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Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 71 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0452287556
ISBN-10: 0452287553
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  • Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Mark Kramer is director and writer-in-residence of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University.
Wendy Call is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. She has been a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs in southern Mexico and a Scholar in Nonfiction at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 317 pages
  • Publisher: Plume; 1 edition (January 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452287553
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452287556
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Evelio Contreras Jr. on March 5, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
"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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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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