From the Archives: 61 Writing Tips from my MFA

Today is part of my annual “fall cleaning,” which has nothing to do with actually cleaning my house. As a writer, this is the time when I go through my digital files and try to organize all of my writing and research into folders (that I will inevitably change the following year when I think I’ve come up with the next brilliant organization method). This year, I came across something that I couldn’t resist sharing–a compilation of 61 writing tips I put together from my workshop notes after I graduated from my MFA.

Flickr @DeniseKrebs

I had completely forgotten about this list, but after finding it and reading it this morning, I’m unabashedly unashamed to share it with the rest of the world. I hope you can find a gem in here, too! (And in response to #2, yes, I am still weird.)

Also, curiosity getting the best of me here, what would you add?


  1. Count how many times you use “I” in one paragraph.  Have you overused yourself?  Please find other ways to talk about yourself than using “I.”  Try description. Try something. ANYthing.
  2. Find the “oddness” in your own identity—there’s an interest in every truth, detail, and experience. And yes, you are weird.
  3. Lyric essay vs. personal essay vs. memoir:
    1. Lyric essay:  poetic elements, figurative language, metaphor, condensation, tightness, attention to language, juxtaposition, making statements by placement, refrains, repetition, music, cadence, tone, associative thinking, not linear, intuitive connections in white space, “objective correlative” (T.S. Eliot) objects, sensations in relation to emotion!
    2. Personal essay:  topical/political, present tense, meditation, reflection, argument, narrative, scene, summary, characters, “to try” to discover, analyze, inquire, voice, “I” or no “I,” tone/attitude/bias must be present, exploratory, self as the “lens” through which we see a way of life!
    3. Memoir:  shifts in time, memory, “I,” identity, complexity, experience and how we make meaning of it, human conditions, epiphany, “me,” How do I know…?,” “How does it work?” asking questions, time and place ruptured, moments in history
  4. Don’t “wrap everything up” too nicely—let us make our own conclusions, please. Caveat: don’t leave us hanging when it comes to romance, please. Romance + ambiguity = one frustrated reader.
  5. Zoom in on physical description and historical summary of place.
  6. Don’t use too many names/characters—even if they all seem important!—or the reader will get lost. We don’t want to know every person you’ve ever met. Zoom in on the key peeps.
  7. “Found material” in essays can be good for credibility but not good for doing the work for you:  words from brochures, research, letters, quotes, etc. can add context but don’t rely on them.
  8. ****Must be self-effacing before making judgments about other people/cultures!!!
  9. Incorporate research as part of the scene!  Make sure voice is consistent.
  10. Personal essay:  narrator must change in some way, have realization, change in attitude, acceptance, movement (not necessarily epiphany)
  11. Acknowledge your audience!  What do they know/not know about your subject?
  12. Use dialogue to reveal character’s personalities and motivations!
  13. Make a dull subject exciting through quirky people, interaction with the subject as part of your personal experience
  14. Humility goes a long way and people relate well to it
  15. Interrogation leads to self-perception
  16. Using metaphors/similes to explain unfamiliar concepts can go a long way:  ej. “I traveled around her as a binary star” must mean binary stars make rotations!
  17. Endings shouldn’t be so expository—let us dwell in scene!
  18. Use white space (page breaks/section breaks) as a place to let the scene resonate.
  19. Don’t always try to use clever transitions to make us aware of connections
  20. Purpose shouldn’t be withheld until the end—nonfiction is about the “journey,” not the element of surprise!
  21. If the essay isn’t chronological (fragmented/collaged) there needs to be some framework for the audience to keep up.
  22. Forecasts must be subtle! Never say, “in the following memoir, I will…” Bleg.
  23. Don’t overstate facts that should only be mentioned once or twice!
  24. Trust analogies to work without explaining them immediately afterwards.
  25. Silence can work as wonderful connective tissue! (Does this mean use white space? Not sure…check on this).
  26. Clean and crisp:  shorter sentences are a must!  Knock out excessive subordinate clauses.
  27. Semi-colons:  outdated?
  28. American perspectives need their own critique—must acknowledge own perception as own, not as norm!
  29. If you haven’t lived it, don’t make a claim about it!
  30. How to decide which form is best for the material?  Think about it like a poet!  Content shapes form!
  31. Try new ways of shaping material by changing the form.
  32. Find the thread in the tapestry of your life and follow it to the end:  where are those patterns?
  33. People must be able to identify with you all the time, even if this seems like an impossible task in real life.
  34. If we can’t find the resolution (even if the resolution is that there isn’t any resolution), make one!
  35. Don’t make the language so complicated that the point gets lost.
  36. Philosophical views—which sometimes very effective—inevitably distance the reader.
  37. Reconstruct emotion but please, dear God, don’t “cry” more than once in an essay!
  38. Dependent clauses shouldn’t override an essay.  Too much “cataloguing” does not push narrative forward!  Especially don’t do this at the beginning of a paragraph.
  39. Increase tension/urgency by using present tense.
  40. Don’t let an interesting technique “dilute” a story—just write it!
  41. Don’t write about man; write about “a man.”
  42. Write to a less-informed audience than you expect, but don’t patronize them.
  43. Outside to inside, general to specific:  works well as grounding technique
  44. Compound words like “olive-sized” work better spelled out:  “size of an olive”
  45. A voice that’s too colloquial can work against credibility
  46. Orient your readers so they don’t feel like monkeys hanging from a branch!
  47. Technical writing must be done carefully and meticulously—don’t lose your reader in too many terms they won’t understand (farm equipment)
  48. If you weren’t there, you can’t pretend!  Use the Nabokov technique:  “I can imagine her standing there at the train…”  “I didn’t see…but I can guarantee…” This gives you freedom to say what you thought might have went on!
  49. Show, don’t summarize!
  50. Too many modifiers actually weaken what you’re trying to say!
  51. Which anecdotes tell the story BEST?  Toss out the ones that don’t contribute to the overall purpose.  Save them for another essay.
  52. Context is vital—bring us along with you.  Use your senses, knowledge, comprehension!
  53. Understanding the real truth is impossible, especially if you’re considering more than one perspective.  “One of the best stories is….grandpa says…but now dad, dad says…”  “But I think….”  Shows complexity of situation.
  54. In description, always be more specific.  What game were you playing?  What perfume was she wearing?  What day was it?
  55. Techniques to help us get to know the narrator better:
    1. stronger chronology
    2. more narrative sequence
    3. visual imagery
    4. internal thoughts
    5. center the essay in your life
    6. use more events than summary
    7. know more about implications of the past
  56. Chop out extraneous information—we don’t need it!
  57. Active storytelling:  real time versus narrative time
    1. Real time: dates the essay:  “now, last week, this morning”
    2. Narrative time:  imperfect tense immortalizes essay:  “often, generally, as a child, that morning”
  58. Don’t overuse adverbs:  “obsessively, incessantly, constantly, seldomly”. We seldomly need your incessantly overwritten passages.
  59. Make sure vignettes don’t become balloons without strings!
  60. Lenses are important:  Finkel’s book, for ex.  Is it examining the firing through the lens of the murders?  Or the murders through the lens of the firing?
  61.  “The worst thing you can try and imitate in nonfiction is chaos or confusion.”


  1. Consider travel from this perspective: Travel only to nations and territories that never supported world war and that are not at war and that neither have used, tested nor possess nuclear weapons. If you are going to use your very precious time to write about a travel experience, consider places like Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand…if all people were redirected this way for the past 100’s of years and the next 1000, then the guardian angels of nations and God and gods and human economies could afford to all “get together” and reform history in fact and reincarnate and make their economies more intelligent, wiser, safer for all. If you manage to stand corrected, fast – go without food – for a week, stand guard and convince some billion humans to become vegans that just eat fruit THIS WEEK that might be about enough to succeed. If you would appreciate commandments that evolve ANY planet of sentient life that physically manipulates it’s environment, and address cultural, social, economic and historical issues, please contact me……I am running for the top post of EVERY nation on earth, and all elected offices if you like to vote…אם אתה מהירה למשך שבוע, להפוך fruitarian, להקדיש את כל שארית חייך אלי, תן לי את הכל, כולל את כל היחסים החברתיים, שכר, לטפל לי כאילו אני שלך רק ילד, ההורים, המאהב, עבודה, חברו הטוב ביותר בשילוב, ייתכן מזל מספיק כדי לגרום לי לרדת לך בהריון … היא באמת הקומיקאי … שפה זו היא הקרובה ביותר המשמש בני-אדם אשר הצליח אדם במובן האוכלוסייה בהיסטוריה … כך יוערך לך הערכה

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