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

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Inspiring stories and practical advice from America’s most respected journalists

The country’s most prominent journalists and nonfiction authors gather each year at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories presents their best advice—covering everything from finding a good topic, to structuring narrative stories, to writing and selling your first book. More than fifty well-known...

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

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Inspiring stories and practical advice from America’s most respected journalists

The country’s most prominent journalists and nonfiction authors gather each year at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories presents their best advice—covering everything from finding a good topic, to structuring narrative stories, to writing and selling your first book. More than fifty well-known writers offer their most powerful tips, including:
Tom Wolfe on the emotional core of the story
Gay Talese on writing about private lives
Malcolm Gladwell on the limits of profiles
Nora Ephron on narrative writing and screenwriters
Alma Guillermoprieto on telling the story and telling the truth
• Dozens of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists from the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and more . . .

The essays contain important counsel for new and career journalists, as well as for freelance writers, radio producers, and memoirists. Packed with refreshingly candid and insightful recommendations, Telling True Stories will show anyone fascinated by the art of writing nonfiction how to bring people, scenes, and ideas to life on the page.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Learning to tell true stories is truly a lifelong project; putting them on paper only complicates the task. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has produced a truly first-class book about nonfiction writing. Telling True Stories covers every stage of this arduous process, from finding a topic to structuring your narrative to writing and selling your first book. The contributors include luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Philip Lopate, David Halberstam, and Gay Talese. A reassuring resource for fledgling (and struggling) writers.
Library Journal
This anthology edited by Kramer (director & writer-in-residence, Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, Harvard Univ.) and Call (writer-in-residence, Richard Hugo House, Seattle) provides advice from 51 nonfiction writers, including notables Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Nora Ephron. Nearly all of the entries originated from presentations given at Harvard's Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Writers coming to this book should not expect one clear-cut path for producing strong nonfiction; instead, the book provides pointed but wide-ranging advice on writing-a good illustration of the creativity behind nonfiction and the individuality of the writing process. There is enough variety for almost any nonfiction writer to find inspiration and guidance. Topics include interviewing techniques, storytelling, using tape recorders and notebooks, developing characters and scenes, and editing. The section titled "Building a Career in Magazines and Books" will especially help new writers. Recommended for larger public libraries; highly recommended for academic libraries that support writing programs.-Stacy Russo, California State Univ. Lib., Fullerton Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452287556
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/30/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 129,940
  • Product dimensions: 5.33 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

Telling True Stories

Part I: An Invitation to Narrative
Stories Matter by Jacqui Banaszynski
Delving into Private Lives by Gay Talese
The Narrative Idea by David Halberstam
Difficult Journalism That's Slap-Up Fun by Katherine Boo

Part II: Finding, Researching, and Reporting Topics
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Finding Good Topics: A Writer's Questions by Lane DeGregory
Finding Good Topics: An Editor's Questions by Jan Winburn
Reporting for Narrative: Ten Overlapping Rules by Mark Kramer
To Tape or Not to Tape? by Adam Hochschild, Jacqui Banaszynski, Jon Franklin, and Gay Talese
Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy by Isabel Wilkerson
The Psychological Interview by Jon Franklin
Participatory Reporting: Sending Myself to Prison by Ted Conover
Being There by Anne Hull
Not Always Being There by Louise Kiernan
Reporting Across Cultures by Victor Merina
Reporting on Your Own by S. Mitra Kalita
Field Notes to Full Draft by Tracy Kidder
Doing Enough Reporting? by Walt Harrington
From Story Idea to Published Story by Cynthia Gorney
(Narrative) J School for People Who Never Went by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Part III: Name Your Subgenre
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Profiles by Jacqui Banaszynski
The Ladder of Abstraction by Roy Peter Clark
Every Profile Is an Epic Story by Tomas Alex Tizon
The Limits of Profiles by Malcolm Gladwell
Travel Writing: Inner and Outer Journeys by Adam Hochschild
The Personal Essay and the First-Person Character by Phillip Lopate
First Personal Singular: Sometimes, It Is About You by DeNeen L. Brown
Columns: Intimate Public Conversations by Donna Britt
Writing About History by Jill Lepore
Adventures in History by Melissa Fay Greene
Narrative Investigative Writing by Katherine Boo
Public Radio: Community Storytelling by Jay Allison

Part IV: Constructing a Structure
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters by Nora Ephron
To Begin the Beginning by DeNeen L. Brown
Narrative Distance by Jack Hart
Hearing Our Subjects' Voices: Quotes and Dialogue by Kelley Benham
Hearing Our Subjects' Voices: Keeping It Real and True by Debra Dickerson
Weaving Story and Idea by Nicholas Lemann
Endings by Bruce DeSilva

Part V: Building Quality into the Work
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Character by Jon Franklin
Details Matter by Walt Harrington
Developing Character by Stanley Nelson
Reconstructing Scenes by Adam Hochschild
A Reconstructed Scene by Adam Hochschild
Setting the Scene by Mark Kramer
Handling Time by Bruce DeSilva
Sequencing: Text as Line by Tom French
Writing Complicated Stories by Louise Kiernan
How I Get to the Point by Walt Harrington
The Emotional Core of the Story by Tom Wolfe
Telling the Story, Telling the Truth by Alma Guillermoprieto
On Voice by Susan Orlean

Part VI: Ethics
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
The Line Between Fact and Fiction by Roy Peter Clark
Toward an Ethical Code for Narrative Journalists by Walt Harrington
Playing Fair with Subjects by Isabel Wilkerson
Securing Consent by Tracy Kidder
Truth and Consequences by Katherine Boo
Dealing with Danger: Protecting Your Subject and Your Story by Sonia Nazario
A Dilemma of Immersion Journalism by Anne Hull
Ethics in Personal Writing by Debra Dickerson
Taking Liberties: The Ethics of the Truth by Loung Ung
The Ethics of Attribution by Roy Peter Clark
What About Endnotes? by Sonia Nazario and Nicholas Lemann

Part VII: Editing
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
On Style by Emily Hiestand
A Writer and Editor Talk Shop by Jan Winburn and Lisa Pollak
Revising—Over and Over Again by Anne Hull
Transforming One Hundred Notebooks into Thirty-five Thousand Words by Sonia Nazario
How to Come Up Short by Tom Hallman
Narrative in Four Boxes by Jacqui Banaszynski
Serial Narratives by Tom French
Care and Feeding of Editors and Writers by Jacqui Banaszynski

Part VIII: Narrative in the News Organization
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Beginning in Narrative by Walt Harrington
A Brief History of Narrative in Newspaper by Jack Hart
Nurturing Narrative in the Newsroom by Jack Hart
A Storyteller's Lexicon by Jack Hart
Narrative as a Daily Habit by Lane DeGregory
Building a Narrative Team by Maria Carrillo
Two Visions, One Series: A Writer and an Editor Talk About What They Do by Jacqui Banaszynski and Tomas Alex Tizon
Team Storytelling by Louise Kiernan
Photographer as Narrative Storyteller by Molly Bingham
Subversive Storytellers: Starting a Narrative Group by Bob Batz Jr.

Part IX: Building a Career in Magazines and Books
Introduction by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Making It as a Freelancer by Jim Collins
Not Stopping: Time Management for Writers by Stewart O'Nan
Lessons from the Jury Box by Jack Hart
Working with an Agent by Melissa Fay Greene
What Makes a Good Book? by Helene Atwan
From Book Idea to Book Contract by Jim Collins
Your Book and the Marketplace by Geri Thoma
Crossing Over: From Advocacy to Narrative by Samantha Power
A Passion for Writing by Susan Orlean

Suggested Reading
Web Sites and Internet Resources
About the Editors
About the Contributors

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 9 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2007

    the real deal

    I am a working journalist and think this is a superb book. I keep wanting to send quotes from it to all my journalist friends. Reading it is sometimes affirming, often provocative, and occasionally frustrating (if only my editors would let me work this way!). I learned somethig new from each essay and often felt like jumping up from my seat and shouting yes, Yes, YES, that's just what the writing experience is all about.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2007

    A Must for All Journalists and Writers of Nonfiction.

    If you like a good story, love a great story, and hope to consistently write both, then you should read this book -- and then re-read it. In 91 brief yet insightful essays, a collection of 51 talented authors, editors, reporters, radio producers, photographers - and, yes, a literary agent, screenwriter, and documentarian - distill invaluable advice on writing (and selling!) nonfiction. The contributors walk you through the process of telling a great story - from idea to polished piece (essay, article, book, documentary) - and all with a dose of good advice, realism, and wit. If you are interested in journalism, put this gem on your shelf beside Boynton's 'New New Journalism.' If you're interested in writing, squeeze it between Strunk and White's trusty little volume and Zinnser's 'On Writing Well.' And, with most essays at around 1,000 words, it's a manageable way to read many wise and delightful voices, from Susan Orlean to Tom Wolfe to Tracy Kidder to Gay Talese. You can't beat this: a guide to writing with advice from only people who truly know and continually produce great writing. If you want to write nonfiction - or, if you are a veteran writer trying to refresh your voice - then this is the book for you.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2012

    A must-read for improving communication skills

    Telling True Stories is a must-read for anyone who communicates ideas through writing.
    It motivates a journalist amidst grueling tasks to strive for a higher standard. It's true to its name.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2010

    An invaluable peek into the writer's working life

    Offering advice from 51 writers of narrative nonfiction, reading this little volume is like taking a master class from the greats. Writers like Gay Talese, Malcolm Gladwell, and Susan Orlean share what they've learned over the course of their careers, providing sharp insights and specific examples. It covers everything from artful interviewing, to story structure, to working with editors, to ethics.

    Having said that, many of the writers advocated for (or simply assumed) months-long immersion in research for a single story. As I was reading, I couldn't help but wonder how relevant that advice will continue to be, given the industry's ever-slimming budgets and declining word counts. Still, the best book I've read on the craft of writing.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 4, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    I highly recommend this book for both nonfiction and fiction writers.

    All serious writers must have this book. It's a collection of articles from top journalists, editors, radio producers, and memoirists. The main sections include Narrative and Picking a Topic, Researching and Reporting, Subgenre, Story Structure, Quality Work, Ethics, Editing and Revising, Narrative in News, and Careers. Some articles are better than others. Still, I thought a majority of them were effective, including the following: Stories Matter, The Psychological Interview, The Ladder of Abstraction, Travel Writing, To Begin the Beginning, A Story Structure, Summary Versus Dramatic Narrative, Endings, Character, Setting the Scene, Handling Time, On Voice, The Ethics of Attribution, On Style, and Serial Narratives. I could've listed many more effective articles, but I think you get the point. I highly recommend this book. It's geared toward creative nonfiction narrative, but it applies to fiction narrative as well. Buy it. You will not be disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2007

    Pretty good book

    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. I remember reading a version of these essays on the Nieman Narrative Digest, which is home to many newspaper examples of this kind of writing. The essays in this book are shorter, easier to read and cover lots of ground: newspapers, magazines, books and radio. 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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    Posted January 28, 2010

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    Posted July 8, 2010

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    Posted January 10, 2011

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