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.
Table of Contents
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
- 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.