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True Crime Writing From a True Crime Writer’s Perspective

For this particular Innovative Editing Writing Rule, we’re going to rely heavily on a Writer’s Digest article from 2015.

That’s a bit dated, admittedly, but the information still seems pretty solid considering how it covers true crime writing. True crime writing is a pretty timeless genre, all things considered.

Moreover, this particular article covers true crime writing from a best-selling true crime author’s perspective.

She’s deceased now, but back in her day, she was an absolute pro at her nonfiction craft. Therefore, in this regard, what she says pretty much goes.

And she says that true crime writing, when done properly, has a lot to it.

How many rules can one genre have? In the case of true crime, quite a lot apparently...

That is to say, there are a lot of writing rules if you want to successfully stand out from the rest of the true crime-writing crowd.

As such, we’re turning to best-selling true crime writer Ann Rule. Her The Stranger Beside Me is about a former psychology student she spent a lot of time with.

His name was Ted Bundy.

That Ted Bundy. As in the infamous American serial killer who murdered at least 30 girls and young women between 1974 and 1978.

Thirty is what he admitted to; who knows what the real count was.

You can read the rest of the Writer’s Digest article right here, but here’s how it ends:

If you want to be a true crime writer, Rule said the best thing you can be is immensely curious. And, you should go to trials –something anyone can do. From a life spent in courtrooms, here are Rule’s tips and etiquette for doing just that.

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.

  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.

  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.

  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.

  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”

  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.

  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”

  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels – “I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.

  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

So there you have it right from best-selling true crime writer Ann Rule’s mouth. While, clearly, not all of the tips above are writing rules – some of them are mere suggestions – they amount to great advice worth noting for anyone hoping to break into the true crime writing scene.

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