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Telling True Stories

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Telling True Stories

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

Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call

Read by Mary Ellen Gabriel, Communications Specialist, UW-Madison College of Letters & Science

“I’ve pinned the quote, attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to my bulletin board: ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’

In my job as a writer for the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science, I am charged with ‘building affinity for L&S and conveying the value of a liberal arts education.’ My stories must be interesting and memorable. They can’t be too short, or they’ll shortchange important research. They can’t be too long, or people will click away to another site (CALS, maybe, or WID)!

Telling True Stories is my dog-eared, underlined, coffee-stained guide. This nonfiction writer’s guide from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation includes advice from 51 respected practitioners of narrative nonfiction in the country. Sonia Nazario. Tom Wolfe. David Halberstam. Gay Talese. In brief, intimate essays, the best of the best confide the secrets to their work and process.

Here’s Jill Lepore, on writing about history: ‘First, avoid quaintness. There wasn’t anything quaint about the pilgrims. The past wasn’t simpler than the present. People were not kinder or dumber or gentler than they are now. At the same time, don’t lapse into a progressive interpretation of history. Things don’t always get better over time.’

Bruce deSilva, on endings: ‘Every story must arrive at a destination: the purpose of a story is to lead your readers to it. The ending is your final chance to nail the point of the story to the readers’ memory so it will echo there for days.’

Nicholas Lemann, on weaving story and idea: ‘If the material is incomprehensible, that’s good news. A journalist who encounters something interesting — as usually happens in this process — gets to be the first person to tell the nonspecialist world about it.’

Telling True Stories is a great book, full of empathetic, honest, encouraging voices. Writers need more of those.”

Read the book.

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