Jack Hart, author of Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, talks to CMOS

Jack Hart is a former managing editor and writing coach at the Oregonian. He is the author of A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, and his most recent book, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011.

Q: You have worked with many writers and journalists over the years. What do you think is the biggest change they have faced in the last twenty years?

A: Unquestionably, it’s the growth of the Internet, which has affected both writing and the marketing of writing. Daily journalists, for example, often file multiple breaking-news reports online as they work their way toward a more complete print or broadcast report. (That’s great for news junkies, but it’s distracting for journalists, and it cuts down on reporting time.) Freelancers query by e-mail, rather than with polished hard-copy proposals. (That can speed things up, but it can also detract from depth and thoughtfulness.) And journalists often produce for online presentation in multiple media, including print, audio, video, and still photography (which brings more creative skills into play, but dilutes the focus on good writing).

Q: What hasn’t changed?

A: The value of good writing and savvy storytelling.

Q: What compelled you to write Storycraft, and how did you go about getting it published?

A: This is the book I wish I’d had when I first tackled nonfiction narrative. I spent decades acquiring the storytelling skills the book explains, and I wanted to make acquiring them easier for other writers and editors than it was for me.

I sold the book by writing an extensive, detailed proposal that included the standard proposal topics—the core idea, the target market, the competition, sample chapters, and so on. Then my agent presented it to publishers appropriate to the topic. My connection with the University of Chicago Press and my UCP editor, Paul Schellinger, was the happy result.

Q: As a reader and an editor, what elements do you think are most necessary to a compelling story?

A: Sympathetic protagonists, challenging complications, universal themes, lively action lines, and intriguing settings.

Q: You’ve noted “an explosion” of narrative nonfiction in the past twenty or so years—what cultural forces led to the popularity of this form?

A: The growth of worldwide communication networks and the proliferation of media nourished a hunger for stories based in reality, a trend reflected in everything from reality TV to Facebook to docu-drama to serious book-length nonfiction. At the same time, writers helped feed that hunger by developing increasingly sophisticated skills for telling nonfiction stories. They now compete successfully with fiction writers in terms of literary technique. And the fact that their stories are true gives them an unbeatable advantage.

Q: In Storycraft you largely discuss examples of long-form journalism; do you think the tenets you prescribe for narrative nonfiction have applications in other forms of writing, such as memoir or fiction?

A: Absolutely. Story theory is universal. Learn the basics, and you can apply them to any form of storytelling.

Q: What is the best writing or editing advice that you have ever received?

A: The best editing advice taught me that good editors collaborate with writers, working as partners striving for common goals rather than as bosses and employees. The best writing advice taught me to eliminate every word and every detail that failed to advance the story in an essential way.

Q: What advice can you give writers who want to get their work published?

A: Plan thoroughly, thinking about your purpose, audience, and market before you begin writing. Then communicate those goals clearly to potential publishers.

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