25 Great Nonfiction Essays You Can Read Online for Free
Alison Doherty is a writing teacher and part time assistant professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from The New School in writing for children and teenagers. She loves writing about books on the Internet, listening to audiobooks on the subway, and reading anything with a twisty plot or a happily ever after.
View All posts by Alison Doherty
I love reading books of nonfiction essays and memoirs , but sometimes have a hard time committing to a whole book. This is especially true if I don’t know the author. But reading nonfiction essays online is a quick way to learn which authors you like. Also, reading nonfiction essays can help you learn more about different topics and experiences.
Besides essays on Book Riot, I love looking for essays on The New Yorker , The Atlantic , The Rumpus , and Electric Literature . But there are great nonfiction essays available for free all over the Internet. From contemporary to classic writers and personal essays to researched ones—here are 25 of my favorite nonfiction essays you can read today.
“Beware of Feminist Lite” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The author of We Should All Be Feminists writes a short essay explaining the danger of believing men and woman are equal only under certain conditions.
“It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead” by Diana Athill
A 96-year-old woman discusses her shifting attitude towards death from her childhood in the 1920s when death was a taboo subject, to World War 2 until the present day.
“Letter from a Region in my Mind” by James Baldwin
There are many moving and important essays by James Baldwin . This one uses the lens of religion to explore the Black American experience and sexuality. Baldwin describes his move from being a teenage preacher to not believing in god. Then he recounts his meeting with the prominent Nation of Islam member Elijah Muhammad.
“Relations” by Eula Biss
Biss uses the story of a white woman giving birth to a Black baby that was mistakenly implanted during a fertility treatment to explore racial identities and segregation in society as a whole and in her own interracial family.
“Friday Night Lights” by Buzz Bissinger
A comprehensive deep dive into the world of high school football in a small West Texas town.
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates examines the lingering and continuing affects of slavery on American society and makes a compelling case for the descendants of slaves being offered reparations from the government.
“Why I Write” by Joan Didion
This is one of the most iconic nonfiction essays about writing. Didion describes the reasons she became a writer, her process, and her journey to doing what she loves professionally.
“Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Roger Ebert
With knowledge of his own death, the famous film critic ponders questions of mortality while also giving readers a pep talk for how to embrace life fully.
“My Mother’s Tongue” by Zavi Kang Engles
In this personal essay, Engles celebrates the close relationship she had with her mother and laments losing her Korean fluency.
“My Life as an Heiress” by Nora Ephron
As she’s writing an important script, Ephron imagines her life as a newly wealthy woman when she finds out an uncle left her an inheritance. But she doesn’t know exactly what that inheritance is.
“My FatheR Spent 30 Years in Prison. Now He’s Out.” by Ashley C. Ford
Ford describes the experience of getting to know her father after he’s been in prison for almost all of her life. Bridging the distance in their knowledge of technology becomes a significant—and at times humorous—step in rebuilding their relationship.
“Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay
There’s a reason Gay named her bestselling essay collection after this story. It’s a witty, sharp, and relatable look at what it means to call yourself a feminist.
“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison
Jamison discusses her job as a medical actor helping to train medical students to improve their empathy and uses this frame to tell the story of one winter in college when she had an abortion and heart surgery.
“What I Learned from a Fitting Room Disaster About Clothes and Life” by Scaachi Koul
One woman describes her history with difficult fitting room experiences culminating in one catastrophe that will change the way she hopes to identify herself through clothes.
“Breasts: the Odd Couple” by Una LaMarche
LaMarche examines her changing feelings about her own differently sized breasts.
“How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story” by Donna Minkowitz
A journalist looks back at her own biased reporting on a news story about the sexual assault and murder of a trans man in 1993. Minkowitz examines how ideas of gender and sexuality have changed since she reported the story, along with how her own lesbian identity influenced her opinions about the crime.
“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell
In this famous essay, Orwell bemoans how politics have corrupted the English language by making it more vague, confusing, and boring.
“Letting Go” by David Sedaris
The famously funny personal essay author , writes about a distinctly unfunny topic of tobacco addiction and his own journey as a smoker. It is (predictably) hilarious.
“Joy” by Zadie Smith
Smith explores the difference between pleasure and joy by closely examining moments of both, including eating a delicious egg sandwich, taking drugs at a concert, and falling in love.
“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan
Tan tells the story of how her mother’s way of speaking English as an immigrant from China changed the way people viewed her intelligence.
“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace
The prolific nonfiction essay and fiction writer travels to the Maine Lobster Festival to write a piece for Gourmet Magazine. With his signature footnotes, Wallace turns this experience into a deep exploration on what constitutes consciousness.
“I Am Not Pocahontas” by Elissa Washuta
Washuta looks at her own contemporary Native American identity through the lens of stereotypical depictions from 1990s films.
“Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White
E.B. White didn’t just write books like Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style . He also was a brilliant essayist. This nature essay explores the theme of fatherhood against the backdrop of a lake within the forests of Maine.
“Pell-Mell” by Tom Wolfe
The inventor of “new journalism” writes about the creation of an American idea by telling the story of Thomas Jefferson snubbing a European Ambassador.
“The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf
In this nonfiction essay, Wolf describes a moth dying on her window pane. She uses the story as a way to ruminate on the lager theme of the meaning of life and death.
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What Is Nonfiction: Definition and Examples
Table of Contents
What is nonfiction, is nonfiction a genre, what is a nonfiction book example, how prowritingaid can help you write nonfiction.
Nonfiction writing has become one of the most popular genres of books published today. Most nonfiction books are about modern day problems, science, or details of actual events and lives.
If you’re looking for informative writing made up of factual details rather than fiction, nonfiction is a great option. It serves to develop your knowledge about different topics, and it helps you learn about real events.
In this article, we’ll explain what nonfiction is, what to expect from the nonfiction genre, and some examples of nonfiction books.
If you’re considering writing a book, and you can’t decide between fiction or nonfiction, it helps to know exactly what nonfiction is first.
Similarly, if you want to indulge in some self-development, and you decide to read some books, you’ll need to know what to look for in a nonfiction book to ensure you’re reading factual content.
To define the word nonfiction, we can break it down into two parts. “Non” is a prefix that means the absence of something. “Fiction” means writing that features ideas and elements purely from the author’s imagination.
Therefore, when you put those two definitions together, it suggests nonfiction is the absence of writing that comes from someone’s imagination. To put it in a better way, nonfiction is about facts and evidence rather than imaginary events and characters who don’t exist.
As nonfiction writing sounds like the opposite of fiction writing, you might think nonfiction is all true and objective, but that’s not the case. While nonfiction writing contains factual elements, such as real people, concepts, and events, it’s not always objectively true accounts.
A lot of nonfiction writing is opinionated or biased discussions about the subject of the writing.
For example, you might be a football expert, and you want to write a book about the top goal scorers of 2022. Your piece could be objective and discuss exactly who scored the most goals in 2022, or you could add some opinions and discuss who scored the best goals or who performed the best on the pitch.
Opinions make nonfiction books more unique to the author, as it sounds more authentic and human because we all have our own thoughts and feelings about things.
Adding opinions can also make nonfiction books more interesting for readers, as you can be more controversial or use exaggeration to increase reader engagement. Many readers like to pick up books that challenge their thoughts about certain topics.
Be confident about grammar
Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.
Nonfiction is a genre, but it’s more of an umbrella term for several reference and factual genres. When you’re in the nonfiction section of a bookstore or library, you’ll find the books in categories based on the overall theme or topic of the book.
There are several categories of nonfiction:
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs
Travel writing and travel guides
Philosophical and modern social science
Journalism and news media
Historical, academic, reference, philosophical, and social science books often focus on factual representations of information about specific subjects, events, and key ideas. The tone of these books is often more formal, though there are some informal examples available.
Biography, memoir, travel writing, humor, and self-help books are creative nonfiction. This means they’re based on true events and stories, but the writer uses a lot more creative freedom to tell stories and pass on information about what they have learned from life.
Readers often criticize journalism and news media for not being objectively truthful when telling people about events. However, almost all journalism is biased or opinionated in one way or another. Therefore, it’s good to read from multiple different sources for your news updates.
If you want to read nonfiction to get an idea of what it’s like, we’ve got several examples of great nonfiction books for you to check out.
Historical : The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Biography : This Much is True by Miriam Margolyes
Travel Writing : Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
Philosophical : The Alignment Problem: How Can Machines Learn Human Values? By Brian Christian
Self-Help : Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? By Dr. Julie Smith
Humor : What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
If you want to write nonfiction, you can use ProWritingAid to ensure you avoid publishing a manuscript full of grammatical errors. Whether you’re looking for a second pair of eyes catching quick fixes as you write, or a full analysis of your manuscript once it’s written, ProWritingAid has you covered.
You can use the Realtime checker to see suggested improvements to your writing as you’re working. If you use the in-tool learning features as well, you’ll see fewer suggestions as you write because it’ll essentially train you to become a better writer.
If you’re more of a full-blown analysis editor, try using the Readability report to see suggestions highlighting where you can improve your writing to ensure more readers can understand what you’re saying. Readability is important if you want to reach more readers who have different levels of reading comprehension.
Another great report you can use for nonfiction writing is the Transitions report. Transitions are the words that show cause and effect within your writing. If you want your reader to follow your points and arguments, you need to include plenty of transitions to improve the flow of your writing.
Now that you know what nonfiction means and how ProWritingAid can help you produce a great nonfiction book, try nonfiction writing , and see how fun it is to share your knowledge and opinions with the world. Just don’t forget to check your work is factual and relevant.
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English CMFG. Past Selves and Future Ghosts
Instructor: Melissa Cundieff Thursday, 3:00-5:45 pm | Location: TBA Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site As memoirist and author Melissa Febos puts it: “The narrator is never you, and the sooner we can start thinking of ourselves on the page that way, the better for our work. That character on the page is just this shaving off of the person that was within a very particular context, intermingled with bits of perspective from all the time since — it’s a very specific little cocktail of pieces of the self and memory and art … it’s a very weird thing. And then it’s frozen in the pages.” With each essay and work of nonfiction we produce in this workshop-based class, the character we portray, the narrator we locate, is never stagnant, instead we are developing a persona, wrought from the experience of our vast selves and our vast experiences. To that end, in this course, you will use the tools and stylistic elements of creative nonfiction, namely fragmentation, narrative, scene, point of view, speculation, and research to remix and retell all aspects of your experience and selfhood in a multiplicity of ways. I will ask that you focus on a particular time period or connected events, and through the course of the semester, you will reimagine and reify these events using different modes and techniques as modeled in the published and various works we read. We will also read, in their entireties, Melissa Febos's Body Work: The Radical Work of Personal Narrative, as well as Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us , which will aid our discussions and help us to better understand the difference between persona(s) and the many versions of self that inhabit us. Supplemental Application Information: Applications for this class should include a 2-3 page (double-spaced if prose, single-spaced if poetry) creating writing sample of any genre (nonfiction, fiction, poetry), or combination of genres. Additionally, I ask that students submit a 250-word reflection on their particular relationship with creative writing and why this course appeals to them. This class is open to students of all writing levels and experience. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm ET on Saturday, November 4)
English CMDR. Creative Nonfiction: Departure and Return: "Home" as Doorway to Difference and Identity
Instructor: Melissa Cundieff Thursday, 12:00-2:45pm | Location: TBD Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
In this workshop-based class, students will be asked to investigate something that directly or indirectly connects everyone: what it means to leave a place, or one's home, or one's land, and to return to it, willingly or unwillingly. This idea is inherently open-ended because physical spaces are, of course, not our only means of departure and/or return-- but also our politics, our genders, our relationships with power, and our very bodies. Revolution, too, surrounds us, on both larger and private scales, as does looking back on what once was, what caused that initial departure. Students will approach "home" as both a literal place and a figurative mindscape. We will read essays by Barbara Ehrenreich, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Sajé, Elena Passarello, Hanif Abdurraqib, Alice Wong, and Eric L. Muller, among others. Supplemental Application Information: Applications for this class should include a 2-3 page (double-spaced if prose, single-spaced if poetry) creating writing sample of any genre (nonfiction, fiction, poetry), or combination of genres. Additionally, I ask that students submit a 250-word reflection on their particular relationship with creative writing and why this course appeals to them. This class is open to students of all writing levels and experience. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm ET on Saturday, November 4)
English CGOT. The Other
Instructor: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Thursday, 12:00-2:45 pm | Location: TBD Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
In this class, we will consider how literary non-fiction articulates or imagines difference, disdain, conflict, and dislike. We will also discuss the more technical and stylistic elements present in strong non-fiction, like reflection, observation, retrospection, scene-setting, description, complexity, and strong characterization. As we read and write, we will put these theoretical concerns into practice and play by writing two or three profiles about people you do not like, a place you don’t care for, an idea you oppose, or an object whose value eludes you. Your writing might be about someone who haunts you without your permission or whatever else gets under your skin, but ideally, your subject makes you uncomfortable, troubles you, and confounds you. We will interrogate how writers earn their opinion. And while it might be strange to think of literature as often having political aims, it would be ignorant to imagine that it does not. Non-fiction forces us to extend our understanding of point of view not just to be how the story unfolds itself technically–immersive reporting, transparent eyeball, third person limited, or third person omniscient--but also to identify who is telling this story and why. Some examples of the writing that we will read are Guy Debord, Lucille Clifton, C.L.R. James, Pascale Casanova, W.G. Sebald, Jayne Cortez, AbouMaliq Simone, Greg Tate, Annie Ernaux, Edward Said, Mark Twain, Jacqueline Rose, Toni Morrison, Julia Kristeva, and Ryszard Kapuscinski. Supplemental Application Information: Please submit a brief letter explaining why you're interested to take this class. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm ET on Saturday, November 4)
English CMCC. Covid, Grief, and Afterimage
Instructor: Melissa Cundieff Wednesday, 3:00-5:45 pm | Location: Barker 269 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site In this workshop-based course we will write about our personal lived experiences with loss and grief born from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as how grief and grieving became a collective experience that is ongoing and persistent, like an afterimage or haunting. As part of our examination, we will consider intersections with other global, historical experiences and depictions of loss, including the murder of George Floyd and the AIDS epidemic. Readings will include essays by Leslie Jamison, Arundhati Roy, Susan Sontag, Eve Tuck and C. Ree, Matt Levin, and Alice Wong, among others. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26) Supplemental Application Information: Applications for this class should include a 3-5 page (double-spaced if prose, single-spaced if poetry) creating writing sample of any genre (nonfiction, fiction, poetry), or combination of genres. Additionally, I ask that students submit a 250 word reflection on their particular relationship with creative writing and why this course appeals to them. This class is open to students of all writing levels and experience.
Instructor: Melissa Cundieff Wednesday, 12:00-2:45 pm | Location: Barker 316 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site As memoirist and author Melissa Febos puts it: “The narrator is never you, and the sooner we can start thinking of ourselves on the page that way, the better for our work. That character on the page is just this shaving off of the person that was within a very particular context, intermingled with bits of perspective from all the time since — it’s a very specific little cocktail of pieces of the self and memory and art … it’s a very weird thing. And then it’s frozen in the pages.” With each essay and work of nonfiction we produce in this workshop-based class, the character we portray, the narrator we locate, is never stagnant, instead we are developing a persona, wrought from the experience of our vast selves and our vast experiences. To that end, in this course, you will use the tools and stylistic elements of creative nonfiction, namely fragmentation, narrative, scene, point of view, speculation, and research to remix and retell all aspects of your experience and selfhood in a multiplicity of ways. I will ask that you focus on a particular time period or connected events, and through the course of the semester, you will reimagine and reify these events using different modes and techniques as modeled in the published and various works we read. We will also read, in their entireties, Melissa Febos's Body Work: The Radical Work of Personal Narrative, as well as Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us , which will aid our discussions and help us to better understand the difference between persona(s) and the many versions of self that inhabit us. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26) Supplemental Application Information: Applications for this class should include a 3-5 page (double-spaced if prose, single-spaced if poetry) creating writing sample of any genre (nonfiction, fiction, poetry), or combination of genres. Additionally, I ask that students submit a 250 word reflection on their particular relationship with creative writing and why this course appeals to them. This class is open to students of all writing levels and experience.
English CRGS. The Surrounds: Writing Interiority and Outsiderness
Instructor: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Thursday, 12:00-2:45 pm | Location: Lamont 401 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
The essayist, the writer of non-fiction, has historically been an oracle of opinions that most often go unsaid. They do not traditionally reinforce a sense of insular collectivity, instead they often steer us towards a radical understanding of the moment that they write from. The best essayists unearth and organize messages from those most at the margins: the ignored, the exiled, the criminal, and the destitute. So, by writing about these people, the essayist is fated, most nobly or just as ignobly, to write about the ills and aftermaths of their nation’s worse actions. It is an obligation and also a very heavy burden.
In this class we will examine how the essay and many essayists have functioned as geographers of spaces that have long been forgotten. And we read a series of non-fiction pieces that trouble the question of interiority, belonging, the other, and outsiderness. And we will attempt to do a brief but comprehensive review of the essay as it functions as a barometer of the author’s times. This will be accomplished by reading the work of such writers as: Herodotus, William Hazlitt, Doris Lessing, Audre Lorde, Gay Talese, Binyavanga Wainaina, Jennifer Clement, V.S. Naipaul, Sei Shonagon, George Orwell, Ha Jin, Margo Jefferson, Simone White, and Joan Didion. This reading and discussion will inform our own writing practice as we write essays.
Everyone who is interested in this class should feel free to apply.
Supplemental Application Information: Please submit a brief letter explaining why you're interested to take this class. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26)
English CNFD. Creative Nonfiction
Instructor: Maggie Doherty Tuesday, 12:00-2:45 pm | Location: Sever 205 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site This course is an overview of the creative nonfiction genre and the many different types of writing that are included within it: memoir, criticism, nature writing, travel writing, and more. Our readings will be both historical and contemporary: writers will include Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Audre Lorde, Hilton Als, and Carmen Maria Machado. During the first half of the semester, we will read two pieces closely; we will use our class discussions to analyze how these writers use pacing, character, voice, tone, and structure to tell their stories. Students will complete short, informal writing assignments during this part of the semester, based on the genre of work we’re discussing that week. During the second half of the semester, each student will draft and workshop a longer piece of creative nonfiction in the genre(s) of their choosing, which they will revise by the end of the semester. Students will be expected to provide detailed feedback on the work of their peers. This course is open to writers at all levels; no previous experience in creative writing is required. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26) Supplemental Application Information: Please write a letter of introduction (1-2 pages) giving a sense of who you are, your writing experience, and your current goals for your writing. You may also include writers or nonfiction works that you admire, as well as any themes or genres you'd like to experiment with in the course. Please also include a 3-5-page writing sample, ideally of some kind of creative writing (nonfiction is preferred, but fiction would also be acceptable). If you don't have a creative sample, you may submit a sample of your academic writing.
English CACD. The Art of Criticism
Instructor: Maggie Doherty Monday, 12:00-2:45pm | Location: Barker 018 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
This course will consider critical writing about art—literary, visual, or cinematic—as an art in its own right. We will read and discuss criticism from a wide variety of publications, paying attention to the ways outlet and audience shape critical work. Our focus will be on longform criticism (narrative and/or argumentative) as opposed to short-form, primarily evaluative reviews. The majority of our readings will be from the last several years and will include pieces by Andrea Long Chu, Tausif Noor, Namwali Serpell, and Justin Taylor. Students will write several short writing assignments (500-1000 words) during the first half of the semester and share them with peers. During the second half of the semester, each student will write and workshop a longer piece of criticism about a work of art or an artist of their choosing. Students will be expected to read and provide detailed feedback on the work of their peers. Students will revise their longer pieces based on workshop feedback and submit them for the final assignment of the class.
This course is open to writers of all levels, but writers should have studied or worked creatively in the field of art they plan to engage critically. In other words, if you plan to write art criticism, you should have taken some classes in art history, or you should have a creative practice in the visual arts. Similarly, if you’d like to write film criticism, you should have taken some film studies classes, or you should have a filmmaking background. If you are unsure whether you have the necessary background for this class, please email me. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26) Supplemental Application Information: Please write a letter of introduction (1-2 pages) giving a sense of who you are, your writing experience, and your current goals for your writing. Please also describe your relationship to the art forms and/or genres you're interested in engaging in the course. You may also list any writers or publications whose criticism you enjoy reading. Please also include a 3-5 writing sample in which you write about art. This sample may be creative (a personal essay, an excerpt from a piece of fiction) or it may be academic.
English CNFR. Creative Nonfiction
Instructor: Darcy Frey Section 1: Wednesday, 3:00-5:45 pm | Location: TBD Section 2: Thursday, 3:00-5:45 pm | Location: TBD Enrollment: Limited to 12 students. Course Site- Section 1 Course Site- Section 2
Whether it takes the form of literary journalism, essay, memoir or environmental writing, creative nonfiction is a powerful genre that allows writers to break free from the constraints commonly associated with nonfiction prose and reach for the breadth of thought and feeling usually accomplished only in fiction: the narration of a vivid story, the probing of a complex character, the argument of an idea, the evocation of a place. Students will work on several short assignments to hone their mastery of the craft, then write a longer piece that will be workshopped in class and revised at the end of the term. We will take instruction and inspiration from published authors such as Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Ariel Levy, Alexander Chee, and Virginia Woolf. This is a workshop-style class intended for undergraduate and graduate students at all levels of experience. No previous experience in English Department courses is required.
Supplemental Application Information: Please write a substantive letter of introduction describing who you are as writer at the moment and where you hope to take your writing; what experience you may have had with creative/literary nonfiction; what excites you about nonfiction in particular; and what you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Additionally, please submit 3-5 pages of creative/literary nonfiction (essay, memoir, narrative journalism, etc, but NOT academic writing) or, if you have not yet written much nonfiction, an equal number of pages of narrative fiction. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm ET on Saturday, November 4)
English CLPG. Art of Sportswriting
Instructor: Louisa Thomas Tuesday, 9:00-11:45am | Location: TBD Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
In newsrooms, the sports section is sometimes referred to as the “toy department” -- frivolous and unserious, unlike the stuff of politics, business, and war. In this course, we will take the toys seriously. After all, for millions of people, sports and other so-called trivial pursuits (video games, chess, children’s games, and so on) are a source of endless fascination. For us, they will be a source of stories about human achievements and frustrations. These stories can involve economic, social, and political issues. They can draw upon history, statistics, psychology, and philosophy. They can be reported or ruminative, formally experimental or straightforward, richly descriptive or tense and spare. They can be fun. Over the course of the semester, students will read and discuss exemplary profiles, essays, articles, and blog posts, while also writing and discussing their own. While much (but not all) of the reading will come from the world of sports, no interest in or knowledge about sports is required; our focus will be on writing for a broad audience. Supplemental Application Information: To apply, please write a letter describing why you want to take the course and what you hope to get out of it. Include a few examples of websites or magazines you like to read, and tell me briefly about one pursuit -- football, chess, basketball, ballet, Othello, crosswords, soccer, whatever -- that interests you and why. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm ET on Saturday, November 4)
English CLLW. Life Writing
Instructor: Louisa Thomas Tuesday, 9:00-11:45am | Location: Lamont 401 Enrollment: Limited to 12 students Course Site
How does one tell -- vividly, interestingly -- the story of a life? How do we access a private life, or situate it in a public world? What if the subject is dead, or is famous, or is oneself? What if the subject is a dog? How do we navigate archives or reporting? This course will examine the art of writing narrative nonfiction about individual lives. We will read and discuss examples of profiles, biographies, and memoir/personal essays, paying special attention to structure, language, and style. We will also read and discuss each other’s work. Students are expected to produce (and to revise) two pieces of longform nonfiction writing. Readings by authors such as Hilton Als, Rachel Aviv, Robert Caro, Wesley Morris, Hua Hsu, and others. Apply via Submittable (deadline: 11:59pm EDT on Saturday, August 26) Supplemental Application Information: To apply, please write a letter introducing yourself and explaining why you want to take the course. Include a couple of examples of profiles, biographies, memoirs, or essays that you admire, along with a sentence or two explaining why. All levels of experience are welcome.
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What Is Creative Nonfiction?
By Lee Gutkind
I am often asked: “What is creative nonfiction?” Or, in some cases, “what the hell is creative nonfiction?” The answer—or answers—can be complicated because creative nonfiction may mean different things to different people, a characteristic that makes this form so elusive and alluring.
On its very baseline creative nonfiction is a literary genre. Some people call it the fourth genre, along with poetry, fiction and drama. And it’s an umbrella term for the many different ways one can write what is called creative nonfiction. Memoir, for example, personal essay, biography, narrative history and long form narrative reportage may all fit under the creative nonfiction umbrella. Recently, as the genre has evolved, there have been offshoots to the genre like speculative nonfiction, auto(biographical) fiction, lyric essay, and the visual essay, to name only a few.
Writers who write creative nonfiction are very different in voice, orientation and purpose. But what they have in common is that they are, in one way or the other, writing true stories that provide information about a variety of subjects, enriched by relevant thoughtful ideas, personal insight, and intimacies about life and the world we live in. And this scope and variety is exactly what makes creative nonfiction significant and, these days, so incredibly popular.
“Freedom” and “flexibility” are words I like to use when defining creative nonfiction, for the genre invites writers to push boundaries and open doors, offering them the opportunity to use all of the techniques of the fiction writer (or the poet)—dialogue, setting, description, inner point of view (seeing the world through the eyes of the person about whom they are writing)—in order to capture a reader’s attention and enlighten and intrigue them through nonfiction.
There are very few rules for writers of creative nonfiction. You can predict the future, speculate about the past, or imagine what could have happened or what someone might have been thinking, as long as you don’t violate the reader’s trust, and in the process your own credibility. There are, however, limits to the freedom and flexibility that make creative nonfiction so attractive and compelling—legal, ethical and moral issues that are challenging and, in many ways, impossible to clearly define. Freedom and flexibility—and daring—are governed by responsibility, not just to the people about whom we write, but to those who read and publish our work.
Nonfiction itself has had a bad rap in the literary world. For a long time, it was commonly believed that writing nonfiction was generally inferior to the writing of poetry and fiction. “Nonfiction is a pleasant way to walk,” Larry McMurtry once wrote, “but the novel puts one on horseback, and what cowboy, symbolic or real, would walk when he could ride?”
I remember reading this from McMurtry, who had written a great deal of nonfiction, in addition to his many novels and stories, and feeling more than a little annoyed and, at the same time, amused. He had to be joking, I thought. Or maybe he had just fallen off his horse. I pictured the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who became rich and famous for the line “I get no respect,” which in many ways has been the story of creative nonfiction in a nutshell-up until present day.
The addition of the word “creative” to nonfiction was at first controversial, but it gradually reversed the belief that nonfiction was somehow second class, a cut below poetry and fiction. It liberated all writers, journalists especially, releasing them from longstanding rules and boundaries that had been so restrictive and inhibiting. For novelists, poets and essayists, “creative” encouraged experimentation and offered new avenues of expression. Scientists, physicians, engineers (Atul Gawande, Hope Jahren, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Henry Petroski, to name just a very few) were intrigued by the notion of being creative and began to write true stories that humanized and revealed the behind-the-scenes intimacies of their professions.
The interest in true stories motivated and opened doors for others who were not writers by trade to share their life experiences, finding meaning in the process and fulfillment in the connections they forged with readers.
This transition—an awakening to the potential and power of nonfiction that allowed and encouraged creativity—did not happen overnight and was not without resistance and often bitter infighting. Change was difficult for the literary, journalistic and academic communities, steeped in tradition and long resistant to new ideas, to accommodate. Indeed, the resistance in some corners far exceeded the scale of the change itself. The change was hardly drastic and was not really, when one looks back over the history of nonfiction, much of a change at all. Writers had been writing nonfiction that was creative and imaginative for centuries, familiar and famous names you will recognize–Daniel Defoe, George Orwell, Charles Dickens and many others—for centuries. The change, the adjustment that it precipitated, had much more to do with the approach or attitude toward nonfiction rather than its content and, of course, the idea that creative and nonfiction were not mutually exclusive. That change in approach and attitude is ongoing. The scope of nonfiction today, most especially what we call creative nonfiction, continues to evolve, informing and inspiring readers with stories that are true, compelling, revealing and always surprising.
“What is Creative Nonfiction” has been adapted from Lee Gutkind’s new book, The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting: How a Bunch of Rabble-Rousers, Outsiders and Ne’er-do-wells Created Creative Nonfiction, to be published later this year by Yale University Press.
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About Lee Gutkind
Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between , Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning , Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.
Lee's Latest Book
My Last Eight Thousand Days
This revealing, candid, and vivid portrait of one man’s view of aging written by the man who played a crucial role in establishing literary, narrative nonfiction in the marketplace and in the academy, examines male aging in a way we’ve not seen before.
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- An Introduction to Punctuation
- Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
- M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
- B.A., English, State University of New York
Similar to literary journalism , creative nonfiction is a branch of writing that employs the literary techniques usually associated with fiction or poetry to report on actual persons, places, or events.
The genre of creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction ) is broad enough to include travel writing , nature writing , science writing , sports writing , biography , autobiography , memoir , the interview , and both the familiar and personal essay .
Examples of Creative Nonfiction
- "Coney Island at Night," by James Huneker
- "An Experiment in Misery," by Stephen Crane
- "In Mammoth Cave," by John Burroughs
- "Outcasts in Salt Lake City," by James Weldon Johnson
- "Rural Hours," by Susan Fenimore Cooper
- "The San Francisco Earthquake," by Jack London
- "The Watercress Girl," by Henry Mayhew
- " Creative nonfiction . . . is fact-based writing that remains compelling, undiminished by the passage of time, that has at heart an interest in enduring human values: foremost a fidelity to accuracy, to truthfulness ." (Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard, Introduction, Writing Creative Nonfiction . Story Press, 2001)
- "What Is Creative About Nonfiction?" "It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters , the rhythms of your prose , the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have." (John McPhee, "Omission." The New Yorker , September 14, 2015)
- A Checklist for Writers of Creative Nonfiction "[There] is a significant way in which creative nonfiction differs from journalism. Subjectivity is not required in creative nonfiction, but specific, personal points of view, based on fact and conjecture, are definitely encouraged..." (Lee Gutkind, "The Creative Nonfiction Police?" In Fact . W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)
- Common Elements of Creative Nonfiction "[Creative nonfiction] can be identified by these common elements: personal presence (the author's self as spectator or participant, whether on the page or behind the scenes), self-discovery and self-motivation, flexibility of form (the tendency for the form to arise from the content rather than the content to be contorted to fit an inverted pyramid or five-paragraph or similarly prescriptive model), veracity (to paraphrase Annie Dillard, rendering the real world coherent and meaningful either analytically or artistically), and literary approaches (drawing on narrative techniques also used in fiction or lyrical language also used in poetry or dramatic rendering of scenes or cinematic uses of pacing and focus)." (Robert L. Root, The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction . Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)
- Walt Whitman on Writing About Real Things "Whatever may be the case in years gone by, the true use of the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only." (Walt Whitman, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," 1888)
Also Known As
literary nonfiction, literary journalism, literature of fact
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Works of prose are typically divided into one of two categories: fiction vs. nonfiction. A work of fiction might resemble the real world, but it certainly did not happen in real life. Nonfiction, on the other hand, should not contain any fiction, as the writer’s credibility comes from the truthfulness of the story.
Any writer of fiction vs. nonfiction will use different skills and strategies to write in each genre. Yet, fiction and nonfiction are more alike than you might realize. Additionally, there are many works of prose that fall somewhere in between the fiction vs. nonfiction binary.
This article examines, in detail, the writing strategies available to prose writers of fiction and nonfiction. It also examines the fiction vs. nonfiction binary, and offers insight into the role that “truth” plays in both genres of literature.
But first, let’s uncover what writers mean when they categorize a work of prose as fiction vs. nonfiction. What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Definitions
Let’s begin by defining each of these categories of literature. The main difference between fiction and nonfiction has to do with “what actually transpired in the real world.”
“Fiction” refers to stories that have not occurred in real life. Fiction may resemble real life, and it may even pull from real life events or people. But the story itself, the “what happens in this text,” is ultimately invented by the author.
“Nonfiction,” on the other hand, refers to stories that have occurred in real life. The story may have happened in the author’s life, in the life of someone the author has interviewed, or in the life of a historical figure. It also describes works of journalism, science writing, and other forms of “reality-based” writing.
To further complicate things, writers might categorize something as being either “ creative nonfiction ” or, simply, “nonfiction.” This article discusses strategies for writing both, but with an emphasis on creative nonfiction, such as memoir and personal essays, as those skills apply to most forms of prose.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: A way of categorizing literature based on whether it happened in the real world (nonfiction) or didn’t (fiction).
Now, while these two categories exist, it’s worth noting that certain genres of writing sit somewhere in the middle. Some genres that straddle the fiction vs. nonfiction border are:
- Autobiographical fiction (also known as autofic). An example is The Idiot by Elif Batuman.
- Speculative nonfiction , or writing in which invented truths are not at odds with what transpired in real life.
- Historical fiction, which typically involves the accurate retelling of real life historical events, with fictional characters and plots woven through that history.
But wait, how can a work of literature be both true and not true? We’ll explore that paradox later in this article. First, let’s explore the possibilities of fiction and nonfiction.
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Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Examples of Each Category
The following genres can be classified as types of fiction:
- Short stories.
- Plays and screenplays (though these can also be nonfiction).
- Literary fiction.
- Categories of genre fiction – including mystery, thriller, romance, horror, and other types of speculative fiction , like magical realism or urban fantasy .
- Fables, fairy tales, and folklore.
- Narrative poetry .
Meanwhile, these are different types of nonfiction:
- Personal essays.
- Biographies and autobiographies.
- Books about history.
- Lyric essays .
- Journalism, articles, food writing , travel writing, and other forms of feature writing.
- Scholarly articles.
Learn more about different types of nonfiction here:
Characteristics of Fiction vs. Nonfiction
As you can see above, fiction and nonfiction are both expansive categories of literature. So, it’s impossible to describe all of fiction or nonfiction as being any particular thing. If I were to say “all fiction is about stories that haven’t actually happened,” that isn’t true, because genres like autofic and historical fiction exist.
Nonetheless, there are a few differences and similarities that can generally be stated about fiction vs. nonfiction. The differences include:
- Whether the story is made up or real.
- How the writer creates a plot for the story.
- The role research plays in telling the story.
- How themes are explored within the story.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Did It Actually Happen?
As we’ve already mentioned, the main difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether or not the story occurred in real life. In nonfiction, the story did occur in the real world; in fiction, it did not.
Fictional stories can be rooted in real-life events, but the scenes, plotline, and characters are invented by the author, even if they’re based on real people.
You might think of a couple of exceptions here. Historical fiction, for example, is often based on real historical events, such as Civil War stories. While the setting for the story happened in real life, and might even involve real historical figures, there are also fictional characters in the story, and the majority of scenes and plot points were fictionalized as well. If historical fiction interests you, check out our interview with Jack Smith on his novel If Winter Comes .
Another exception, in all seriousness, is fanfiction. Yes, Harry Styles fanfiction does involve a living, real life person. But the author is making assumptions, assigning character traits, and inventing plot points for Harry Styles that did not actually occur in the real world.
The point: fiction writers can (and always do!) borrow from real life. They might even tell their own stories as though they were fiction. Even in those instances, there are always details that are added, embellished, or altered to tell a more engaging story, so the stories themselves are still fictional.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: What’s the Plot?
Fiction writers use plot as scaffolding for a story. By plot, we mean the way that the events of a story are organized from start to finish. Our article on plot structures offers different ways that fiction writers have used plot to tell their stories.
This is true even of literary fiction, which is typically defined as realistic fiction in which the characters’ decisions drive the story forward, and the characters themselves form the story. (This is a somewhat problematic distinction between genre fiction, but we discuss that in our article on literary fiction vs. genre fiction .) In those stories, plot is centered around the conflict in the story itself.
In nonfiction, the author’s goal is to organize what actually transpired in the real world into a cogent plot. For many writers, that means telling the story in a linear fashion, with careful attention to the most salient details and how they’re presented to the reader.
Of course, many creative nonfiction writers do tell stories non-linearly, particularly in genres like the braided essay, lyric essay, and hermit crab essay.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: The Role of Research
Most prose writers will have to do some amount of research to craft effective works of fiction and nonfiction. Memoirists may be able to tell their story entirely without research, but anything to verify the accuracy of information counts as research, such as looking up old emails, the streets and locations of certain events, etc. Rarely can one’s memory suffice to tell an entire story.
Fiction writers integrate their research into the story. Let’s say your story is set in New York, a city you’ve visited, but never lived in. You have a character that lives in Bushwick, which is served by the L, M, J, and Z trains. You may need to research that, and when that research is integrated into the story, you’ll write that your character “took the L train.” (In other words, you will not write “I discovered that Bushwick is served by the L train, which my character took into Manhattan.”)
In nonfiction, research informs the story, and is directly cited in the text. Let’s say your story involves New York rent and the aforementioned L train. You might be writing about the time that the city almost shut down the L train—they needed to do repairs to the tunnel beneath the East River connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. When it was announced that this service was going to be suspended, rents drastically dropped in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a recently gentrified neighborhood, and many people locked in historically low rents. People were very upset about this sudden closure, and the L service was later not suspended, meaning, ironically, a bunch of people got cheap rents without losing train service.
This is the kind of story that a journalist might write about. Or, you might be someone who locked in that cheap rent, and it’s part of the story of your time living in Williamsburg. In any case, if it’s nonfiction, you’ll want to cite it directly in the text. A journalist might cite people that they interviewed, or a city historian might cite this article and this article . Someone writing creative nonfiction might not need to add a citation, but they would still want to research and communicate the details here so that the reader has context for their story.
To summarize: fiction writers integrate research into their stories, while nonfiction writers cite research to bolster and verify their stories.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: How Themes are Explored
Theme refers to the overarching ideas presented and explored throughout the story.
Fiction writers explore themes implicitly; for them, the theme of a story is rarely stated. If, for example, the theme of a story is “justice,” then the fiction writer might explore who receives justice, who doesn’t, and how that justice (or lack thereof) is doled out. However, the fiction writer will not say “this character did not receive justice” explicitly—that’s for the reader to understand and form their own opinion about.
Nonfiction writers typically state their themes more openly. In a memoir or essay, the writer might explore why justice was or was not given to them, what factors went into that decision, and what it means to live a life after being (or not being) dispensed justice.
Some nonfiction writers might explore themes without stating them, or even without realizing they’re exploring them. But, because the nonfiction writer wants to convey what it was like to be the subject of the story, they will inevitably explore, and therefore openly state, the deeper parts of the story itself. This includes the author’s emotions, background, external circumstances, and the themes and conclusions that they drew from their experiences.
Similarities Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Despite the above differences, fiction and nonfiction have many similarities, too. In brief, these similarities include:
- The interplay of plot, characters, and settings to explore themes and ideas. While the people of nonfiction stories might not be considered “characters,” they are people presented in a certain way, and with a certain intent, on the page.
- Utilizing prose to tell a story. Fiction and nonfiction writers can both experiment with this: novelists have included poetry in their stories, and essayists, particularly lyric essayists and hermit crab essayists, often play with the prose form.
- The desire to entertain, inform, enlighten, challenge, and/or move the reader.
Fiction vs. Nonfiction Venn Diagram
What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? The below Venn Diagram summarizes what’s similar and different about the two genres. Virtually all things in the world of literature have exceptions, so while the below is not true 100% of the time, it’s a good place to start teasing out the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
The Role of “Truth” in Fiction and Nonfiction
The primary difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether or not the story happened in the real world. Yet, we’ve already mentioned three example genres in which fact and fiction can coexist peacefully. So, how much does “truth” matter in fiction vs. nonfiction?
Certainly, most works of nonfiction must be entirely factual. Memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, scholarly works, books about history, and journalism must all adhere to what actually transpired in the real world. When works of nonfiction fabricate details, someone is bound to figure that out eventually, and the ensuing scandal probably isn’t worth it.
At the same time, there’s something to be said about “truth” as a multifaceted concept. One person’s truth can be different than another’s; two people can both have honest, differing interpretations about the exact same event. What matters more than truth, if anything, is honesty.
When memoirists publish their work as memoirs, they assert to the reader that what transpired in the text actually occurred in real life. (So, publishing a memoir about wandering Nazi-torn Europe and being adopted by wolves would not be true or honest, even if it’s a potent metaphor for how the author felt.)
Yet, a memoirist might include information in the novel that’s controversial, in dispute, or otherwise not verifiably true. Does that mean the author lied to their reader?
It really depends on the writer and what they wrote. Consider a few things:
- Emotional truth is sometimes at odds with factual truth. That’s not to say you should invent a metaphor and claim it actually happened. But, the brain works in weird ways, makes odd associations, and reacts to the truth strangely. As a result, your brain might distort memories to make an intense emotion make sense. What the writer conveys to the reader is still an accurate portrayal of how they experienced something, even though their memory of the event itself has been skewed..
- Relatedly, memory is fallible. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you will inevitably forget, distort, or invent details in the memories you set on the page. Research on flashbulb memories proves that none of us remember exactly how we experience our own lives. But, often, the details we do invent have a profound psychological importance, and can still provide moving imagery and description to the story.
- All writing, particularly literature, requires some form of invention . What we mean by this is, real life is far, far messier than literature. In literature, we use plot as a way of organizing a story, and within that story, the details of settings and characters are carefully chosen to explore broader themes and ideas. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. By asserting these craft elements into retellings of reality, we inevitably neglect certain details, or insert our biases and prejudices into the ways we frame a story. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t strive for the truth—we should—but it is to say that the entire truth may never be properly conveyed. Again, honesty matters more.
Why bring this up? Because all creative nonfiction is an exploration of the truth. And, as all writers know, the truth is far, far messier than fiction. Few truths are absolute. As such, an author’s integrity and dedication to honesty matters much more.
As for fiction, the events of the story are usually fabricated—though writers always pull details from their own lived experiences. Dostoevsky named characters after his children; Steinbeck set the majority of his stories in Central California, where he grew up; Murakami’s novels frequently feature jazz, classical music, baseball, cats, and other things of intimate importance to his life. Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being involves characters Ruth and Oliver, named after the author and her husband. The fictional characters have similar traits to the real life Ruth and Oliver.
Sometimes, a work of fiction is rooted in nonfiction, with only some elements added or fabricated. For example, our instructor Barbara Henning ’s novel Thirty Miles to Rosebud is semi-autobiographical.
And, of course, many works of fiction involve completely fictitious elements, especially in genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Even for those genres, however, fiction should still try to arrive at some fundamental truth. Good fiction will inevitably (though not intentionally) teach the reader something about themselves, about others, and/or about the world around them.
Writing Fiction vs. Nonfiction
Many prose writers dabble in both fiction and nonfiction. Which should you write? Are there differences in writing one versus the other? What’s the main difference between fiction and nonfiction writing?
As we’ve discussed, the primary difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether the story occurred in real life. So, the primary difference in writing fiction vs. nonfiction comes down to the concept of “story” itself.
Our instructor Jeff Lyons argues that a story is a metaphor for the human experience . When we follow the plots of characters who must become different people to overcome certain obstacles, we see ourselves and our shared humanities reflected in those stories. To achieve this metaphor, the author must follow certain plot structures. Even in literary fiction, which often breaks the rules of plot structure, the plot must organize and enhance the story that’s being told, since plot is always what develops from the decisions that characters make.
Nonfiction, particularly creative nonfiction, also follows stories of adversity. In fact, most memoir publishers prefer to sell books about people overcoming adversity—feelgood stories sell better than ones that end on a low note. Yet, these stories aren’t metaphors, they actually happened. And, the author isn’t trying to follow a plot structure, the author is trying to organize the story details into a plot that people can follow.
And, other types of nonfiction are less concerned about plot, and more concerned about sharing information. Book length projects might have a plot, but many scholarly works and periodicals don’t need a plot, and many works of journalism follow the Inverted Pyramid . (There are, always, exceptions to these generalities.)
To summarize: Writing fiction involves crafting a story to create metaphors for the human experience. Writing nonfiction involves organizing factual information into a story that readers will best understand.
Outside of these differences, fiction and nonfiction typically utilize the same elements, at least in varying degrees. They both have characters, storylines, and themes, they both benefit from the tactics of stylish writing , and they both seek to inform, move, and captivate their readers.
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What is a Descriptive Essay? How to Write It (with Examples)
A descriptive essay is a type of creative writing that uses specific language to depict a person, object, experience, or event. The idea is to use illustrative language to show readers what the writer wants to convey – it could be as simple as a peaceful view from the top of a hill or as horrific as living in a war zone. By using descriptive language, authors can evoke a mental image in the readers’ minds, engaging readers and leaving a lasting impression, instead of just providing a play-by-play narrative.
Note that a description and descriptive essay are not the same thing. A descriptive essay typically consists of five or more well-written paragraphs with vivid imagery that can help readers visualize the content, as opposed to a description, which is typically one or more plain paragraphs with no particular structure or appeal. If you are still unsure about how to write a compelling descriptive essay, continue reading!
Table of Contents
What is a descriptive essay, types of descriptive essay topics.
- Characteristics of descriptive essays
How to write a descriptive essay using a structured outline
Frequently asked questions.
A simple descriptive essay definition is that it is a piece of writing that gives a thorough and vivid description of an object, person, experience, or situation. It is sometimes focused more on the emotional aspect of the topic rather than the specifics. The author’s intention when writing a descriptive essay is to help readers visualize the subject at hand. Generally, students are asked to write a descriptive essay to test their ability to recreate a rich experience with artistic flair. Here are a few key points to consider when you begin writing these.
- Look for a fascinating subject
You might be assigned a topic for your descriptive essay, but if not, you must think of a subject that interests you and about which you know enough facts. It might be about an emotion, place, event, or situation that you might have experienced.
- Acquire specific details about the topic
The next task is to collect relevant information about the topic of your choice. You should focus on including details that make the descriptive essay stand out and have a long-lasting impression on the readers. To put it simply, your aim is to make the reader feel as though they were a part of the experience in the first place, rather than merely describing the subject.
- Be playful with your writing
To make the descriptive essay memorable, use figurative writing and imagery to lay emphasis on the specific aspect of the topic. The goal is to make sure that the reader experiences the content visually, so it must be captivating and colorful. Generally speaking, “don’t tell, show”! This can be accomplished by choosing phrases that evoke strong emotions and engage a variety of senses. Making use of metaphors and similes will enable you to compare different things. We will learn about them in the upcoming sections.
- Capture all the different senses
Unlike other academic articles, descriptive essay writing uses sensory elements in addition to the main idea. In this type of essay writing, the topic is described by using sensory details such as smell, taste, feel, and touch. Example “ Mahira feels most at home when the lavender scent fills her senses as she lays on her bed after a long, tiring day at work . As the candle melts , so do her worries” . It is crucial to provide sensory details to make the character more nuanced and build intrigue to keep the reader hooked. Metaphors can also be employed to explain abstract concepts; for instance, “ A small act of kindness creates ripples that transcend oceans .” Here the writer used a metaphor to convey the emotion that even the smallest act of kindness can have a larger impact.
- Maintain harmony between flavor and flow
The descriptive essay format is one that can be customized according to the topic. However, like other types of essays, it must have an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The number of body paragraphs can vary depending on the topic and available information.
It is crucial to remember that a descriptive essay should have a specific topic and goal, such as sharing personal experiences or expressing emotions like the satisfaction of a good meal. This is accomplished by employing exact language, imagery, and figurative language to illustrate concrete features. These language devices allow the writer to craft a descriptive essay that effectively transmits a particular mood, feeling, or incident to readers while also conjuring up strong mental imagery. A descriptive essay may be creative, or it may be based on the author’s own experiences. Below is a description of a few descriptive essay examples that fit into these categories.
- Personal descriptive essay example
A personal essay can look like a descriptive account of your favorite activity, a place in your neighborhood, or an object that you value. Example: “ As I step out of the front door, the crisp morning air greets me with a gentle embrace; the big chestnut tree in front, sways in the wind as if saying hello to me. The world unfolds in a symphony of awakening colors, promising a day filled with untold possibilities that make me feel alive and grateful to be born again”.
- Imaginative descriptive essay example
You may occasionally be required to write descriptive essays based on your imagination or on subjects unrelated to your own experiences. The prompts for these kinds of creative essays could be to describe the experience of someone going through heartbreak or to write about a day in the life of a barista. Imaginative descriptive essays also allow you to describe different emotions. Example, the feelings a parent experiences on holding their child for the first time.
Characteristics of descriptive essay s
The aim of a descriptive essay is to provide a detailed and vivid description of a person, place, object, event, or experience. The main goal is to create a sensory experience for the reader. Through a descriptive essay, the reader may be able to experience foods, locations, activities, or feelings that they might not otherwise be able to. Additionally, it gives the writer a way to relate to the readers by sharing a personal story. The following is a list of the essential elements of a descriptive essay:
- Sensory details
- Clear, succinct language
- Organized structure
- Thesis statement
- Appeal to emotion
How to write a descriptive essay, with examples
Writing an engaging descriptive essay is all about bringing the subject matter to life for the reader so they can experience it with their senses—smells, tastes, and textures. The upside of writing a descriptive essay is you don’t have to stick to the confinements of formal essay writing, rather you are free to use a figurative language, with sensory details, and clever word choices that can breathe life to your descriptive essay. Let’s take a closer look at how you can use these components to develop a descriptive essay that will stand out, using examples.
- Figurative language
Have you ever heard the expression “shooting for the stars”? It refers to pushing someone to strive higher or establish lofty goals, but it does not actually mean shooting for the stars. This is an example of using figurative language for conveying strong motivational emotions. In a descriptive essay, figurative language is employed to grab attention and emphasize points by creatively drawing comparisons and exaggerations. But why should descriptive essays use metaphorical language? One it adds to the topic’s interest and humor; two, it facilitates the reader’s increased connection to the subject.
These are the five most often used figurative language techniques: personification, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and allusion.
- Simile: A simile is a figure of speech that is used to compare two things while emphasizing and enhancing the description using terms such as “like or as.”
Example: Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving – Albert Einstein
- Metaphor: A metaphor are also used to draw similarities, but without using direct or literal comparisons like done in similes.
Example: Books are the mirrors of the soul – Virginia Woolf, Between the acts
- Personification: This is the process of giving nonhuman or abstract objects human traits. Any human quality, including an emotional component, a physical attribute, or an action, can be personified.
Example: Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world – Louis Pasteur
- Hyperbole: This is an extreme form of exaggeration, frequently impractical, and usually employed to emphasize a point or idea. It gives the character more nuance and complexity.
Example: The force will be with you, always – Star Wars
- Allusion: This is when you reference a person, work, or event without specifically mentioning them; this leaves room for the reader’s creativity.
Example: In the text below, Robert Frost uses the biblical Garden of Eden as an example to highlight the idea that nothing, not even paradise, endures forever.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay
– Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost (1923)
Descriptive essays need a combination of figurative language and strong sensory details to make the essay more memorable. This is when authors describe the subject matter employing senses like smell, sound, touch, and taste so that the reader can relate to it better.
Example of a sensory-based descriptive essay: The earthy fragrance of freshly roasted chestnuts and the sight of bright pink, red, orange fallen leaves on the street reminded her that winter was around the corner.
- Word choice
Word choice is everything in a descriptive essay. For the description to be enchanting, it is essential to utilize the right adjectives and to carefully consider the verbs, nouns, and adverbs. Use unusual terms and phrases that offer a new viewpoint on your topic matter instead of overusing clichés like “fast as the wind” or “lost track of time,” which can make your descriptive essay seem uninteresting and unoriginal.
See the following examples:
Bad word choice: I was so happy because the sunset was really cool.
Good word choice: I experienced immense joy as the sunset captivated me with its remarkable colors and breathtaking beauty.
- Descriptive essay format and outline
Descriptive essay writing does not have to be disorganized, it is advisable to use a structured format to organize your thoughts and ensure coherent flow in your writing. Here is a list of components that should be a part of your descriptive essay outline:
- Opening/hook sentence
- Topic sentence
- Body paragraphs
- Concrete details
- Clincher statement
- Hook: An opening statement that captures attention while introducing the subject.
- Background: Includes a brief overview of the topic the descriptive essay is based on.
- Thesis statement: Clearly states the main point or purpose of the descriptive essay.
Body paragraphs: Each paragraph should have
- Topic sentence: Introduce the first aspect or feature you will describe. It informs the reader about what is coming next.
- Sensory details: Use emphatic language to appeal to the reader’s senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell).
- Concrete details: These are actual details needed to understand the context of the descriptive essay.
- Supporting details: Include relevant information or examples to improve the description.
- Summarize key points: Here you revisit the main features or aspects of the subject.
- Restate thesis statement: Reinforce the central impression or emotion.
- Clincher statement: Conclude with a statement that summarizes the entire essay and serve as the last words with a powerful message.
Revision and editing:
- Go over your essay to make sure it is coherent, clear, and consistent.
- Check for logical paragraph transitions by proofreading the content.
- Examine text to ensure correct grammar, punctuation, and style.
- Use the thesaurus or AI paraphrasing tools to find the right words.
A descriptive essay often consists of three body paragraphs or more, an introduction that concludes with a thesis statement, and a conclusion that summarizes the subject and leaves a lasting impression on readers.
A descriptive essay’s primary goal is to captivate the reader by writing a thorough and vivid explanation of the subject matter, while appealing to their various senses. A list of additional goals is as follows: – Spark feeling and imagination – Create a vivid experience – Paint a mental picture – Pique curiosity – Convey a mood or atmosphere – Highlight specific details
Although they both fall within the creative writing category, narrative essays and descriptive essays have different storytelling focuses. While the main goal of a narrative essay is to tell a story based on a real-life experience or a made-up event, the main goal of a descriptive essay is to vividly describe a person, location, event, or emotion.
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Jezebel and the Question of Women’s Anger
By Anna Holmes
Earlier this year, Ben Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and a onetime New York Times columnist, published a book, titled “ Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral .” It explores the creation of, and the competition between, well-funded news-and-culture Web sites—BuzzFeed News and the Huffington Post among them—that began in the early two-thousands, just as the professional blogosphere was getting going. One day after the book’s May 2nd release, the Times published a Smith-authored guest essay , titled “We’re Watching the End of a Digital Media Age. It All Started with Jezebel.”
Jezebel is an influential feminist Web site that I created in 2007. Smith had devoted an entire chapter of “Traffic” to the story of the site’s creation, stumbles, and successes. He was complimentary, calling it “a new kind of cultural politics,” one that built “a community that rejected the old structures of gender and power, and tried to shape new ones.”
One could be forgiven for discerning a slight difference in tone between “Traffic” and the essay that appeared in the Times . Smith’s book took a deep look at the impact of a number of Web sites, but his Times essay seemed to make the argument that Jezebel in particular reflected a “remarkable new openness” and “uncontrollable anger” on the Internet. As he put it, “What makes Jezebel feel so relevant now is that it was among the first places to crystallize the powerful forces that would define social media over the next decade: politics and identity.”
I agreed that Jezebel embodied a “remarkable new openness,” and I was flattered by Smith’s acknowledgment of the site’s continued influence. But some of what he wrote gave me pause. His essay positioned the site as the start of an era that would culminate in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I wanted nothing to do with it. As for “uncontrollable anger”? The phrase felt sexist and paternalistic.
I live in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t immediately aware of the conversation about the essay. People started texting me around 7 A.M. P.S.T. In the darkness of my cozy bedroom, I took a quick glance at the piece on my phone, admired the accompanying photo of me (it was a good photo, and I can be vain), rolled my eyes at a few of the conclusions, and then went back to bed.
About half an hour later, I was awoken again, this time by a phone call from a friend. It appeared that a small backlash to the piece was brewing online—namely, on Twitter. Some readers felt that, by focussing his attention on Jezebel, Smith was blaming women for outrage culture. I read this with interest—after all, women get blamed for a lot of things and aren’t credited enough for other things—but I also didn’t have the energy to respond to it. I placed my phone on my bedside table and pulled the covers back over my head.
I felt ambivalent. The essay had stirred up something from the past that I hadn’t been able to work out: what part, if any, I might have played in the evolution of derisive online discourse. Smith wasn’t purporting to answer this question—some of his language, perhaps deliberately, was a bit vague. But he did make a connection between Jezebel’s often combative commenters and the eventual users of social-media platforms like Twitter, accusing the site of unleashing “searing online mobs.” Jezebel had been created years before the wide-scale adoption of social media, back when people were still going to blogs and then refreshing them to see what new posts had appeared. According to Smith, “The unmediated passions of social media took up where it left off.”
Anger can be explosive. It can ignite social movements and chip away at calcified ideas about sex, gender, class, and race. It’s also fair to say that when women express it—or are accused of expressing it—they’re easily, sometimes viciously, mocked and derided. This is perhaps doubly true for women of color, who have to contend not only with sexist tropes but also with racial stereotypes and fearmongering around anger and tone. (Both my deputy editor at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart, and I are Black. The widely held assumption that the site was staffed only by white women possibly did us some sort of favor.)
But here’s the thing about tone: in many cases, it does matter. And though I was often politically and personally in agreement with our commenters, their over-the-top rhetoric could be alienating to me. I worried that this sort of rhetoric might offend new readers, and that it would be harmful to the new dialogue around gender politics that we were trying to influence and bring into the mainstream. Was there such a thing as “too much” anger? If so, who was I to determine what “too much” is? I felt torn, so I kept these questions mostly to myself.
When Jezebel launched, I was thirty-three, about to turn thirty-four. The events that led to the site’s creation have been written about many times before. So here’s the short version: disillusioned by the state of American women’s media, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create and oversee a women’s-media entity—in this case, a Web site. I imagined it as one with a lot of personality, with humor, with edge. I wanted it to combine wit, smarts, and anger, providing women—many of whom had been taught to believe that “feminism” was a bad word or one to be avoided—with a model of critical thinking around gender and race which felt accessible and entertaining. As one of my colleagues, Moe Tkacik, wrote , in an early post, “Jezebel is a blog for women that will attempt to take all the essentially meaningless but sweet stuff directed our way and give it a little more meaning, while taking [the more] serious stuff and making it more fun, or more personal, or at the very least the subject of our highly sophisticated brand of sex joke. Basically, we wanted to make the sort of women’s magazine we’d want to read.”
Of course, feminist Web sites and blogs were already exploring a new kind of politics among young American women. But, unlike Jezebel, they rarely incorporated robust and sustained pop-culture analysis, and they existed on the periphery of the Internet. (They also didn’t have the funding and other resources that my staff and I enjoyed.) These sites, independently owned, with names like Feministing, Feministe, Racialicious, and AngryBlackBitch, had cultivated devoted readerships, but their audiences were small, and their language was often academic.
Our audience, on the other hand, started off big and quickly got bigger, reaching more than ten million page views a month in the first year. (We had the benefit of being part of a larger blog network, anchored by Gawker , which we would overtake in traffic in less than three years.) I was delighted, if a little taken aback, by our readers’ immediate passion and loyalty. Within two months of the site’s launch, some readers were, unprompted, referring to themselves as “Jezebelles” or “Jezzies” in the comments sections of the site. Familiar screen names and avatars began to appear as regular readers populated the threads, talking with one another and, occasionally, with the site’s writers.
The majority of our commenters were very good. Smart, observant, well-read, vibrant, and dizzyingly funny, they added context and nuance to the stories we published and pressed us to do better. Within a year of Jezebel’s launch, they even attracted the attention of the New York Times , which described them as meeting for drinks and renting vacation houses together. But sometimes they were bad: sarcastic, mean, intellectually dishonest, and bullying toward one another. And sometimes they were horrible, behaving like a twisted Greek chorus trying to upstage the main performers. (Years later, as comments on Web sites began to migrate to social media, I would come to realize that they were the main performers.) “That’s sort of the nature of having a commenting community,” Erin Ryan, an early commenter who became a writer for the site, told me. “People start feeling like they should have a say in what happens there. And really that’s not how a publication works.” At one point, in 2009, I toyed with the idea of handing the site over to the commenters for a day, just to watch them fail.
At times we were accused of “tone-policing” our readers. And it’s true: we did tone-police, especially those commenters who were nasty or uncivil. We would take to the comments threads to warn readers about crossing some sort of line. When they derailed a thread, we’d ask them to move the discussion into the comments of a daily anything-goes post that I pointedly named “Groupthink.” (Most of the commenters didn’t seem to get the joke.) I could have, maybe should have, been tougher on them. My managing editor at the time counselled me to think of Jezebel as a virtual dinner party my writers and I were throwing. “You wouldn’t allow someone to be that rude to other guests or hosts. You’d kick them out,” he said. “Do the same thing in the comments.” But we rarely banned anyone outright. No one wanted to punish readers for being impassioned.
I like to think that, though the moderation was irritating to many commenters, it was also empowering. Readers knew that we were watching and that we cared about what they had to say. Someone once told me that the Jezebel commenters were so devoted, if often critical, because the community was made up of bright, ambitious young women who were underutilized and underappreciated at their day jobs. I thought that this was a fascinating, if depressing, observation.
I wondered, sometimes, whether my concerns about the comments were themselves sexist. Was I holding women to a standard of comportment? Complicating matters further was the fact that I’d started Jezebel and shepherded it to success on the back of my own anger. Though that anger, as I’ve explained, was legitimate and warranted—American women had been sold a bill of goods about who they were and what they wanted, or what they should want—it was starting to define the site, for both readers and casual observers.
I remember one blogger, a woman named Susannah Breslin, who, sometime after the site’s launch, accused its writers of “caterwauling about the patriarchy.” This made us laugh. Breslin’s accusation that writers on Jezebel yelled a lot—er, caterwauled—made sense. We were not without mischievousness (our parent company encouraged a certain amount of snark), but we also leaned into our anger—about sexism, about racism, about the erosion of women’s reproductive rights.
Other critics accused us of intentionally stoking readers’ outrage. In mid-2009, Slate’s women’s Web site, DoubleX, published, as one of its first posts, an article which claimed that Jezebel “is hurting women.” “It’s staffed by bloggers who are expected to produce around 10 high-traffic posts a day,” the feminist scholar Linda Hirshman (who passed away this week) wrote. “It didn’t take the bloggers long to realize that one way to attract a lot of traffic was to offer up outrageous behavior to the clicking public.” She recalled an evening in 2008 when two Jezebel writers got drunk during an onstage interview for the talk show “Thinking and Drinking” and made glib remarks about sexual assault. (These comments were then posted on the Huffington Post for all to see.)
I understood such hesitations—we had a big platform, and we were young and provocative and perhaps not ready for prime time—at the same time that I rejected them. In that instance, the outrageous behavior was not engineered, nor was the traffic welcomed. The entire staff was humiliated, and I was livid about it for months. Less of an embarrassment was Tkacik’s post titled “Ten Days in the Life of a Tampon.” (The headline about sums it up.) We were well aware that this sort of gross-out story might generate page views, but it was written not to attract outsized attention but to engage in a bit of truthtelling—in this case, about how women’s bodies actually work. I didn’t like it when feminists policed other feminists, though it had been happening for generations. And I wanted to think that we knew a little something about how to politicize a generation of young women—not by enforcement of doctrine but by example.
Still, a story about Jezebel was emerging: that we were deliberately provoking our readers. In July, 2010, the writer Emily Gould published a piece titled “Outrage World,” also at DoubleX, in which she accused Jezebel and other feminist blogs of cynically causing “firestorms” in order to boost page views. Gould went on to attack the site for exploiting “women’s worst tendencies” by pushing readers “to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism.”
When I look back at the piece, one thing is obvious to me: some of the firestorms that began on the site accompanied legitimately infuriating reporting. The main example of a provocative post was a June, 2010, story that Irin Carmon, who would go on to do groundbreaking work on sexual harassment and abortion rights, reported about sexism at “The Daily Show.” Carmon spoke to writers, staffers, and a former executive on the show, who painted a picture of a beloved, seemingly progressive media organization that was, in fact, a boys’ club. (In 2017, Jon Stewart admitted, during an interview with Howard Stern, that she was right.)
The other thing I noticed was that Gould, like many of Jezebel’s critics, saw the writers as responsible for the commenters: if Carmon’s post provoked readers, then that was part of some master plan; if the commenters were enraged or cruel, this, too, was engineered by the site’s staff. During my time editing the site, I found these assumptions intensely frustrating. In reality, every day was a negotiation between trying to be fair to our commenters and insuring group civility. (Gould declined to comment for this piece.)
When writing this, I remembered a 2015 Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino called “No Offense.” In it, Tolentino, who at the time was the deputy editor of the site (and now is a New Yorker staff writer ), tries to tackle multiple things at once, including how anger works on the feminist Internet and the ways in which digital media blurs the distinctions between readers and writers, creators and consumers. “There’s a large gap between ‘this is bad’ and ‘you should be offended’ that seems to vanish on the internet, and the harder we try to widen it on this website, the more we are constrained by that lingering expectation: that Jezebel exists, as some have always imagined it to, for the infantilizing purpose of telling women when they should get mad,” she wrote. Later, she added, “In theory, people still expect a feminist site to tell people what to be offended at; but what people seek from a feminist site is that the site itself will cause offense.”
I’m not sure that what people seek from a feminist site is that it will cause offense. I think they look for community. But communities can be difficult—chaotic, contentious, cacophonous. I recently came across a two-hundred-plus-page dissertation , published in 2019, called “Architecture and the Record: Negotiating Feminism in the Jezebel Comments.” It was . . . a lot. The author, Melissa Forbes, accused the site (again!) of choosing to “cater to outraged feminists.” I thought that she wasn’t giving the staffers, or our readers, much credit. But I was intrigued by Forbes’s observation that the comments provided a corrective to the feminism of the site’s writers. When the writers themselves were glib or cruel, she wrote, the commenters offered “a different kind of feminism from that practiced on the top half of the page.” I take issue with the idea that there are “different kinds” of feminism, though there are different “waves” of it. But I do believe that the commenters’ close reading of everything we did was how they forged community. They learned from one another, developed relationships, and discovered their own voices—and that was true even when they were (rightly or wrongly) angry with the editors and writers. As one commenter quoted by Forbes put it, “I have learned a lot from the kinds of articles you publish on this website, and even more from your regular commenters.”
That leaves the question of what, exactly, the Jezebel commenters had to do with the anger that exploded on social media. A few weeks ago, I spoke to the author and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell about his new book, “ Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—and What We Can Do About It ,” which looks at the ways that enmity on the Internet is rewarded by social-media platforms, advertisers, and individuals. I told him about Smith’s piece, and my ambivalence toward it. I explained that, though I detested accusations that we had used anger to manipulate readers, I wondered whether the outrage culture on social media had its roots in comments sections.
Rose-Stockwell was not particularly familiar with Jezebel. (In his defense, he was not part of its target audience.) But he echoed Smith’s assertions, calling the early two-thousands comments sections of Web sites “proto-social media.” Sites like Jezebel, he said, were showing that it was “possible to bring people from passive consumers of news to engaged participants in the editorial process—something that was new for a media site.”
In 2007, when we launched Jezebel, Rose-Stockwell explained, reader remarks could not be easily boosted or reposted. Outrage or offense still occurred within the confines of communities. By 2009, however, social media—what he called “an opinion-serving machine”—was changing everything. That year, he said, “three key features: algorithmic feeds , social metrics , and one-click sharing fundamentally upgraded the speed at which we spread knowledge, propelling us into the modern viral era.”
In his book, Rose-Stockwell points out that virality did not emerge by accident. Social-media technologists prioritize posts using emotional language. These posts, in turn, can start “trigger chains”—in which social-media users are encouraged to react to inflammatory comments and “pick sides on topics about which we would otherwise have few opinions”—and cause “emotional contagion,” in which a person expressing an emotion leads to the “reflexive production of the same emotion by others in the same proximity.”
After I read this, I felt some measure of relief. The stories and topics we wrote about on Jezebel weren’t being “served,” in some premeditated performance or attempt at manipulation. They were organic. They were the point . And we were not abstract algorithms or “conflict entrepreneurs” (another useful phrase from Rose-Stockwell’s book, describing people who create or stoke chaos online in order to boost their own profiles). We were young women with agency and points of view. We were also, I should add, pretty funny. “I think that people didn’t give us credit for having a sense of humor,” Dodai Stewart, the former deputy editor, told me. “I don’t want to discount some of the more serious things, but, from my perspective, our meetings weren’t us sitting around with everyone red in the face, full of outrage and upset. We were having fun, mostly.” Erin Ryan, the former writer and commenter, took this a step further. “I don’t want to rag on anger,” she told me. “I think anger can be great. It’s the basis of a lot of great comedians and writers and opinion writers. I’d say Jezebel was a passionate Web site. But the passion wasn’t necessarily just outrage for the sake of outrage.”
In our conversation, Rose-Stockwell explained that he’s not trying to condemn outrage so much as look at it from a more systemic perspective. Outrage, online or off, allows us to understand the things that are wrong with society, and to work together to begin to fix them. It can unite people, he said, and help society to cohere around certain norms. In this sense, a lot of the outrage on Jezebel was, indeed, productive, contributing to a larger political and cultural project. I think that one can draw a straight line from the feminist Web sites of the early two-thousands to a growing mainstream discourse around gender politics and race and patriarchy, from Beyoncé performing in front of a sign that read “Feminist” at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards to the Women’s March in 2017 and the explosion of #MeToo that same year to the recent juggernaut that is the Barbie movie . (Yes, the Barbie movie. One of my former colleagues jokingly described the film as making her feel “like I was trapped in the Jezebel comments.”)
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Smith and told him that I’d been trying to sort out the discomfort I’d been feeling in the wake of his piece. I explained that I needed him to clarify what he meant when he said that Jezebel was the start of a particular digital-media age. What age was that?
“Social media,” he said. “That’s how I think about it.”
I pressed him. Was he saying that Jezebel influenced the tone on social media, the conversation, or both? Did the site augur something that was brand new, or reflect something that was already in process?
He replied that this was a question he’d struggled with while writing his book. “I feel like when I was writing, the thing that I was always running up against was, Did X cause Y, or are X and Y being carried along in the same stream?” he said.
I also wanted Smith to respond to my frustrations about that phrase “uncontrollable anger,” and the apparent ease with which he, knowingly or not, placed blame for the current political climate on outraged or opinionated women.
He conceded that his phrasing might have been problematic or inartful. “I’m not trying to invalidate women’s anger at all, but it does seem like that was part of the mix, and powerful,” he told me.
“I think that anger was part of it, yes, but I don’t think it was uncontrollable,” I replied. “I’d say it was very controlled, actually, because that was the way women learned they should express it.”
I see Jezebel not as the beginning of the end of the digital-media era but as a moment—a spark—within an ongoing discussion about gender politics. That conversation has led to new realities around sexual assault and harassment, pay inequity, and cultural depictions of women. It also makes some people uncomfortable—in part because it involves women expressing their anger in public and sustained ways. “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, which can act as a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
If that’s part of Jezebel’s legacy, I’ll take it. It’s about everything I could have hoped for. ♦
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