Descriptively Non-Descriptive: Using Description in Non-Fiction Writing
By Andy Atherton
It is tempting to see creative writing as distinct from non-fiction writing; the two existing at opposite ends of a literary spectrum. This is a position enshrined in most GCSE specifications.
Consider AQA English Language. The final question of Paper 1 asks students to write ‘creatively’, often framed as though they are submitting an entry to a creative writing competition. Paper 2, though, is geared towards non-fiction, with students writing their own article, letter or speech. The two modes of writing exist in silos, separate from one another. Students write creatively and then, later on, they don the hat of non-fiction.
Yet, as I’ll argue in this article, it is a mistake to think this way. In reality, the two are similar in many powerful ways. Good non-fiction writing demands a narrative thrust and sense of story just as much as creative writing does. It needs to be emotive and carefully crafted just like descriptive writing. Likewise, creative writing should deliver an ‘argument’, something it hopes to say. Helping students to appreciate the many ways these two ostensibly separate forms coalesce and cohabit in fact strengthens their ability to write each one.
In what follows, I want to focus on how to leverage the creative and descriptive within non-fiction writing, helping students to produce persuasive and effective. To do this, I’ll outline a structural shape for non fiction writing — called DPRN — that I introduce to GCSE classes each year, paying particular attention to its specifically creative inflections.
D: The Descriptive Hook
Most non-fiction writing tasks ask students to respond to a specific statement or view. In the ‘Descriptive Hook’, they should imply their view by asking the reader to imagine a scene and describing it.
The aim of the descriptive hook is to create a character that will help students to convey their point of view without actually stating what it is. They invent a character that they feel will most emotionally and persuasively express what they think and to which they can then attach subsequent arguments.
When I introduce this to students I do so with three maxims:
- The descriptive hook must include a character
- We do not state what our point of view is but rather imply it
- The character is doing something or something is happening to our character that helps to imply what our position is
We then have a go at brainstorming this kind of character for a given question. I ask them to be really specific. What is the character’s name? What do they look like? How old are they? What is happening to them? How do they feel? How do we want the reader or audience to feel? How does this help to express our point of view?
By doing this, students not only flex their creative muscles — in the process ratcheting up marks for craft and control of language — but they create a powerful emotional hook for the reader. Students are re-purposing a typically creative strategy in order to deliver a rhetorically effective argument.
As an example, consider the AQA June 2022 question. Students were presented with the following statement: ‘Holidays don’t need to be faraway and expensive. They just need to give people a break from everyday life and the chance to relax’. They were then asked to write an article for a magazine, arguing their point of view.
Now let’s imagine a student wishes to argue for the statement. Using the descriptive hook strategy perhaps they invent a character named Thomas. They begin by describing Thomas sat in an office, engulfed by stacks of photocopied papers. Gloomily lit with the constant whirr of a broken light-bulb, we find Thomas with head in hands. The monotony of daily life is clearly getting the better of Thomas. Slowly, the student builds up a grim image of his life. What he needs, the writing implies, is a break — a holiday. It doesn’t matter where, but anywhere would be a welcome relief from the suffocating stack of documents slowly surrounding him.
The great benefit to this approach is that it is designed to pack an emotional punch and to hook the reader in. I explain to my students that the great orators (I use the example of Barack Obama) do this all the time: they begin by telling the story of an individual and then wrap into this a wider point or conviction. This is, I say, exactly what we’re doing and it’s a cornerstone of effective rhetoric.
However, it also serves a structural purpose since we can now refer to this character throughout our piece, threading the ideas it initiates as we move through our argument. The descriptive folds itself into non-fiction.
PRN: Position, Relevance, Now
With the descriptive hook fully established, students can now develop their wider piece.
Next, they shift into what I call ‘Position’. Having only implied their view in the descriptive phase, now they can be far more emphatic and explicit. Thomas doesn’t care where his holiday is, they might say, only that he has one. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s expensive or faraway, but what matters is that it punctuates the daily grind, offering a light in an otherwise gloomy existence.
Continuing to lean on their opening description, students return to the example of Thomas, but now embed this into an overview of the issues at stake. The personal intermingles with the general. Students utilise aspects of the creative — character, emotion, story — to illuminate and embellish the explanatory.
Next comes ‘Relevance’. Students address why this issue is relevant to modern society and why their readers ought to be thinking about it. Perhaps students discuss topical issues such as burnout in the workplace and the intensity of office life. Returning again to Thomas, they extol the virtues of a holiday as a way to recharge. What matters to Thomas, they argue, is that he is able to find a moment of solace in an otherwise busy world. It doesn’t matter how much it costs or where it is, but rather the impact it can have. And Thomas, they make clear, perhaps echoing the Inspector, is just one of millions suffering the same fate.
Finally, students arrive at ‘Now’. Here, they offer their reader a specific action to take. What is the solution? What should readers do? For a final time, they invoke Thomas and all those like him that might be reading. Here, we find Thomas no longer encircled by papers. Instead we find hm sat in a comfy chair in a quiet coffee shop reading a good book. Not a beach. Not a swimming pool. No umbrella-d cocktail in sight. He doesn’t need any of this. What he needs is a break. And he’s found it not in some exotic location, but in a peaceful village.
The reader should keep this in mind, the student claims, when they next go to book a holiday. They should remember what matters. It doesn’t need to be expensive, it just needs to be different.
And now, finally, with a call to action of my own. When you next teach non-fiction writing, keep the creative in mind. We learn from creative writing the power of characters and the power of stories. We learn about the impact of narrative trajectory. The beginning and the end. But all of this works for non-fiction writing too. Not opposites, but distinctly harmonious.
You can read other articles by Andy Atherton here.