Non-Fiction Stories

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.

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt