Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

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

Human beings are built for story.

Story is how we perceive the world around us and how we understand ourselves and other people. Through story, we learn and make connections. We use story to map the future and study the past.

Stories are the single most effective tools for education, communication, and persuasion, which is why stories are prevalent in advertising and political campaigning. Marketers know the power of story.

Stories are powerful because we see ourselves in them. We put ourselves into the stories we read and experience things we could never otherwise experience.

Put simply, stories transcend.

Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories is, foremost, a book on the craft of narrative journalism, which is the art of telling true stories while adhering to the standards of journalism. It’s a dense book (the paperback is 317 pages), filled with essays and stories about reporting and writing, but its greatest value is the experience and wisdom shared by its authors.

“Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.” – Jacqui Banaszynski, Telling True Stories

This collection of essays features some of the most successful and prominent journalists and nonfiction authors. Every year, these writers gather for Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories offers their best insights from finding the right topic to structuring a story, from ethical considerations to building a career.


Insights from Telling True Stories

In my experience, reading books on the craft of writing that are outside my form or genre is one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the craft as a whole. If you’re a fiction writer and all you do is read fiction (and books on fiction writing), you’re missing out on the many nuances of writing that are simply not addressed in the realm of fiction. I have found that my studies of poetry have greatly enriched all my other writing, from copywriting and blogging to fiction writing.

So I wasn’t surprised to find that, even though I’m not a journalist, there were plenty of wonderful nuggets of writing advice and insight that I could easily apply to my own writing. Some insights were new; others were welcome reminders:

  • The ending must bring a payoff. (p. 28)
  • Every deep story involves a subjective person slamming into an objective world. (p. 35)
  • The first draft takes the longest and is the most painful. (p. 53)
  • You start with an unformed, fuzzy idea, throw it into a funnel, and out comes a focused, purposeful story. (p. 55)
  • Writing is like scraping off a piece of yourself; people can see beneath your skin. (p. 100)
  • Why should the reader be expected to just lie flat and let these people come tromping through as if his mind were a subway turnstile? (p. 101)
  • Every detail you select should help communicate your story’s theme. (p. 147)
  • The editor is the reader’s professional representative. (p. 197)
  • Successful rewriting requires a fierce sense of competition with yourself, not anyone else. You must be dogged in reaching for your personal best. (p. 205)
  • When a good editor or another reader gives you feedback, listen hard to everything he or she says. This isn’t a time to protect your ego; it’s an opportunity to re-explore your story and force yourself to delve even deeper. (p. 207)
  • One way to attract readers is to create an irresistible central character, one the reader truly cares about. (p. 219)
  • Every story contains an engine: the unanswered question that keeps the reader going. (p. 220)

This is just a small sampling of the wit and wisdom that I discovered while reading Telling True Stories. But this isn’t one of those books that you can’t put down. I found that I needed to read it in small chunks, which is unusual for me since I usually either inhale a book or cast it aside after the first few chapters. With Telling True Stories, I wanted to read a few essays, then chew on what I’d read.

It also made me want to write. Sometimes I had to put the book down so I could work on my own story, (which is not a true story, by the way). Like I said, I’m not a journalist, but I learned a lot about my own writing craft from the narrative journalists who shared their expertise and experience in this wonderful collection of essays.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for books on the craft and other writing resources that you can use to strengthen your writing skills or inspire fresh ideas. Telling True Stories will be a valuable addition to your collection of writing resources.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

2 Responses to “Writing Resources: Telling True Stories”

  1. Kelli says:

    I never really thought in terms of having an engine that drives my storytelling. But that is an interesting way to look at it. When I read a thriller, it is the unanswered question “Who did it?” that keeps me reading. In the next short story I write, I’m going to approach it from this engine concept and see how that turns out. Thank you for sharing.

    Kelli Workman

    • I pretty much took “engine” as the story question, which is usually about whether or not the protagonist will succeed. I have found that viewing story through the story question (or engine) clarifies what it is about stories that make them so compelling (or not).