Archilochus tells us that "[t]he fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing." Conventional wisdom is that the hedgehog's big-vision approach always wins the day. But this book convinces us that the narrative journalist is a different animal. These writers are foxes, crafting their success from little tips, tricks and bits of wisdom gathered along the way. Such morsels need to be shared in the same snippety fashion, not force-fitted into some grand unified theory of good writing. This book gets it right.
Mark Kramer and Wendy Call have assembled 91 chapters of advice about writing from 51 working authors and editors. This advice is backed up by the contributors' hard-won experience and by a generous bibliography of books and web sites that contain exemplary writings and yet more writing advice. It is presented in the easily-digestible form of brief chapters that focus on one or two aspects of reporting and writing. Kramer and Call briefly introduce each of the book's nine sections then stand aside so we can hear the contributors' voices. Readers will differ in what helps them the most--there is much to choose from.
Five contributions that I found particularly valuable:
Mark Kramer speaks as a writer in "Reporting for Narrative: Ten Tips." He describes how to balance background research between the extremes of too little and too much.
Isabel Wilkerson's "Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy" teaches how to establish rapport with sources and hear their stories--while maintaining enough distance to report them.
Roy Peter Clark's "Ladder of Abstraction" shows how to describe concrete details of people's lives, connect them to larger themes, and avoid the deadly region of "middle abstraction" that alienates readers.
Jack Hart's "Narrative Distance" illustrates how to psychologically "place" the viewpoint of a story's narrator--and shift this perspective to guide the reader through a story.
Susan Orlean's "On Voice" describes the self-analysis and authenticity necessary to each writer's unique verbal style. Its development cannot be rushed--or faked.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who writes to an audience and wants to do it better. It is dead-on-target for you if you work in narrative journalism. If you do not, there are still lessons to improve your writing. Kramer and Call remind us that "[w]riting well is difficult, even excruciating, and demands courage, patience, humility, erudition, savvy, stubbornness, wisdom, and aesthetic sense--all summoned at your lonely desk." I like writing at my lonely desk--and I like having this book so I don't have to learn everything the hard way.