Environmental Writing

Complete Syllabus

In an age of accelerated climate change, extreme weather events, and increased risks to food/water security, the scope of environmental writing has expanded. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to communicate environmental issues with urgency, clarity, and skill. Good writing influences change.

Learn to use the tools of creative nonfiction, the observation of a naturalist, and the precision of a scientist to further develop your written work. Whether you are writing about climate change impacts or the forests you knew from childhood, this course will help you focus on the details and techniques that can help ground your writing in a specific place, while leaving room for all scales, from the molecular and elemental to the global.

This course is suited for science writers, journalists, memoirists, novelists, and short-story writers who practice creative nonfiction. It is for anyone looking to add elements of environmental writing to their repertoire. Within the context of your environmental subject, you will learn to craft a storyline and create a narrative arc. You will learn to utilize factual research, emotional appeal, and reflection to build a persuasive and compelling narrative.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • writing prompts and/or assignments

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 4,000 words)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Place-Based Writing
What is meant by environmental writing? By nature writing? This first week will introduce you to writing grounded in landscape. Analyzing examples from different types of environmental writing, we will focus on imagery, richness of detail, and the use of alternate senses. To practice pacing, you will compare ways to write about the lifespan of a mosquito versus the lifespan of a rock. We will use place-based poetry and prose to examine rhythm and cadence. Your first writing assignment is due this week.

Week 2: Crafting the Creative
This week’s lesson will examine the narrative arc and the real-life details we select for storytelling. We will review techniques such as narrative voice, use of dialogue, and writing from different perspectives. Writing prompts will help you develop new aspects of your work-in-progress. You will also receive instructor feedback this week meant to be useful for your longer essays-in-progress.

Week 3: Environmental Writing on Transboundary Topics or Manufactured Items
This week you will practice environmental writing that moves beyond a single landscape or single scene. Examples of transboundary subjects include weather and climate patterns, dust storms that cross continents, pandemics, food and energy production, the Nile River from its headwaters to its delta. Writing about the built environment is another skill sometimes employed by environmental writers. Examples of the built environment include indoor landscapes, synthetic compounds, copper wiring, and lithium batteries. We will examine writing that effectively bridges manufactured items to their natural origins. This week’s writing prompt will help you consider your topics from alternative perspectives.

Week 4: The Art of Persuasion
You will learn the importance of using ethos and pathos when writing about environmental subjects. This lesson will include a review of research methods and techniques, how to select and synthesize data, and the basics of forming logical arguments. We will then discuss pathos and examine why this is critical to constructing a compelling argument, essay, or story. Your 4,000-word essay is due this week.

Week 5: Power of the Precise Word
Sometimes, utilizing the right word from a scientific discipline or from a foreign language offers an uncommon level of precision. In this last week, you are encouraged to deepen your understanding of place and fine-tune your descriptions by using precise language from the environmental sciences. Consider terms used in chemistry, hydrology, geology, and other fields. Similarly, it may be the case that a phrase or word developed in another language more precisely defines your subject. When used sparingly, this technique can bring your descriptions to life. You will receive instructor feedback on your written work, and, where appropriate, suggestions for revision.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact our Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]creativenonfiction.org.