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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

run19ec, March 5, 2007

Want to write true stories that will still be readable five, 10, 20, 50 years from now? Ever talk to someone who told you something that touched your heart, whether it's an experience they had or just a good yarn that you'll think about long after the conversation's over?

These are the kinds of stories this book will show you how to write. The authors won't tell you exactly. That's a path you'll have to find out for yourself. But they'll give you guides, practical tips to learn how to talk and write like you're having a conversation with a reader who wants to know more about your story.

As a working journalist for a mid-sized newspaper in Southwest Virginia, I've read countless of books discussing the techniques of narrative writing. This one ranks high above them. Many of the authors break down the elements of telling good stories. For example, listen to Susan Orlean talk about having voice in your stories: "You can't invent a voice. And you can't imitate someone else's voice, though trying to can be a good exercise. It can lead you to begin to understand the mechanisms that convey the voice. Read your stories out loud so you can hear how you tell stories. As you read, ask yourself: Does it sound real? Would I have said it that way?"

The editors of the book offer nice introductions to each section and tell you who you'll be reading in the next few pages. It reminds me of a book by Stanley Cavell called "Cities of Words," which is presented as a series of lectures in a classroom.

The way this book is put together is similar. It reads like you're in class waiting for a lecture from folks such as Tom Wolfe, Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder and others. There is no shortage of ideas, approaches to reporting and writing stories and you can't help but think how you would have tackled a famed writer's story if you were in their position. (Probably, not very well. But better, I'm assuming, than those who don't read this book.)

Writing true stories is not the easiest way to spend your time. It can get very frustrating and confusing. That's why this book is important. It has given me a new perspective on how to approach these kinds of stories and that's why I recommend it.
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