Book Notes: Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide

Sometimes it’s helpful to look to other fields and disciplines for insights you can apply to your own. Frans Johansson wrote a whole book called The Medici Effect on how to combine ideas from different fields.

I think businesspeople, for example, should study journalism to gain insights on how to conduct interviews (market research) and how to tell stories and create narratives (all marketing is storytelling).

I recently read the book Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide. It is the assorted wisdom from many long form non-fiction writers. Below are my notes.

In my notes you’ll find out the best question to ask when interviewing someone (it’s the same question you should ask after a long lunch with a mentor), why Malcolm Gladwell writes 10,000 word profiles after spending only a few hours with the person, why to embrace your writerly quirkiness at the outset, and Robert Frost’s golden rule of writing.

All are direct quotes from various writers.

Profile Writing

After I have edited a profile, it must pass a test before I consider it finished. I ask the writer to give the piece to a reader who knows nothing about the subject. That new reader must be able to answer two questions, each in one sentence. First: How would you characterize this person? Second: At the end of the piece, do you know whether or not you like the person?

Often, I can get what I need in the first few hours I spend with the subject. Anything more than that is unnecessary and could even be harmful. I write ten-thousand-word profiles of people with whom I’ve spent only a few hours. – Malcolm Gladwell

Psychologists talk a lot about the difference between samples and signatures. For example, you would need only about five seconds of a Beatles’ song to identify it. Their music has a signature. With a very small slice you can know something profound about it.

I write profiles about ideas because I’m deeply skeptical of the legitimacy of writing only about the person. Profiles need to be more sociological and much less psychological. Many profiles that are written about individuals ought to be about subcultures. The individual is a means to examine another world—the world in which that person lives. When we limit ourselves to the individual’s personality, we miss the opportunity to consider larger questions about society and subcultures. – Malcolm Gladwell


The best question a reporter can ask a source: “At the end of the interview always ask, ‘Who else should I see?'”

While reporting, you must lose control so you can accumulate the facts. While writing, you must exert maniacal control over those facts. You begin by being laid-back and hanging out. Take the great inhale so that when you exhale, you will have among your notebooks that detail that conveys so much, so economically. Weave that detail into the warp and weft of your hard facts.

“Curiosity is a muscle. The more you use it, the more it can do.”

Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism. The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you’re trying to observe.

Non-Fiction Writing in General

Start with your quirks—the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, and antisocial mannerisms that set you apart from others. To establish credibility, resist coming across as absolutely average. Who wants to read about the regular Joe? Many beginning essayists try so hard to be likable and nice, to fit in, that the reader—craving stronger stuff, a tone of authority—gets bored.

“A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.” – Great description

The book’s language had to suit the occasion. You don’t “hype up” in the wake of tragedy. You underwrite, letting the events speak for themselves. You treat everyone with respect.

Read good detective fiction. I don’t think anybody does narrative structure better than good detective writers.

I wanted to spend more time with people who were not necessarily newsworthy. I believed then—and I believe now even more—that the role of the nonfiction writer should be with private people whose lives represent a larger significance.

This is the type of nonfiction that I indulge in, hanging around people. You don’t necessarily interview them, but you become part of the atmosphere.

Using Quotes

That’s my first rule about including a subject’s exact words: Do it sparingly. Using fewer quotes makes me a more disciplined and thoughtful writer. It forces me to think harder about my job and take better control of the story.

The best quotes, of course, aren’t stand-alone quotes at all, but dialogue. I try to include dialogue even in stories about the city council. Dialogue is easier for people to read than straight narrative, because that’s how we listen to the world and how we communicate. Dialogue opens up a bit of space on the page, gives the story some breathing room.


The way you tell a story over dinner is true to who you are, whether that is deeply analytical or extremely witty. At such moments you aren’t self-conscious, and you aren’t thinking about your editor. You can’t invent a voice. And you can’t imitate someone else’s voice, though trying to can be a good exercise.

Voice is—as the word itself tells us—the way a writer talks. You are speaking to your readers.


Joseph Conrad, a prolific writer, said there are only two difficult things about writing: starting and not stopping.

Robert Frost said it best: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Good writers are most often plain ol’ writers who go the extra mile and then a few more.

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