The Longform Guide To Writing Great Nonfiction
Capote, Talese, Orwell, Boo—masters of the craft, in their own words.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress.
Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
Each week we put together a collection of stories on a theme; this week’s theme is how those stories get written. Here are interviews, essays, one rant and one manifesto about the craft of nonfiction. If you enjoy them, you’ll also like Longform’s new podcast.
Truman Capote, George Plimpton • New York Times • January 1966
A conversation about a new art form called “creative journalism,” conducted the same month In Cold Blood was published.
“Twelve years ago I began to train myself, for the purpose of this sort of book, to transcribe conversation without using a tape-recorder. I did it by having a friend read passages from a book, and then later I'd write them down to see how close I could come to the original. I had a natural facility for it, but after doing these exercises for a year and a half, for a couple of hours a day, I could get within 95 percent of absolute accuracy, which is as close as you need. I felt it was essential. Even note-taking artificializes the atmosphere of an interview, or a scene-in- progress; it interferes with the communication between author and subject--the latter is usually self-conscious or an untrusting wariness is induced. Certainly, a tape-recorder does so. Not long ago, a French literary critic turned up with a tape-recorder. I don't like them, as I say, but I agreed to its use. In the middle of the interview it broke down. The French literary critic was desperately unhappy. He didn't know what to do. I said, ;Well, let's just go on as if nothing had happened.’ He said, ‘It's not the same. I'm not accustomed to listen to what you're saying.’”
Katie Roiphe • Paris Review • Summer 2009
An interview with Talese on his career and daily writing routine.
“INTERVIEWER: How do you write?
TALESE: Longhand at first. Then I use the typewriter.
INTERVIEWER: You never write directly onto the computer?
TALESE: Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I want to be forced to work slowly because I don’t want to get too much on paper. By the end of the morning I might have a page, which I will pin up above my desk. After lunch, around five o’clock, I’ll go back to work for another hour or so.
INTERVIEWER: Surely there must be some days in the middle of a project, when you’re really going, that you write more than a single page.
TALESE: No, there aren’t.”
Emily Brennan • Guernica • September 2012
An interview with Katherine Boo about how you cover the world’s poorest.
“When I pick a story, I’m very much aware of the larger issues that it’s illuminating. But one of the things that I, as a writer, feel strongly about is that nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that. Which is why a lot of writing about low-income people makes them into saints, perfect in their suffering. But you take Abdul, for instance. He’s diffident, he’s selfish, he’s not very verbal. Even his own family considers him charmless. But when the reader meets him, they sense he’s a real person, that he’s not a construct. And even Manju—who’s good and generous in many ways—she’s good and generous as a way of getting back at her mother. The more righteous she can be, the better she can stick it to her mom. So you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.”
George Orwell • Gangrel • June 1946
An essay on motivation.
“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”
Lester Bangs • Shakin' Street Gazette • December 1998
Notes for the next generation.
“Ah yes, you should also know that most of your colleagues are some of the biggest neurotics in the country, so you might as well get used right now to the way they’re gonna be writing you five and ten page single spaced inflammatory letters reviling you for knocking some group that they have proved is the next Stones.”
Peter Hessler • Paris Review • Spring 2010
And interview with The New Yorker’s John McPhee about how his style has evolved and his routine has endured.
“It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering. But then you spend the rest of your day hoping spontaneous things will occur.
"It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.”
Andrew Sullivan • Atlantic • November 2008
A manifesto from one of the first professional bloggers on a new “golden age of journalism.”
“You end up writing about yourself, since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world. And in this sense, the historic form closest to blogs is the diary. But with this difference: a diary is almost always a private matter. Its raw honesty, its dedication to marking life as it happens and remembering life as it was, makes it a terrestrial log. A few diaries are meant to be read by others, of course, just as correspondence could be—but usually posthumously, or as a way to compile facts for a more considered autobiographical rendering. But a blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one. It combines the confessional genre with the log form and exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before.”
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.