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Creative nonfiction: Giving readers what they want

What do readers of creative nonfiction really want? 

Every year, Canada Writes employs about 50 Canadian writers as "readers" to evaluate the works submitted to our CBC Literary Prizes and come up with the long list for our jury.  

We asked some of last year’s readers for the Creative Nonfiction Prize to share with us what they look for when reading nonfiction. Although they won't be reading submissions this year, their advice is spot on for crafting a compelling read.

“I found myself gravitating to two things: first is a freshness or originality of subject matter. Second is elegance and beauty in expressing any subject matter. A familiar story of, say, first love or childhood trauma is not necessarily out of the running because the tale has been told before. It’s eliminated when there’s no original take on the familiar or the everyday, when it’s just a rehash of a dinner-party anecdote. Racountours who can write are a dying breed."

— Kamal Al-Solaylee
Author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

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“I look for pieces in which the writer is trying to learn something or go somewhere, and in which I can feel a human heartbeat. This is not to say that I’m looking for sentimentality. On the contrary. Often the most compelling pieces are also the most unsettling. Above all, what I seek is a moment of insight or recognition and a flash of the universal, but in a form that is specific and new and curious.

—Julija Šukys
Author of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

“A fresh voice telling a fresh story—one that created a setting, then recounted an event that introduced narrative tension that was in some way resolved on the story's final page.”

—Christopher Shulgan
Author of The Soviet Ambassador

“I’m looking for the qualities I’d look for in a friend: intelligence, trustworthiness, humour, passion, and a developed sense of aesthetics, or style. I read for language initially, meaning I respond to diction and syntax before story.”

—Christin Geall
Author of The Motherlode

“An authentic voice. Humility. Wisdom. Complete mastery of the story and finding the right way to tell it.

—John Vigna
Author of Bull Head

“The kind of writing that causes me to turn to someone and say, ‘You gotta read this.’ I’m looking to be dropped into the scene right away: in medias res. Fresh, vivid language. Respect for the reader; writing that doesn’t pander or get on a soapbox. Wit, or at least sharp observation. Intelligence. Risk. Depth. Humility. It's old advice, but "show, don't tell" still applies. Or if the piece must tell, I want to feel a part of the discovery the writer feels, to learn something. And I love it when a writer plays with form. Tall order, right?”

—Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Author of Untying the Apron: Daughters Remember Mothers of the 1950s

"I look for a story that has a well-crafted narrative, that is focused, and that grabs my attention from the beginning. I look, too, for writers who aren't trying to be too cute with structure.

—Marcello Di Cintio
Author of Walls: Travels Along the Barricades

"An idea or theme that resonates, grabs my empathy or offers an unusual perspective or, maybe, an epiphany. Strong writing, and a structure that complements the story, keeps me reading."

—Joan Dixon
Author of Embedded on the Home Front

We hope this advice is helpful for those toiling away on their Creative Nonfiction Prize submissions. Good luck! The deadline is February 1st.


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