First-person pieces have long been a staple of magazines and their presence has grown with the rise of hot-take culture.
In our latest AudioMag episode, longtime writer and editor Kim Pittaway looks at the key elements that make a personal narrative work.
Kim has written plenty of opinion columns and features that have incorporated varying degrees of first-hand experience. And as the director of the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Kim and her colleagues help guide writers who are interested in incorporating this kind of writing into their work.
First-hand Experiences and Insights
“As an assigning editor, the question you’re asking about any story that’s being pitched to you is why this story? Why now? And, why this writer? So with a first-person piece, the ‘why this writer’ part of it clearly is key so that they’ve had some kind of experience you want to capture on the page,” Pittaway says.
Pittaway breaks ideas down into two broad categories.
“One is the person is bringing some kind of a unique experience to the page or the website, and the other is they are bringing some kind of a unique insight. And sometimes you are lucky and you get both,” she explains.
Knowing which category a story falls into helps focus the pitch and clarify exactly what is being assigned.
“I think that it’s important to have a sense either as a writer what kind of first-person story you are pitching and as an editor which kind of story are you assigning. Because I think sometimes as editors the wheels can come off when you’re not clear about what you are hoping the writer will bring to the page. Are they just bringing the experience or do you want them to bring the experience and the insight? And you don’t always get both those things.”
What Drives Narrative
First-person pieces can follow an almost natural sort of storyline, one that’s dependent on timelines and a “then what happened” structure. But there’s a lot of room for fine-tuning the narrative approach, particularly in a piece that is offering up insights into a certain experience.
“If you are assigning a piece that’s built around a particular experience, the experience is the key driver there. In that case that narrative drive of the story is going to be paramount. So it’s likely to have a linear construction, and you can get fancy with that, but it’s always helpful to start with a linear construction and then tinker,” says Pittaway.
Figuring out where a story begins and where it ends is an age-old conundrum but especially so with first-person pieces.
“It can seem really self-evident to say, ‘What’s the timeline?’ but that is one of the real challenges with one of these pieces. Where do you start and what is the ending point, and how are you going to move through that at a clip,” says Pittaway. “A key question is going to be, what’s the timeline? When does the story start? When does it finish? These kinds of pieces can shine or fail in the momentum of the action. How dramatic it is, how unique it is, what crisis the writer faces, how surprising their survival or triumph over their circumstances is.”
Insight-driven pieces can benefit from being given a bit more room to breathe on the page.
“You might need more length for those reflective pieces because you need the room to do the thinking on the page. If the story is insight driven, the balance in that story is going to be different. It’s going to be less action-driven and more reflective,” says Pittaway. “So you need in the pacing of that kind of a story to think about what the arc of the action is, but also building in more time for reflection and pauses. It’s almost like you’re walking a path and then stopping to think about why you are there, looking around at the surroundings. How does this moment affect you? Deepen the insight?”
Hear the full episode of AudioMag here.
AudioMag is produced by Tina Pittaway, an award-winning independent writer and broadcaster. Tina has been a contributor to CBC Radio and Television for more than 20 years. Her radio documentaries have been recognized with honours from the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, the New York Festivals, Amnesty International and the Gabriel Awards. Visit Tina online at tinapittaway.com to learn more about her work.
AudioMag is made possible with the support of Ontario Creates.
Magazines Canada acknowledges the support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Periodical Fund of the Department of Canadian Heritage, as well as the Canada Council, for this project.