Magazine Writing Piece #1: Literary Nonfiction

Literary Nonfiction Grading Rubric

Think about the idea you’ve developed for this story (the angle and how it fits into certain categories of magazines), then write a query letter to the editor of one of those magazines using either the business format, stylistic format, or the outline format (depending upon the magazine and type of story you’re pitching). While completing the assignment, think about different ways you might emphasize the various aspects of the query for each magazine and purpose.

The Literary Nonfiction Story

Dubbed “New Journalism” by Tom Wolfe in 1973, writers like Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson approached writing news stories in a narrative form, using first person point of view and including the subjects of their articles as characters in a novel, focusing on their hopes, fears and motivations, in addition to what they said.

One of the strongest arguments for the value of such reporting is the strong details that power the story and, consequently, illuminates the characters. As Norma Simms, professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst writes, “Literary journalists are boundary crossers in search of a deeper perspective on our lives and times.” This search for a deeper perspective, the “intimate journalism” that looks for a more empathetic connection with others, is the essence of what drives literary nonfiction.

And though this form borrows heavily from the techniques of fiction–the long-form narrative must stick to the facts: research, interviews, observations.

For this assignment, write a 1500 word  literary nonfiction piece on a local personality or event that carries the significance and potential of the long-form narrative.

Look for characters (protagonists), who are set on a tumultuous series of events set in motion by an antagonist (this could be in the form of a person, institution,  tragic or comic forces, etc.), and contains rising action–that will keep the reader engaged with anticipation about how the story will be resolved.

Detailed research is the key here. Armed with all the minute details of a person’s life and the actions surrounding the story you will be able to develop a piece that comes to life and approaches the real humanity of the situation. Below is a good summary of what you’ll need to do to approach and write a good literary nonfiction story.

Have fun.


How To Write A Literary Nonfiction Story

Begin by thinking about the elements of the narrative form:

  1. Character
  2. Theme
  3. Conflict
  4. Voice
  5. Resolution

In all good stories, characters are key. Like literary fiction, non-fiction contains characters who act within the story. Though these characters are real people in non-fiction, they are represented in writing with the same tools and techniques as fictional characters. Non-fiction stories rely on the same reader empathy as fiction stories, so they must also contain sympathetic or interesting characters for the reader to follow. Because a reader may not know the real-life person in the story, an author must introduce and characterize the person just as a fiction writer would, including physical details and descriptions of their behavior.

The theme of the story ultimately addresses and answers the reader’s driving motivation to continue reading: So What? Why am I reading this? What is the character trying to achieve? What does the character want? It’s imperative that every aspect of the story continues to reinforce in the reader’s mind what the story is all about.

Non-fiction stories must not only be true but also interesting enough to be worth the read. Center the story around conflicts and dramatic moments to create literary works with the same emotional depths of fiction. Even journalistic non-fiction, focused solely on reporting, works most effectively with a conflict or dramatic center established in the article’s lead paragraphs.

Writers of literary nonfiction often use the omniscient narrator (who is everywhere and sees everything) explaining it all to the reader. The voice can range from slang to lilting prose. Sometimes, the narrator is the main character, speaking in first person. More often, magazine nonfiction  writers adopt a voice that reflects the central character–or personality of the story–in a way that reinforces the personality.

The resolution of the conflict is the ultimate motivation for the reader–as the tensions build with a form of rising action or conflict (the progress and setbacks along the way) the reader continues to be engaged as they seek to reach that conclusion.

The Process


Narrative detail is the bread and butter of great literary nonfiction storytelling. Descriptions must be highly detailed. The old saw: “Show, don’t tell,” has no greater place than in good storytelling. Speech, appearance, manner, gestures, real-life dialogue, description of place (using all the senses–what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel), and any other detail that can be observed and analyzed are the kinds of observations that make a character come alive.

Quotes should illuminate the persona as much as they relate facts. Good quotes reveal something–AND move the story forward.

Set the scene with vivid descriptions of surroundings. Again, use all the senses and paint the picture (and set the mood) with locations that will give the reader a better sense of the drama and experience of the character.

It is important that you begin work on this or any assignment immediately because it will take you several hours to conduct interviews, research, and write a good story. Additionally, your sources may not be able to set aside time to interview, if you wait until the last moment.

Due by midnight on Sunday, April 2.