If you are a writer interested in strengthening new muscles, and especially in developing your literary voice, you’ll find below a brief version of the seminar in creative nonfiction that I developed at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

If you are a teacher interested in using Sin and Syntax to teach writing through grammar, and grammar through writing, see the "Talking School" section and, in particular, my note about Constance Hale's Lesson Plans for Teachers.

Week One: Write to Unleash Your Unconscious

Read: The External link opens in new tab or windowWikipedia entry on freewriting.

Do: Get out a blank sheet of paper or a journal. For ten minutes, write in a complete stream of consciousness. Write whatever is in your head, or in your heart: Let it just come out on the page. No one will read this but you. Do not fret about spelling, grammar, or anything else. Do not let your pen leave the page—just keep writing without stopping. If you reach a point where you cannot think of anything to write, then write that you cannot think of anything, until you find another line of thought. Allow yourself to stray off topic, and to just let your thoughts lead them wherever they may.

Write: For the next week, practice freewriting every day, for ten minutes a day. If you can, do it the same time every day. After you have done this for one week, read back to yourself what you’ve written—preferably aloud. Are there any buried gems? Are any patterns in your uninhibited writing? What is the natural flow and length of your sentences? Is there a common voice or tone?

Week Two: Freewriting As a First Stab

Read: Find descriptions of freewriting by various authors and read up. Some writers I like on the subject include External link opens in new tab or windowPeter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers (1975), External link opens in new tab or windowJulia Cameron in The Artist's Way (1992), External link opens in new tab or windowNatalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones (1986), and the writer who may have started it all, External link opens in new tab or windowDorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer, originally published in 1934 and republished in 1981.

Do: Take out the freewriting you did last week, and read it to notice things. Did it allow you to write differently than is your habit? Did you write anything interesting? Did you discover anything about your voice, your raw style, your sentences, or your personal tics? Can any of your freewrites serve as the beginning of an essay?

Write: Continue with the freewriting, for 10 minutes a day but with a twist. Here are some prompts. Start your freewriting each day by answering one of these questions:

  • What is your very first memory?
  • Do you have a secret that you’ve never revealed to anyone?
  • Do you have a recurring dream?
  • Think of the travels you’ve made in life. Is there one moment that seemed to have special meaning—perhaps because it offers some metaphor or archetypal situation, or perhaps because it’s a story you find yourself telling to people over and over?
  • Think of someone who has been an extraordinary influence in your life. Can you riff on about that person, writing down adjectives, memories, description, anecdotes, anything else that comes to mind?
  • Is the trouble in the global economy affecting you directly? Affecting someone you love? How?
  • Is there a hotbutton issue—health care, banks, sexism, taxes, affirmative action—about which you may have special insight? Is there an incident in your life that gives you some peculiar perspective?

Week Three: The Flow and Ebb of Sentences

Read: Phrases and Clauses” and “Length and Tone” in Sin and Syntax

Do: Take a paragraph of one of the pieces you generated in your freewriting and play with the sentences, using at least one phrase or system of clauses in each sentence. How do the changes affect your tone, style, voice, and rhythm?

Write: Pick one of the pieces from your freewriting, and reshape it. Decide ahead of time what tone and voice you would like to build into the piece, and play with phrases and clauses to achieve it.

Week Four: Let’s Get Personal

Read: The “My Turn” section of Newsweek, or the “Lives” section of the New York Times Magazine.  Read these selections (External link opens in new tab or windowfirst this, then External link opens in new tab or windowthis) from the “Modern Love” section of the Sunday New York Times.) Also, read “External link opens in new tab or windowCutouts” by Constance Hale.

Do: Think about how the authors of these pieces wrote about their experiences with honesty, delicacy, and metaphor. Did the essays seem merely confessional, or was there a larger idea that the writer succeeding in conveying?

Write: Review the freewriting you did over the past few weeks. Is there a memory that might be worth writing an essay about? Is there a person in your life that is an archetype that others might recognize and learn from? Also review your life experiences: Is there one that stands out, that carries certain meaning to you and to others? Can you tell a tale of modern love?

Week Five: The Self As Mirror of Something Larger

Read: “The White Album” by Joan Didion (the title essay of a book; read at least the opening five pages, which you can find on External link opens in new tab or windowGoogle Books); “External link opens in new tab or windowThe Long Way Home” by Nando Parrado; “External link opens in new tab or windowShed His Grace on Me” by Tim Cahill; and the opening to Prisoner without a Name, Cell Without a Number, by Jacobo Timerman (see the 1999 edition of Sin and Syntax, pages 10 and 11, or External link opens in new tab or windowGoogle Books)

Do: Ask yourself the following questions about each essay: Why and how is the narrator a part of this story? What is this story really about—is it just a narrative of one person’s experience, or is there a larger central idea? What do you notice about the writer’s style—the language, the descriptions, the voice?

Write: Tell a story of a personal experience, keeping in mind a larger idea or theme. By sharing your story, can you offer some insight on our world?

Week Six: Developing A Narrative Voice

Read: The introduction to “Music” and “Voice,” in Sin and Syntax

Do: Collect a few long letters you have written to family and friends. Collect a series of emails—or posts on Facebook—that seem to express something of who you are and how you like to keep in touch with people in shorter bursts. Compare the letters with the emails or posts. What is the same in all, and what differs? Look in particular at style (the vocabulary, the length of the sentences), tone (the attitude, be it earnest, excited, pissed off, or ironic), and voice (the overall sense of you that comes through the words).

Write: Revise the personal story you wrote last week. Decide ahead of time what style, tone, and voice you are trying to establish, and revise the language and sentences to achieve those qualities.

Week Seven: Making Metaphors

Read: “Lyricism” in Sin and Syntax

Do: Wander around your house looking at different household objects. Find ones that are either a symbol or a metaphor of something else (a lamp, a huge bathtub, a bookshelf…).

Write: Take one of your most valuable personal possessions—maybe the thing you would grab first if your house were on fire. Write a long paragraph about it. Describe it as concretely as you can. Relay how you acquired the possession, and what it means to you. After you have written your paragraph, think about whether the possession is a metaphor for someone or something. Consider making the link between the thing and the person or idea explicit—either in a line of the essay or in its title.

Week Eight: More on Metaphor

Read: The poem “External link opens in new tab or windowMetaphors” by Sylvia Plath:

  • I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
  • An elephant, a ponderous house,
  • A melon strolling on two tendrils.
  • O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
  • This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
  • Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
  • I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
  • I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
  • Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

What state does Plath describe by her series of metaphors? (Hint: what female state lasts nine months?) How do the metaphors in each line correspond to each one of nine months?

Do: Take a look at your favorite song lyrics, and see if the composer uses metaphors. (If you come up empty handed, try two of my favorites: “External link opens in new tab or windowI’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by Hank Williams, Jr., “External link opens in new tab or windowJust a Wave, Not the Water”  by Butch Hancock, and “External link opens in new tab or windowI Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” by Nina Simone.)

Write: Without resorting to clichés, try to come up with your own metaphors for pregnancy, loneliness, unrequited love, desire, or other physical or emotional states.

Week Nine: Words As Musical Keys

Read: “Melody” in Sin and Syntax

Do: Go sit near a window when it’s raining, and write down words to describe the sound of the rain. Does it sound one way when it’s falling on the roof, another when it’s falling on wide leaves, and another when it’s dropping into a puddle? If it’s not raining, sit near a fountain or the shore of an ocean, lake, or river. As you listen to the water, pay close attention to the sound itself, and then to the sound of the words you find to describe it. For example, you might use pound (a single syllable, heavy with consonants) to describe the rain on a roof, but splatter for the sound of rain falling on wide leaves. How is the sound of the water different in each case, and how can that be expressed in the sound of the words you chose?

Write: Write a scene description in which you tune in primarily to the sounds of the scene. (A busy street corner? A screeching subway? A quiet courtyard in which each footstep registers?) Find words that are onomatopoetic in some way, that suggest the sounds themselves. Write sentences whose rhythms evoke the sounds you are hearing.

Week Ten: Rhythm, the Secret Path into the Soul

Read: “Rhythm,” in Sin and Syntax

Do: Explore the use of rhythm in poetry and prose, songs and speeches. Find your favorite poem, and read it out loud. Where are the beats, or as poet Donald Hall calls them, “the hard sounds”? Where are the soft sounds, the little lifts? Read a passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (Sin and Syntax). Take your favorite song, sing it, and feel the rhythm. Recite Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons after the defeat at Dunkirk in 1940 (Sin and Syntax).

Write: Take your favorite song, and try writing one stanza that repeats the rhythm the composer has laid down. Using the Tim O’Brien passage as a model, go observe a number of people in a park, a ballpark, or a ballroom. Are their movements quick and jerky? Then write a series of sentences that describe them using a staccato rhythm (short words, hard sounds, and short sentences). If their movements are fluid, write a series of sentences with a more lyrical, languid, or liquidy rhythm (polysyllable words, softer sounds, lots of ands, stretched-out sentences).

Week Eleven: Rhythm on the level of literature

Read: “Rhythm,” in Sin and Syntax (again)

Do: Keeping parataxis and hypotaxis in mind, compare the rhythm in two passages from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Notice how, in this description of a post-apocalyptic landscape, McCarthy uses sentence fragments, blunt bursts of imagery without subjects and predicates. What effect does the rhythm create, and why would McCarthy employ that rhythm?

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands star and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

Notice how in other passages, McCarthy strings together phrases and clauses with conjunctions like “and.” Here he is writing about the binding power of love between a father and son, of a modern-day death and resurrection. Does the rhythm help underscore his theme?

They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods….

He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He sat there a long time weeping and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road. When he came back he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again.

Write: Write a description of a landscape in which you focus on one overriding quality of the natural scene (the freshness of color in early spring, the brittleness of the foliage in November, or the dissolution of shapes at dusk). After you fill your paragraph with vivid details, go back and rewrite using rhythm, maybe even parataxis, to emphasize the theme you are developing.

Week Twelve: Questions of Style


  • External link opens in new tab or windowGot Style?" in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch
  • Susan Orlean on Voice in Telling True Stories, p. 158
  • “Tool 23: Tune Your Voice,” in Roy Clark’s Writing Tools

  • Do: Read James Salter’s short story “External link opens in new tab or windowLast Night,” published in The New Yorker, and then listen to Tom McGuane External link opens in new tab or windowtalking about James Salter’s style.

    Pick a passage in which you think a writer shows a strong sense of style. How would you define that style? What are the different elements that work together to create that style?

    Write: Craft three short character descriptions of a sibling (or a close friend if you are an only child). First, write a sketch for your brother or sister (or friend), using the language you share and picking details that he or she would care about. Next, write a sketch for your mother and father, sharing insight that they might not have. Finally, write a recommendation of  your brother, sister, or close friend for college, or for a job, or for an apartment. How is the style of each description different? Have you used different vocabulary? Is the tone different? Are the sentences different?

    —Constance Hale