Nonfiction writing class: how it should be done

Suppose you were writing about the financial-policy mistakes that helped bring on the Great Depression. And you wanted to dramatize the damage done by adherence to the gold standard, which meant that the central banks of Britain, France, Germany, etc could issue only as much money as they happened to have gold in their vaults.

As the world financial crisis spread after the 1929 stock market crash, the flow of gold became highly unbalanced. The United States, with its undamaged industrial-export base (and its determination to collect on wartime loans to the Allies) was piling up gold. So were the French, for various reasons of their own. This meant big trouble most of all for England, which was losing gold and therefore had to imposes a domestic credit squeeze. You could put it that way -- or you could write this:

"Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy -- a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton -- that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to 'earmarking' the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simply re-registering its ownership. Thus the decline in Britain's gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank. That the world was being subjected to a progressively tightening squeeze on credit just because there happened to be too much gold on one side of the vault and not enough on the other provoked Lord d'Abernon, Britain's ambassador to Germany after the war [WW I] and now [1930s] an elder statesman-economist, to exclaim, 'This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history.' "

This paragraph is from Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, recommended here previously. There are many touches I love in this passage, from the "small rubber tires" detail and mot juste "trundling" term, to the vivid real-world description of how grand policies worked in practice, to the perfectly used quote at the end. No larger point here; just worth noticing admirable examples of explaining the world.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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