The adults around the table are fragile – 12 eggs outside their carton. They’re here to write, but they’re afraid they’re not good enough. As the instructor, I start out reassuring. “Compared to the fiction students next door, you’re out from behind the eight ball. Nobody will ever say, ‘That couldn’t happen,’ because it already did.”
That’s the gift of nonfiction: the surety that the stories are real, and the weight that lived experience imparts to narrative. The task, then, is to write nonfiction that’s compelling, and that’s the skill new writers often find toughest to master.
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As a creative nonfiction instructor working with beginning to intermediate writers, I’ve test-driven hundreds of resources. Below are my desert-island 10 – the ones I can’t live without. Some are well-known, others oddball, but each tool can help you build nonfiction that’s straight, strong, and true. For convenience, I’ve sorted them into four categories.
Craft books: essential references
1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Last in the alphabet but first in every writing instructor’s heart, Zinsser excels at eliminating excess and demonstrating how precise, clean prose is always in style. On Writing Well should be the cornerstone of every personal library, its chapters regarded as the Twenty-Five Commandments on how to write. Zinsser was in his 80s when he revised the book for the eighth time in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Amazing, right? His simplicity and clarity will both challenge and shame you to do better.
2. Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Notable nonfiction writers once had their own prestigious event: the annual Nieman Conference at Harvard. Though that ended in 2009, this book draws from those talks. Over 50 writers, including bestselling authors and Pulitzer Prize winners, share pithy insights in dense, intense essays. While the focus leans toward journalism, the lessons are universal, covering everything from interview techniques to ethical considerations. Nearly any writer from freelancers to memoirists will find meaty chunks to chew over again and again.
3. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
The exact opposite of “Telling True Stories,” these 50 short craft essays go down as easy as a bucket of popcorn, yet they’re loaded with kernels of truth. Added bonus: A free PDF is available online as well as the free 50-episode podcast series “Roy’s Writing Tools,” one per chapter, through the Poynter Institute. You can’t afford to pass this one up.