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Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University by Mark Kramer
Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University

JoyTipping, January 3, 2008

From my review in the January 2008 newsletter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors:

In nearly 100 short essays, this book offers an unbelievable wealth of excellent advice and information, from 51 contributors such as Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam, Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Gay Talese. It's like attending a "who's who" conference on nonfiction writing, all for the price of a trade paperback. The book is helpfully divided into categories; you don't have to read the whole thing (although you'll be a better writer, guaranteed, if you do). Categories include finding topics, settling on your sub-genre, structure, building quality into your work, ethics, editing, narrative in news and building a career in magazines and books. The best parts of the book are the tidbits of insight dispersed by pros who have had decades of experience to figure out what makes them so good at their jobs. Gay Talese talks about his decision to spend more time "with people who were not necessarily newsworthy . . . that the role of the nonfiction writer should be with private people whose lives represent a larger significance." Katherine Boo reveals that she finds her stories "because I never learned to drive. . . . I take the bus. I walk around. By being out there -- not the driver of my story but the literal and figurative rider -- I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see." S. Mitra Kalita offers the startling -- but obvious on contemplation -- observation from her colleague Mirta Ojito at The New York Times, that "the more you know, the less they tell you." This is a book you'll speed through and quote to your friends, read over and over, and find new insights on each pass through.

I have a system when I'm reviewing books of putting Post-It notes on the edges of pages that seem especially cogent, well-written, etc. I usually have 8 or 10 Post-Its on a book that's finished, but on this one, I had so many it looked like the book had sprouted its own little line of prayer flags!
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