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Writing from Life: A Guide to Writing True Stories

by Heather Robertson

Is your family’s history worth committing to paper? Is there a story in a true crime that took place in your community? Have you dreamed of writing the biography of some compelling figure? Heather Robertson wants to help you on your way, and in Writing From Life she sets out to offer the kind of practical how-to advice to aspiring non-fiction writers that fiction writers can find with relative ease on the crowded shelves in the writing section of the bookstore or library. As the author of a string of successful non-fiction books and articles herself, including Driving Force: The McLaughlin Family and the Age of the Car, Reservations Are for Indians, and Grass Roots, it’s advice Robertson is well qualified to offer.

“Are you able to accept editorial criticism, indifference or rejection?” Robertson asks her readers. “Who will publish it? Read it?” Her book covers a lot of ground: everything from offering direction on how to get the most from archival research and advice on how to conduct interviews, to exploring issues of story structure and voice, to suggestions for romancing a publisher. Examples from her own work, as well as historical excerpts and selections from the works of more contemporary writers, are referred to frequently, and most chapters end with a list of suggested readings. It’s all information the unpublished writer needs to know.

And “unpublished” is the key: this is a book of basics, and those who make their living from non-fiction writing are likely to be disappointed. The best of the how-to writing guides I’m thinking of – books such as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story – offer enough on the basics to instruct the novice and enough on the artistry to inspire the professional. Robertson’s book does a terrific job on the basics side, but left me, as a professional writer, feeling frustrated: I wanted more detail on how she’d tackled complicated writing projects, more insight on how she’d handled difficult editors, more exploration of how her writer’s voice has developed through her projects. I’m left waiting for a second volume, this one subtitled “An advanced guide to writing true stories.”


Reviewer: Kim Pittaway

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 272 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7710-7558-8

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 1998-4

Categories: Health & Self-help