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Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

by Tracy Kidder, Richard Todd


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Good Prose is an inspiring book about writing—about the creation of good prose—and the record of a warm and productive literary friendship. The story begins in 1973, in the offices of The Atlantic Monthly, in Boston, where a young freelance writer named Tracy Kidder came looking for an assignment. Richard Todd was the editor who encouraged him. From that article grew a lifelong association. Before long, Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, the first book the two worked on together, had won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a heady moment, but for Kidder and Todd it was only the beginning of an education in the art of nonfiction.
Good Prose explores three major nonfiction forms: narratives, essays, and memoirs. Kidder and Todd draw candidly, sometimes comically, on their own experience—their mistakes as well as accomplishments—to demonstrate the pragmatic ways in which creative problems get solved. They also turn to the works of a wide range of writers, novelists as well as nonfiction writers, for models and instruction. They talk about narrative strategies (and about how to find a story, sometimes in surprising places), about the ethical challenges of nonfiction, and about the realities of making a living as a writer. They offer some tart and emphatic opinions on the current state of language. And they take a clear stand against playing loose with the facts. Their advice is always grounded in the practical world of writing and publishing.
Good Prose—like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—is a succinct, authoritative, and entertaining arbiter of standards in contemporary writing, offering guidance for the professional writer and the beginner alike. This wise and useful book is the perfect companion for anyone who loves to read good books and longs to write one.

Praise for Good Prose
“Smart, lucid, and entertaining.”The Boston Globe
“You are in such good company—congenial, ironic, a bit old-school—that you’re happy to follow [Kidder and Todd] where they lead you.”The Wall Street Journal
“[A] well-structured, to-the-point, genuinely useful, and fun-to-read guide to writing narrative nonfiction, essays, and memoir . . . Crisp, informative, and mind-expanding.”Booklist  
“A gem . . . The finer points of creative nonfiction are molded into an inspiring read that will affect the would-be writer as much as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Stephen King’s On Writing. . . . This is a must read for nonfiction writers.”Library Journal
“As approachable and applicable as any writing manual available.”—Associated Press

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812982152
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/27/2013
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 423,714
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 7.88(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Tracy Kidder graduated from Harvard and studied at the University of Iowa. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and many other literary prizes. The author of Strength in What Remains, My Detachment, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Home Town, Old Friends, Among Schoolchildren, House, and The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder lives in Massachusetts.
Richard Todd was educated at Amherst and Stanford. He has spent many years as a magazine and book editor, and has written articles on a wide range of cultural themes for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among others. He is the author of a previous book, The Thing Itself, and he teaches in the MFA program at Goucher College.

Read an Excerpt

We met in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly. Neither of us can remember the date, but it must have been around the time our fi rst joint effort as writer and editor was published, in July 1973.

By then The Atlantic was 117 years old. You sensed lineage when you walked up to its headquarters, an old brownstone on the corner of Arlington and Marlborough streets, facing the Public Garden. It was prime real estate, but it was also in Boston,
not New York or Los Angeles. This was a magazine headquarters that seemed to say it was untouched by commerce, like the wealthy Boston matron who, in an old joke, says, “We don’t buy our hats, we have our hats.” A boiler room clamor faintly tolled in the offi ces upstairs, which had achieved High Shabbiness: faded mementos on the walls, layers of discolored paint on the ornate moldings, threadbare carpeting. The building once, in the era of Silas Lapham, had been a single-family mansion,
and much of the fl oor plan had survived—many small rooms in back, in what must have been the servants’ quarters, and in front,
offi ces with fi replaces that editors used now and then when the Boston winter outperformed the heating plant.

It was an era that in memory seems closer to The Atlantic’s distant past than to our present, an era of typewriters and secretaries—mostly young, wry women with fi rst-class educations trying to find their way into publishing careers. There were a few older women, two of them editors; one wore a hat at her desk. The women of both ranks kept regular hours. The men arrived midmorning and not long afterward went to lunch. “I’m going to grab a sandwich,” the editor-in-chief, Bob Manning,
would tell his assistant, as he headed for the all-male sanctuary and full luncheon menu of the Tavern Club. The more junior men stepped out soon afterward, and often ended up at the Ritz Bar, a block away on Arlington Street. An editor with a writer in tow could charge his lunch to the magazine. Eggs Benedict, a couple of small carafes of white wine, and back to work, rarely later than two thirty. Many afternoons were cheery.

The Atlantic was more or less broke by then, just barely paying its expenses and about to become an exercise in cultural defi cit spending for its owner. Editors didn’t earn much, less than twenty thousand a year (which bought more then than now, of course, in part because there weren’t as many things to buy). A young writer was paid by the piece, two or three thousand dollars at most for a long article that might take four months to complete.

The Atlantic’s archives held a trove of articles and stories and poems by just about every major American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The magazine was still one of America’s preeminent cultural arbiters, but the role was increasingly hard to play. In politics, The Atlantic had long stood for liberal thought. Now its editors stared out their windows onto a world in which liberalism was under attack from both sides, from the Weathermen as well as the Nixon White
House. Every month the staff argued over the magazine’s cover and usually ended up with something colorful and overstated, in the vain hope that a touch of sensation would improve newsstand sales. But the covers threatened the magazine’s cultural legitimacy, the real attraction for its true audience and for many who worked there.

Nearly forty years is long enough to make the “us” of back then feel like “they.” We were young—Kidder twenty-seven,
Todd thirty-two—and each of us was trying to stake out a literary future. To Todd, editing at The Atlantic granted prestige,
like owning a fine antique. If he’d been in charge, the magazine would have reverted to the monochrome covers of its heyday.
As for Kidder, the idea of publishing articles at The Atlantic was more than exciting enough, since he would have been grateful to be published anywhere. Phone calls were expensive back then and allowances for research miserly. For a young writer short of funds, it was convenient to spend time in the building, camping out as it were in one of its many vacant back offi ces and using the magazine’s phones for long-distance calls to sources for articles. Kidder spent many days and quite a few nights in the building, and many hours working with Todd, whose office had a fi replace and a view. After-hours provisions could be found in the bar in Manning’s offi ce down the hall.

We called each other by our surnames, as our sergeants had in army basic training. To Kidder, a childhood for Todd seemed improbable—he must have been born old, and probably born ironic to boot. To Todd, and practically everyone else, Kidder was young beyond his years. He was plainly ambitious, but his self-esteem ranged from abject to grandiose. Once, at a Christmas party that went on too long, he confronted Bob Manning and announced, “I’m the best damn journalist in the Western
Hemisphere.” Hung over and contrite the next morning, he was comforted by Todd, who said, “At least you didn’t claim the whole world.” Each imagined himself forbearing of the other.

Kidder wrote and rewrote many versions of his first Atlantic article, about a mass murder case in California. He had imagined the piece as a sequel to In Cold Blood. At some point Bob Manning sent the manuscript back to Todd, having scrawled on it,
“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write.” Todd kept this comment to himself and merely told Kidder that the piece still needed fixing,
and the rewriting continued.

A long association had begun. Todd knew only that he had a writer of boundless energy. For Kidder, to be allowed not just to rewrite but to rewrite ad infi nitum was a privilege, preferable in every way to rejection slips. And for Todd, it was possible to imagine that a writer willing to rewrite might turn out to be useful. Todd once remarked to a group of students, never expecting he would be quoted, “Kidder’s great strength is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.” The truth was that Kidder was afraid of writing badly in public, but not in front of Todd. Kidder would give him pieces of unfi nished drafts. He would even read Todd passages of unfi nished drafts, uninvited, over the phone. Very soon Todd understood when he was being asked for reassurance,
not criticism, and would say, “It’s fi ne. Keep going.” When a draft was done, Todd would point out “some problems,” and another rewrite would begin.

That ritual established itself early on and persisted through many articles and Kidder’s fi rst two books. A time came—
midway through the writing of Among Schoolchildren, about a fifth-grade teacher—when Kidder began revising pages before
Todd had a chance to read them. This was a means of delaying criticism forever. No doubt that was Kidder’s goal, and he could remain happily unaware of it as long as he kept on rewriting. Things went on that way for a while, until Todd said, in the most serious tone he could muster, “Kidder, if you rewrite this book again before I have time to read it, I’m not working on it anymore.” Kidder restrained himself, and the former routine was reestablished.

Eventually The Atlantic changed hands. Its book publishing arm was sold off, its headquarters relocated, its old building renovated into a corporate offi ce. We lingered for a time, working under a new head editor, William Whitworth, who was to both of us exemplary. He once told Kidder, “Every writer needs another set of eyes.” When Todd moved on to do his own writing and to edit books, Kidder followed him.

This book is in part an account of lessons learned, learned by a writer and an editor working together over nearly forty years.
Good Prose is addressed to readers and writers, to people who care about writing, about how it gets done, about how to do it better. That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infi nitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work. 

We should acknowledge some other predispositions. We’re sticklers on fact. Nonfiction means much more than accuracy, but it begins with not making things up. If it happened on Tuesday,
that’s when it happened, even if Thursday would make for a tidier story. (And in our experience, at least, Tuesday usually turns out to make for a more interesting story.) This is not to confuse facts with the truth, a subject we will deal with.

We also believe in the power of story and character. We think that the techniques of fi ction never belonged exclusively to fi ction,
and that no techniques of storytelling are prohibited to the nonfiction writer, only the attempt to pass off inventions as facts.
We think that the obscure person or setting can be a legitimate subject for the serious nonfi ction writer. And we think that every piece of writing—whether story or argument or rumination, book or essay or letter home—requires the freshness and precision that convey a distinct human presence.

During the past three decades American culture has become louder, faster, more disjointed. For immediacy of effect, writers can’t compete with popular music or action movies, cable network news or the multiplying forms of instant messaging. We think that writers shouldn’t try, that there is no need to try. Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of thought and feeling. Good Prose is mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world,
writing about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempts to write and to edit narratives, essays, and memoirs. We presume to offer advice, even the occasional rule, remembering that our pronouncements are things we didn’t always know but learned by attempting to solve problems in prose. For us, these things learned are in themselves the story of a collaboration and a friendship.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

1 Beginnings 3

2 Narratives 11

Story 11

Point of View 17

Characters 28

Structure 36

3 Memoirs 47

4 Essays 66

5 Beyond Accuracy 80

Fact 80

Beyond Fact 83

6 The Problem of Style 105

Journalese 111

The New Vernacular 114

Institutionalese 117

Propaganda 122

7 Art and Commerce 126

8 Being Edited and Editing 136

Being Edited 136

Editing 159

Notes on Usage 175

Writing Guides and References 185

Acknowledgments 187

Index 189

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Legendary literary journalist Kidder and his longtime editor trade war stories and advice for the ambitious nonfiction writer . . . an entertaining handbook on matters of reporting (do lots of it, much more than you think you need) and style (simpler is better) . . . Other writing guides have more nuts-and-bolts advice, but few combine the verve and plainspokenness of this book, which exemplifies its title.”Kirkus Reviews

“A comprehensive, practical look at the best practices of professional nonfiction writers and editors . . . anecdotes and close readings throughout the text are an excellent resource for would-be writers of any prose genre.”Publishers Weekly 

“[Kidder and Todd] share their dedication to“good prose” and expertise in creating it with warmth, zest, and wit in this well-structured, to-the-point, genuinely useful, and fun-to-read guide to writing narrative nonfiction, essays, and memoir … [they] also offer some of the most lucid, specific, and tested guidance available about technical essentials, from determining what makes a good nonfiction story to choosing a point of view to achieving accuracy and clarity … Kidder and Todd’s book about strong writing is crisp, informative, and mind-expanding.”—Booklist

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction takes us into the back room behind the shop, where strong, effective, even beautiful sentences are crafted. Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd, offer lots of useful advice, and, still more, they offer insight into the painstaking collaboration, thoughtfulness, and hard work that create the masterful illusion of effortless clarity.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Good Prose offers consummate guidance from one of our finest writers and his longtime editor. Explaining that ‘the techniques of fiction never belonged exclusively to fiction,’ Kidder and Todd make a persuasive case that ‘no techniques of storytelling are prohibited to the nonfiction writer, only the attempt to pass off invention as facts.’ Writers of all stripes, from fledgling journalists to essayists of the highest rank, stand to benefit from this engrossing manual.”—Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild
“What a pleasure to read a book about good prose written in such good prose! It will make many of its readers better writers (though none as good as Tracy Kidder, who sets an impossible standard), and it will make all of them wish they could hire Richard Todd to work his editorial magic on their words.”—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
“Few editors have the good fortune to work with writers as talented as Tracy Kidder, and even fewer writers are blessed with editors who have the skills, the standards, and the dedication of Richard Todd. I don’t think there’s a writer on the planet who could read this product of their four-decade collaboration and not walk away with much that is useful, and even more that is profound.”—Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call
“Books about how to be a better writer crowd the shelves, but I’ve read nothing nearly as wise, useful, and page-for-page fun as Good Prose, itself a work of art. This concise, delightfully stylish book offers a master class on nonfiction, packed with keen, hard-won insights and delivered with warmth, humor, and a total lack of pedantry. Reading it felt like enjoying a fireside dinner with two generous veterans of the craft. Finishing it made me want to get straight back to my desk.”—Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot

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