It’s said there are 3 sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth.
Truth is easy enough to determine when we’re talking verifiable facts. Dates. Times. Exact numbers of widgets. Writers either get these right or wrong in nonfiction and their fact checkers and readers judge them accordingly, as I blogged last week.
But how those facts are perceived, and the meaning assigned to them, is personal. People can perceive the same event quite differently. A handful of people to one person can be a crowd to another, or a gang to a third. The devil is not just in the details, it’s also in the conclusions drawn from those details.
Personal perceptions are part of any story told. Even a “just the facts ma’am” recounting is subject to spin. But that’s not automatically a bad thing.
Writers of nonfiction are expected to draw conclusions based on their perceptions. Journalists, technical writers, essayists and creative nonfiction writers all make judgments as they write. Writers decide what facts to highlight, and order of importance, based on their knowledge and experience. They write the truth as they know it, drawing conclusions based both on verifiable facts and their perception of what those facts mean. It’s unavoidable.
And that’s ok.
Of course there have been, are, and will again be writers who take things too far. That’s why we have terms like exaggeration, melodrama and hyperbole.
However, the nonfiction writer does have certain obligations to the reader. The writer must not alter facts. And when it comes to descriptive words (such as few, several, many, near and far), the writer must sincerely strive for accuracy as they relate what they perceived.
Ultimately the writing speaks for itself. The honest, the accurate, the most truthful perceptions are often the most enduring works of nonfiction. Perhaps that is because we humans love a true story. Perhaps it’s because we have gotten pretty good at figuring out when people are lying to us, be it to our face or in writing.
The nonfiction writer cannot deliberately mislead the reader. That’s propaganda. Fiction.
That’s the line that cannot be crossed.