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Writers on Writing: Must Great Non-Fiction Storytelling Always Include Anecdotes?
Gail Post's creativity needs an outlet, so the psychotherapist can’t not write, but she does it her way
Welcome back to Writers on Writing, in which I interview writers about their craft, to inform and inspire all of us on our writing journeys.
Gail Post, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has provided psychotherapy for over 35 years. She’s also a parenting coach, workshop leader, and author of The Gifted Parenting Journey. She’s authored several chapters in other books, writes the blog Gifted Challenges, and her articles have been published on Psych Central, YourTango, and Grown & Flown. I interviewed Post for this Writers on Writing post (full disclosure: I edit mental health articles of hers that are published in Wise & Well).
Robert Roy Britt: How did you get into non-fiction article writing?
Gail Post: My work as a psychotherapist is very insular, and I wanted to share information and my perspective with a wider audience.
RRB: What motivates you to write?
GP: Typically, I am inspired by something I have encountered in my personal life or in my clinical practice or by something I read. Then, I feel compelled to offer my perspective, clarify, rebut, or validate this observation through my writing.
RRB: How does your professional experience inform your writing?
GP: Just like when I work with psychotherapy clients, I want to support the reader, create a sense of validation for what they might be experiencing, incite their curiosity, challenge their perspective, and encourage them to find their own greater sense of purpose. I know.., a lofty goal! But hopefully, I can make a dent. I also bring my training in research to assess whether information found online or through social media is valid.
RRB: What do you dislike most about your writing?
GP: I don’t like offering personal or clinical examples. I know this flies in the face of assumptions about storytelling, but frankly, I get bored reading stories and anecdotes in non-fiction articles and usually skip over those passages. So when I provide personal or clinical anecdotes in my own writing, I am doing this out of obligation since presumably, it is what many readers want (and just because I don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean it’s wrong). And as a psychologist, I am trained to be very careful and check my motivations for any self-disclosure. I also use caution when sharing any clinical examples. So, I try to offer brief vignettes that might be compelling and hopefully will engage rather than turn off potential readers and that also protect client confidentiality.
RRB: How do you decide when to insert yourself in the story or let other experts or citations do the heavy lifting?
GP: I consider the audience. In my blog about a niche area related to cognitive giftedness, I often insert my professional opinion without using citations. Other times, whether for my blog or other publications, I include research or theory to back up the point.
RRB: What’s your worst writing habit, flaw or weak spot?
GP: Lots of areas! I struggle to reduce paragraph length for online consumption, which requires shorter chunks of information. Also, I have, shall we say, a loose relationship with the comma.
RRB: What do you know about writing now that you didn’t used to know?
GP: I was trained as a musician and have come to realize how much music informs my writing. There must be a flow, a balance between staccato and legato, and a sense of rhythm and pacing — even in non-fiction writing. Finding that balance and flow is the fun part. It doesn’t always happen, but I try to find it!
RRB: Do you think of yourself as creative, and how does that play into your writing?
GP: When I was young, I assumed creativity was only expressed through the creative arts. As I developed my career as a psychologist, I learned that creativity is an attitude, an approach to life, a process rather than a finished product, and it can be found in many realms. I use creativity every day in my work as a psychotherapist. I have used it in program development and administration. And I certainly use it in my writing, which is a tremendous personal outlet for me. I can’t not write.
RRB: Your favorite strategic advice for other non-fiction article writers?
GP: Think of who the reader is and what they want to know. But you can still adhere to your professional values by providing well-researched information tailored to the reader.
RRB: Your favorite self-editing tip?
Gail Post: I try to ask myself if a sentence or paragraph is absolutely necessary. I also sometimes review an article using a different font, which helps me find errors.
Writers on Writing is a regular feature in the Writing Guide, in addition to weekly guides and essays. Paid subscribers also get additional, exclusive writing guides each month plus a complimentary editing and coaching session with me (learn more here).