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The Finest Narrative Non-Fiction Essays

Narrative essays that I consider ideal models of the medium

Perhaps you're the same kind of non-Writer writer. The playful amateur kind, using it explore and communicate ideas, rather than making the medium part of your identity. But even amateurs want to be good. I certainly want to get good.

Knowing what you like is half the battle in liking what you create. In that spirit, I collect narrative non-fiction essays that I think are exceptional. They're worth looking at closely – their opening moves, sentence structure, turns of phrase, and narrative arcs.

The only sensible way to improve your own writing is by the work of other writers. Good artists copy, great artists steal quotes from Picasso.

You may want to start your own collection of lovely essays like this. There will certainly be some Real Writers who find my list trite and full of basic, mainstream twaddle. It probably is. I've done plenty of self-acceptance work and I'm okay with it.

Twaddle aside, the essays below are worth your attention.

The Essays

by Paul Ford

Paul Ford explains code in 38,000 words and somehow make it all accessible, technically accurate, narratively compelling, and most of all, culturally insighful and humanistic.

I have unreasonable feelings for this essay. It is, to me, perfect. There are few essays that take the interactive medium of the web seriously, and this one takes the cake. There is a small blue cube character, logic diagrams, live code snippets to run, GIFs, tangential footnotes, and a certificate of completion at the end.

by David Foster Wallace
Published under the title 'Shipping Out'

Forgive me for being a David Foster Wallace admirer. The guy clearly had issues, but this account of his 7-day trip on a luxury cruiseliner expresses an inner monologue that is clarifying, rare and often side-splittingly hilarious.

He taught me it is 100% okay to write an entire side-novel in your footnotes if you need to.

by David Graeber

Graeber explores play and work from an anthropological perspective. He's a master of moving between the specific and the general. Between academic theory and personal storytelling. He's always ready with armfuls of evidence and citations, but doesn't drown you in them.

by Malcolm Gladwell

This piece uses typical Gladwellian style. He takes a fairly dull question – Why had ketchup stayed the same, while mustard comes in dozens of varieties? – and presents the case in a way that makes it reasonably intruiging. He's great at starting with specific characters, times and places to draw you in. There are always rich scenes, details, personal profiles, and a grand narrative tying it all together.

Some people find the classic New Yorker essay format overdone, but it relies on storytelling techniques that consistently work.

by Mark Slouka

by Joan Didion

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