1st Edition

First-Person Journalism A Guide to Writing Personal Nonfiction with Real Impact

By Martha Nichols Copyright 2022
    210 Pages
    by Routledge

    210 Pages
    by Routledge


    A first-of-its-kind guide for new media times, this book provides practical, step-by-step instructions for writing first-person features, essays, and digital content.

    Combining journalism techniques with self-exploration and personal storytelling, First-Person Journalism is designed to help writers to develop their personal voice and establish a narrative stance. The book introduces nine elements of first-person journalism—passion, self-reporting, stance, observation, attribution, counterpoints, time travel, the mix, and impact. Two introductory chapters define first-person journalism and its value in building trust with a public now skeptical of traditional news media. The nine practice chapters that follow each focus on one first-person element, presenting a sequence of "voice lessons" with a culminating writing assignment, such as a personal trend story or an open letter. Examples are drawn from diverse nonfiction writers and journalists, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Joan Didion, Helen Garner, Alex Tizon, and James Baldwin. Together, the book provides a fresh look at the craft of nonfiction, offering much-needed advice on writing with style, authority, and a unique point of view.

    Written with a knowledge of the rapidly changing digital media environment, First-Person Journalism is a key text for journalism and media students interested in personal nonfiction, as well as for early-career nonfiction writers looking to develop this narrative form.


    Preface: Personal Journalism for Challenging Times

    PART ONE: What Is First-Person Journalism?

    Chapter 1: How I Became a First-Person Journalist

      • Defining first-person journalism
      • Permission to say "I"
      • Is it ever too personal?
      • Self-reporting: "What do I know?"
      • How to use this book
      • Why gonzo got it wrong—and right

    Chapter 2: The Ethics of Personal Reporting

      • He said, she said
      • The limits of objectivity
      • Liars, thieves, and postmodernists
      • Fictional selves versus true selves
      • Embracing the active "I"

    PART TWO: Developing an Active "I" Voice

    Chapter 3: Locating Your Passion: What do I want to write about?

      • Don’t bore yourself
      • Don’t perform your emotions
      • Don’t scream at readers
      • Cultivating curiosity: passion for facts
      • Responding to the world
      • Personal story: write about a "wart"

    Chapter 4: Investigating Yourself: How do I know my own story is true?

      • Why memories are not facts
      • Fact checking the basics
      • Fact checking with family and friends
      • Reporting on your "I"
      • Reporting on what you haven’t said
      • Admitting what you’ll never know
      • Memory essay: write about an early memory
      • Sample story: "Hurricane Warnings"

    Chapter 5: Establishing Your Stance: How close am I to the story?

      • From POV to first-person stance
      • Determining your emotional distance
      • Personal example: reining in myself
      • Addressing readers: five stances
      • Rethinking voice: active response
      • Review: your personal take on a media work

    PART THREE: Reporting Beyond the Self

    Chapter 6: Observing Real Life: How do I describe people and places?

      • Relevance versus vagueness
      • Three kinds of details
      • Conveying the feel of a place
      • Reporting what people do and say
      • Direct reporting of events
      • The art of capsule description
      • Local profile: write about a neighborhood place

    Chapter 7: Attributing Sources: Where do my facts come from?

      • What is attribution?
      • Sources in first-person features
      • Attribution tags and linking
      • Danger! Avoid voice hijacks
      • The curse of knowledge
      • How-to piece: explain with three tips

    Chapter 8: Convincing Readers: What’s my argument and who disagrees?

      • The curse of unconscious feeling
      • Point-counterpoint
      • Not all experts are the same
      • Establishing first-person authority
      • Open letter: address a public figure or topic

    PART FOUR: Storytelling to Make an Impact

    Chapter 9: Moving Through Time: How have I and the world changed?

      • Sequence: what comes first?
      • Chronology: orienting readers in time
      • Time machine: shifting between past and present selves
      • Trends: personal and cultural
      • Personal trend story: write about changes in food, music, or weather

    Chapter 10: Organizing a Story: How do I mix everything together?

      • What’s in the mix?
      • Classic feature formula: lead + nut graf
      • Scene breaks and dramatic tension
      • Essays: emotional journeys
      • New mix: feature or essay?
      • Sample outline: "Why I’ll Never Surf Again"

    Chapter 11: Revising for Impact: What do I really want to say?

      • Test your idea: pitching
      • Focus your idea: taglines
      • Focus your voice: cutting and selecting
      • Connect to the world: your impact
      • Story revision: complete a feature or essay
      • Impact Plan: how do you know?

    End Note: Witnessing the World with Empathy

    25 Rules for First-Person Journalism



    Martha Nichols cofounded Talking Writing, a nonprofit digital magazine. A longtime writer, journalist, and editor, she is a faculty instructor in journalism at the Harvard University Extension School. She is also the editor of and a contributor to Into Sanity: Essays About Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Living in Between.