the teaching of writing.

I reread the latter book over the past few weeks. I have always thought the theory and philosophy had merit  — and still do.  Here’s a brief example the Christensen use from The Grapes of Wrath. From the second book, here is an example they use. First the base sentence:

Joad’s lips stretched tight over his teeth for a moment

Okay. We have a visual. But Steinbeck wants to creat more of an impression, so he adds modifiers after the base sentence, and here is what the reader gets.

1. Joad’s lips stretched tight over his teeth for a moment,


1. he licked his lips,

2. like a dog,

3. two licks,

4. one in each direction from the middle.

The numbers? They indicate the levels of the sentence. With each modifiers, the reader is given more specific (or less general) information about the base sentence.

Here’s our point.

The Christensens use excerpts from fiction, primarily novels, and classic ones at that, to illustrate their point(s). The examples support their contention that it is not the base sentence ( Joad’s lips stretched tight over his teeth for a moment) that has impact but what is added to that base sentence. But what’s important is when they suggest these techniques from creative writing (fiction) can be applied to non-fiction. Here’s what they wrote, in 1976!

These three ways [a writer can approach a subject] are obviously useful in what we set apart ar creative writing; they are equally useful in what we call expository writing. We have only to look at a recent Harper’s Magazine or Atlantic Monthly to be reassured, or even at a current newspaper. The trend in exposition is to use the techniques of the novelist to give first to the insights of the reporter.

William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways was first excerpted Atlantic Monthly, an early example of creative non-fiction.

Think like a journalist, but write like a novelist? More to come.

Comments welcomed!


About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
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