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The “truth” about nonfiction writing

Alicia_AnsteadDuring the final stages of putting together each issue of this magazine, I am almost always surprised by a theme that stealthily slips into my consciousness as if secretly hired by the powerful collective wisdom of the writers gathered in these 50-some pages. Our editors believed we were knitting together stories in this issue about “the truth” about nonfiction writing – and yes, the predominance of these stories address those “truths” (shall we say). Pat Olsen’s investigation of the rules of personal essays, Alissa Quart’s reportorial training employed for a book about community outsiders, Kelly James-Enger’s tips on finding anecdotal sources for articles and both Nancy K. Miller’s and Jesmyn Ward’s observations on memoir. There it is: a treasure trove of nonfiction craft stories.

But within each of the stories – as well as in interviews with novelists Steve Yarbrough and Kirkus COO Meg LaBorde Kuehn – I was struck by a recurring message from writers of all stripes. What is the micro theme coursing through the heart of this issue? It is quite simple and hits us all where we live: Read. That’s it. Just read.

Want to write better? Read. Want to know the world better? Read. Want to know yourself better? Read.

And don’t read just anything, a new study in the journal Science suggests. Read literary fiction to build empathy and to become more socially perceptive and emotionally intelligent. Read to be a better teacher, doctor, spouse, parent, plumber, politician and, yes, writer.

We already know imaginative writers will read just about anything, including the cereal box that contributor Julia Rappaport’s editor once recommended she read in the absence of anything else. Years ago, I attended a conference at which Susan Orlean was a keynote speaker. I was an arts writer at the time, and she suggested looking to the sports and business sections for stories. Stepping sideways with your reading was the upshot.

There’s also the pervasive belief (and practice) that you should read your own drafts out loud as an exercise in storytelling carefulness and rhythmic evaluation. Another role for reading, indeed.

It may sound facile, but reading is at the center of all writing. It’s the chicken after the egg. And it’s the foundation of an interest in our field. We hope you’ll enjoy reading these stories and finding ways to apply our conversations, interviews, tips, breakthroughs, advice and passion for language in your own work.


Alicia Anstead

Originally Published

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