First-Person Journalism : A Guide to Writing Personal Nonfiction with Real Impact book cover
1st Edition

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

ISBN 9781003132189
Published November 11, 2021 by Routledge
210 Pages

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Book Description


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
    • 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


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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.