The Good, Bad and Ugly of Non-Fiction Writing

Non-fiction writing is the art of the unseen. The author must create a clear narrative with a definitive voice, revealing the story to the reader, and never take over.

At one end of the spectrum are poorly written books like The Mad Trapper of Rat River or James Barnett’s Captain George Vancouver in Alaska and and the North Pacific which sacrifice discernible structure for a spew of meandering details. At the other end, overly books such as David Grann’s The Lost City of Z or the obsessively detailed Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks read like never-ending magazine, drowned by minutia and over-writing.

Non-fiction demands something in the middle, not a information dump nor the author doing cartwheels but something that does the story justice through clear prose and content.

Two books I have read of late fit this bill. Nathanial Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea probes costs of survival at sea while Don Starkell’s remarkable Paddle to the Amazon documents the remarkable story of a 12,000 mile canoe trip, both taking the reader on a journey they will not soon forget.

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