Points of Departure

February 14, 2016
Book cover--points of departure

My favourite nonfiction book is James Moffett’s Points of Departure. Moffett has collected 58 of his favourite examples of short narrative nonfiction to display five specific forms: interaction, notation, recollection, investigation and cogitation. The examples stem from 1919 until 1983. Each is a gem worth reading.

His first example, the Coca Cola Grove Press Letters, is by far my favourite. It outlines letters between two corporate executives. The best sentence summarizes the entire issue.

Accordingly, we have instructed all our salesmen to notify bookstores that whenever a customer comes in and asks for a copy of a Diary of a Harlem Schoolteacher they should request the sales personnel to make sure that what the customer wants is the book, rather than a Coke.”

This book is the best way to understand how to define and structure narrative nonfiction of almost any type. Every story in the book also tells a very concise entertaining story while teaching writers to structure their work. It also reminds us how timeless notable nonfiction can be.

Story: Consider nonfiction as an act of creation

Moffett chose his five forms of nonfiction based on what a writer does to create them. As he says in the introduction:

Whether amateur or professional, a prose writer does one of four things to generate the material of a composition. You recollect, investigate, invent or cogitate.

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The fifth form is interaction, and includes letters.

Structure: Purpose provides structure

By letting authors’ works stand on their own, Moffett makes the point that purpose defines structure. His wide-ranging collection of narrative nonfiction samples range from two to ten pages long, but none takes even one word longer than necessary to make their very complicated points.

Style: Using Structure to Make a Point

Other than an eight-page introduction to the book and from two sentences to two paragraphs prior to each sample, Moffett relies on selection and structure to make his case. This book is a great primer on structuring nonfiction prose.

Sound: Diverse clarity

No story in this book reads like any other, yet every one is well-written and clear.

Points of Departure Book Cover Points of Departure
James Moffett
Literary Criticism

This richly diverse collection presents the apprentice writer with an overview of the entire range of prose craftsmanship. Chosen to illustrate the various prose techniques that define non-fiction writing, this entertaining sampler includes letters of Jane Austen, the satire of Jonathan Swift, biography by Virginia Woolf, "New Yorker" reportage, a George Orwell essay, and history by Arnold Toynbee. From simple chronicles to theoretical essays, these pieces reveal the continuous process by which authors transform their experience into prose - and the choices they make in pursuing the craft of writing. As editor James Moffett writes, this unique anthology is intended for "that inner author in everyone who is constantly fashioning knowledge from experience and who at any moment can go to paper."

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Tracey Arial

About the Author

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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