How Much Research Should I Have in my Creative Nonfiction Essay?

by Kayla Dean
published in Writing

So you’ve made the commitment to write a creative nonfiction essay. Maybe it’s for your blog or, if you’re lucky, someone is paying you to write about your experiences. But how much of that piece should be about you? Where do you draw the line between yourself and the research that you owe to your readers?

Simple answer: the level of research you do depends on the type of essay you want to write, but there is also a baseline that I’d recommend to anchor your voice. To figure out what that should be, let’s return to the difference between creative nonfiction and literary journalism.

Creative nonfiction is an umbrella term for “true stories, well told,” which essentially includes personal essays, memoir, and travel writing. Literary journalism is generally considered under the same genre, but in reality it’s quite different because these narratives are often the type of stories you’d see in publications like The New Yorker from writers who have returned from field reporting. A lot of war journalism would fall under this category—this would be a piece from someone who likely has personal experience with the issue but also has anecdotes, statistics, or even photos to back up their claims.

I’m sure you’re still asking—where do I fall?

Ask Yourself Where the Piece Originated

If your initial purpose in writing the piece was to give wider relevance to something that happened to you, then you’re in the creative nonfiction camp. This means you’re safe to rely upon your experiences, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet.

Regardless of your audience, you’ll have to synthesize that information into a meaningful narrative. The skill of a great nonfiction writer is in bringing together disparate pieces of information into a complete whole. This means that you will have to summarize and respond to whatever outside information you add.

A fundamental part of an essay is responding to reality—that becomes possible if you have anecdotes or stats from other people. If your experience is really the most important part of the essay, it may actually work better to just reference and allude to things. For an example of how to approach that, I recommend the essay “Song for the Special” by Marina Keegan. Essentially, it’s a meditation on the ways in which each generation feels that it is special. At the same time, we as individuals fear that we don’t have something to offer to the world because it’s already been done by someone fifty years older and smarter than you. She doesn’t use fleshed-out examples from other people, instead opting to talk about a business fair she visits and the reluctance that strikes her when she forgets to bring business cards. Yet her culturally-aware references to World War II, Mrs. Dalloway, and the number of books published every day makes the essay feel right now. That may be all the push your essay needs.

Think About Form

Nicole Walker recently had this to say in Creative Nonfiction magazine:

“What is creative nonfiction writing but the shaping and reshaping of self against fact? You take a personal story and give it syntax, grammar, language, punctuation. The simple fact of putting it on paper reshapes it. But now you’ve got to give it context, associate meaning to it….The facts are the glacier to the soft canyon of your own history. You see the history newly. You see the facts a little more softly.”

Walker’s piece is all about the braided essay; this means that the narrative isn’t just one cohesive piece. Instead, you may be telling two or three stories at the same time. They are all related to one another, but they’re often separated into sections which allow the reader to alternate between subject, narrative voice, or time. An important takeaway from Walker is that the personal story is just one part of a nonfiction essay, whether or not you’re writing a braided narrative. If you don’t add context, then it’s difficult to apply the importance of your story to a wider frame.

It may be useful to see an essay visually. Essays are not always linear, nor do they always follow the same template. In fact, they are anything but formulaic if you really study them. Whether you’re a reflective essayist that can circle around a point until you get to the conclusion or a writer that opts for a layered structure, Tim Bascom has this important takeaway:

“Our attention to thematic unity brings up one more important dynamic in most personal essays. Not only do we have a horizontal movement through time, but there is also a vertical descent into meaning.”

It can help to think about what type of writer you are. A braided narrative may enable you to include more research in one area of the narrative that you don’t even include in the other part. Or perhaps it would work to let a hard-hitting fact be the opener.

In short, the question may not be how much research you have to do but the placement of that information in the narrative. Keep this in mind, and you’re well on your way to a strong essay.

Kayla Dean is an arts and entertainment writer in Las Vegas, where she has interviewed several celebrities for publications like Vegas Seven. She has several YA stories in the works and blogs about writing and creativity on her personal website, where she also hosts the Millennial Writer Series. She received her BA in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and will pursue her Master’s in English Literature this fall. You can find her on Twitter@kayladeanwrites.

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