Book Review: “Telling True Stories”

By Mark Nichol

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The art of writing compelling nonfiction shares many parallels with that of crafting good fiction, and Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, an anthology of essays and other content by dozens of accomplished journalists and other writers, attests to the strength of that argument. Not only that, but fiction and nonfiction writers alike will benefit from its wisdom.

The book, edited by Mark Kramer, former director of Harvard University’s Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, and freelance writer and editor Wendy Call, gathers advice and insights by participants in Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, cosponsored by the Nieman Foundation. This annual event celebrates the reportorial form known as narrative nonfiction — journalistic content structured more like fiction (but also more like real life), rather than in the traditional inverted-pyramid format, which is distinguished by the “most important” information leading and decreasingly significant information trailing.

The contributors’ list is a roster of leading American nonfiction writers, featuring the names of Roy Peter Clark, Malcolm Gladwell, Pulitzer Prize winners David Halberstam and Tracy Kidder, and Mother Jones magazine cofounder Adam Hochschild, as well as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, the late Nora Ephron, and half a dozen other Pulitzer winners and finalists and many other talented people.

Highlights include the entries by Gladwell, who describes how he approaches profiles, and Ephron, who shares how writing screenplays influenced her nonfiction writing. Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, compares traditional interviews with the dialogue of nonfiction narrative. Susan Orlean, a twenty-year New Yorker veteran who wrote the novel on which the film Adaptation is based, discusses the writer’s voice, and several others share how they construct narrative nonfiction.

On a practical note, a few of the contributors discuss the pros and cons of recording interviews electronically rather than by (or in addition to) jotting notes. But every entry supports the notion that “nonfiction writing” does not mean “noncreative writing” the way “creative writing” mirrors “fiction writing.” Ever since Wolfe and others heralded the New Journalism forty years ago, reporting has evolved from dry who-what-when-where accounts to vibrant, imaginative stories. Telling True Stories will help journalists and other nonfiction writers employ time-tested techniques and develop storytelling skills to produce narrative nonfiction — and fiction writers will pick up valuable tips about narrative, too.

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1 Response to “Book Review: “Telling True Stories””

  • Ruby

    I read this in grad school some years ago – it’s one of the books I have kept and the only one that I have actually recommended to colleagues (who later thank me). I knew how to write hard news and feature profiles, but this book opened my mind to literary journalism – applying creative writing techniques to non-fiction storytelling. Fantastic.

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