I read a fair amount of non-fiction. My interest in human nature, a good thing for any writer, leads me to read texts on history, religion, philosophy, and psychology. Unfortunately, most non-fiction depends on readers being interested enough in the information to ignore the structural deficiencies of the text. This separates the mildly successful non-fiction writers from the wildly successful.
When reading non-fiction, I find myself comparing a work to those of authors I consider gifted “reporter-writers.” As a journalism student at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s, Ed Cray told me reporters aren’t writers and writers couldn’t report so I had to be one or the other. I never quite agreed. (The assertion was more of a thought challenge than something Prof. Cray believed, since he is a reporter and author of more than a dozen books.)
Reporting is a skill distinct from writing; not all writers are obsessed with research and interviews. At the core of great reporting, my USC professors maintained, was a compulsive need to determine and ask “the question” that would lead to something bigger. Research helped find the question. And how did you know when you found the question? It was that piece that would make sense of the whole. The question was the question everyone else would realize was key once you asked it.
A good reporter is a researcher, an interviewer, and at least a good writer. A periodical cannot survive publishing horrendous prose, no matter how great the underlying research. At a minimum, “good enough” writing is essential to a daily newspaper. Magazines require longer pieces with narrative structures. The better writers among reporters can be found at magazines.
Then, there are non-fiction books. These should be composed by writers: reporter-writers, scientist-writers, or historian-writers, for example.
The non-fiction writers I enjoy reading are largely reporter-writers. These men and women might have academic backgrounds outside journalism, but they are definitely reporters.
The first non-fiction work to impress me so much that I read it through several times was And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (0312374631), by Randy Shilts. I was a sophomore in college when I read the book, which changed my view of non-fiction. I found myself reading Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and one James Michener epic (Poland).
Facts are facts, but not every writer can assemble them into a great story. Shilts was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and a freelance journalist. But, it was his ability to tell a story that made And the Band Played On a book that influenced my writing. The book intertwines scenes and eventually reveals how events separated by time and place are related. Small events trigger major ones; changes in science and politics seem to be driven by avalanches that start with deceptively trivial choices.
The next non-fiction author to affect my approach to writing was David Quammen with The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (0684827123). Quammen’s work mixed science, history, biography, and much more, into a single text. Again, it is a reporter-writer captivating me, not a scientist. Quammen’s articles have appeared in Outside, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone. It is evident to me, as a reader, that Quammen’s literary background shapes his prose.
Finally, I point writers to Malcolm Gladwell. Again, we have a reporter-writer guiding readers through science, history, and politics. Gladwell began his journalism career at the Washington Post and now writes for The New Yorker. Gladwell is a great storyteller, while presenting facts. One gets the sense that Gladwell is learning along with the reader, taking us on a shared adventure.
What distinguishes the non-fiction writers I enjoy is that they are interested in people. These are writers in search of what shapes human nature — and how human nature, including our faults — shapes everything from art to politics. Even science is not immune from human nature. It’s not facts that compel a reader to turn the pages, but the stories of the people behind the discoveries and knowledge.
If you want to write great non-fiction, learn not only how to report the facts but also how to tell the stories of the men and women involved. Most readers want to read about people, especially the quirks, flaws, and foibles of historical figures. A reporter-writer knows that “the question” to ask is often one about human motivation. What is it that caused person X to make choice Y leading to event or discovery Z?
Reporting takes time and a lot of effort. You have to know how to research and verify information. Writing is no easier. Being a great reporter-writer requires mastery of two distinct skill sets.