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

Mark Kramer , Wendy Call
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University + The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley Books for Writers) + The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft (Vintage Original)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 317 pages
  • Publisher: Plume Books (30 Jan 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452287553
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452287556
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.6 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 33,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ninety-One Nuggets for Narrative Journalists 8 Jun 2011
By John M. Ford TOP 500 REVIEWER
Archilochus tells us that "[t]he fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing." Conventional wisdom is that the hedgehog's big-vision approach always wins the day. But this book convinces us that the narrative journalist is a different animal. These writers are foxes, crafting their success from little tips, tricks and bits of wisdom gathered along the way. Such morsels need to be shared in the same snippety fashion, not force-fitted into some grand unified theory of good writing. This book gets it right.

Mark Kramer and Wendy Call have assembled 91 chapters of advice about writing from 51 working authors and editors. This advice is backed up by the contributors' hard-won experience and by a generous bibliography of books and web sites that contain exemplary writings and yet more writing advice. It is presented in the easily-digestible form of brief chapters that focus on one or two aspects of reporting and writing. Kramer and Call briefly introduce each of the book's nine sections then stand aside so we can hear the contributors' voices. Readers will differ in what helps them the most--there is much to choose from.

Five contributions that I found particularly valuable:

Mark Kramer speaks as a writer in "Reporting for Narrative: Ten Tips." He describes how to balance background research between the extremes of too little and too much.

Isabel Wilkerson's "Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy" teaches how to establish rapport with sources and hear their stories--while maintaining enough distance to report them.

Roy Peter Clark's "Ladder of Abstraction" shows how to describe concrete details of people's lives, connect them to larger themes, and avoid the deadly region of "middle abstraction" that alienates readers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Understanding the media 5 July 2012
By Christopher H TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a handy book for non-fiction writers, and also readers generally.
Its potential scope and application is far broader than journalism - it is filled with pointers and advice for people starting out in non-fiction writing, from freelance work through to memoirs and history, showing how to get a different angle on presenting the subject. Post-graduate students will find some of the suggestions very useful.
There is also a long section dealing with the ethical dimensions of non-fiction writing, raising issues that authors to need consider.
But even if you are not in the profession of writing, it is a useful primer to understand the approaches journalists take, how they structure or style their material, means they use to hook you in and implicitly push a viewpoint.
Then again some pieces are simply a stimulating and informative read: including Jack Hart on the history of narrative reporting, Anne Hull on working in the field, Malcolm Gladwell on profiles, Alma Guillermoprieto on Truth versus Story, Jill Lepore on flaws in writing history, Tom Wolfe on the emotional core of good journalism.
These pieces, and many more, lead me to look at journalism with a more discerning eye.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
139 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learn the elements of good storytelling 5 Mar 2007
By Evelio Contreras Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
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.
73 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A writer's conference for the cost of a trade paperback! 2 Jan 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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!
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rookie reporter appreciates guide to better story telling 7 May 2007
By Scott O. Shaffer - Published on Amazon.com
"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.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely helpful 15 Jan 2010
By Graydon Miller - Published on Amazon.com
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best New Writing Book of the Year 17 Oct 2007
By Suzanne Auten - Published on Amazon.com
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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