Voice and Vision, A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction, by Stephen J. Pyne

Writers of historical nonfiction who want to pull free from the tarnish and weight of boring pomposity the form sometimes has will welcome Stephen J. Pyne’s book Voice and Vision, A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction. While he doesn’t give wholesale endorsation to “creative nonfiction,” Pyne offers many ways to inject sparkle, drama and reader engagement into your writing. We’re told to hold to our pact to present the facts and retain the narration and exposition needed to give a detailed account—but do it with style.

Books about writing

Stick To the Facts — But Make It Engaging!

Pyne has given a lot of thought to his subject. His book, published in 2009, offers both insight and depth. He opens with his cardinal rules: “Don’t invent, and don’t leave out what needs to be in. Beyond these, rely on prudence, humility, boldness, wit, common sense, and a recognition that theme and design have to support each other.”
That said, much of the book explores ways to enliven your material. “Crisp prose can make settings sharp, scenes vivid, characters alive,” says Pyne. “In the case of narrative, especially, simple telling—letting the action unroll…is better than endless telling.”

Pyne suggests that if you lack a protagonist your “voice” can become the reader hook, the person they connect with. And he demonstrates the technique with his own lively prose, loading it on a bit too thick for my taste at the outset, but that’s a niggling point. Pyne’s style is, in general, highly readable and his ideas are clear and expressive.

Voice and Vision is interwoven with some great examples that expand upon and illustrate Pyne’s various points. He covers all the central topics, from plotting and editing to character, setting, and point of view—through a historian/nonfiction writer’s perspective. This book is a rarity for history writers, updating and expanding upon Barbara Tuchman’s long out-of-print Practicing History.