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on 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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on January 2, 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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on May 7, 2007
"Telling True Stories" is 91 outstanding essays on what narrative nonfiction reporting and writing are and how to do both better. The book, described as "a nonfiction writers' guide," features many award winning reporters, editors and teachers who have presented during Nieman Conferences on Narrative Journalism and include Walt Harrington, Jack Hart, Tom French, Tom Hallman and John Franklin. The title could just as easily been "Telling True Stories Compellingly" for these essayists and others clearly describe how fact-based narratives, when employing the story-telling techniques described in detail, can produce truly memorable newspaper pieces, magazine articles and books. As a rookie newspaper reporter very interested in writing stories that will be read, this book is worth at least double the price - maybe triple.
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on January 15, 2010
As several other reviewers have noted, this collection offers very useful, nut-and-bolts discussions of how to write great non-fiction. As a working writer, I found the sections on structure, editing and "building quality" the most relevant and useful. The editors have done a fine job of making sure that ALL the articles are clear, specific and practical. I also appreciated that this volume didn't waste space providing exercises or "questions to consider."

My only reservation about the book is that it's often (but not always) aimed specifically (and solely) at journalists writing article length pieces about contemporary subjects. I would have liked to see more about longer form non-fiction such as biography and history - two instances where there are often no living witnesses.
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on October 17, 2007
Every writing teacher needs this book. One of the best I've found. Already teaching from it. Plus, The Nieman Foundation Website offers more useful writing & teaching tools than most fee-based services. Should be required reading for all creative nonfiction and journalism undergrad and grad students.
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on June 17, 2009
I just finished this book, and I'm eager for more. I'm not a professional writer by any means -- I'm a physicist -- but this book provides such a compelling glimpse into the writing profession that I consider it a necessary guide to anyone who has to communicate for a living, or anyone who desires to see their own work in the light of greats they wouldn't otherwise get to meet.

Writing must be a tricky business, where you fly by the seat of your pants, and politics aside, you really are judged based on the merit of your work. Writers must feel so VULNERABLE! So to see the lessons learned by those who have succeeded at it -- that's an experience I'll never forget. Thanks to the writers who contributed to this excellent guide.
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on September 21, 2008
Fifty-one writers and two brilliant editors have provided newbie and seasoned journalists with the gift that keeps on giving. In nearly 100 essays, the process, mechanics, and just plain hard work, not to mention the joy of serendipitous discoveries that go into producing compelling narrative journalism, are spelled out in writing that punches back. Wonderfully encouraging, this book is a seduction for anyone with even a whisper of an interest in the writing life. Telling True Stories poses a delicious dilemma -- do you gobble it down in one joyful reading or do you savor it, reading one or two essays a day? Do both.
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on August 18, 2012
No concrete instruction here, but an inspiring, entertaining, and insightful collection of conference presentations. Since I can't afford to attend the conferences, this was a nice substitute, but I've learned more substantive lessons about nonfiction writing from other books that I refer to more often (I never referred to this after I read it, so it obviously didn't stick with me).
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on March 21, 2007
People love stories. I'm a professional speechwriter working in a large High Tech company. The essays in this book are a wonderful inspiration. I'm always looking for ways to move executive communications beyond PowerPoint slides and boring datapoints. Stories are a key way of engaging an audience. This book shows how the best stories are researched and reported; constructed; edited and published.

Example: Jack Hart's distinction between Summary and Narrative (p. 112) lists how the story emphasizes concrete detail (over the abstract); employs dialog; a specific point of view and occurs lower on the level of abstraction. These are all important points to remember when reviewing a speech or presentation for audience appeal.
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on May 21, 2009
Not every anthology turns out as strong as TELLING TRUE STORIES, but this is truly a first-rate volume. The writing advice is varied, and yet often arrives at the same destination--have a point, edit the excess out, always make sure that it is interesting to the reader, love what you are doing. The contributions of Tom French and Jim Collins were so strong that I directly purchased a book from each to read more. Highly Recommended.
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