“Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” (Random House), by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
Writing about writing is riddled with pitfalls. Take that sentence, even: Should we reconsider the passive voice? Should we clarify which instance of “writing” we mean as a noun and which as a verb form, if either? And, anyway, what do we mean by pitfalls: traps or tricks? Actually, the challenge is more complicated than that. Writing is a specific and individual task: No two pieces can sound the same without one or both being diminished, and no two personalities approach the creative process in exactly the same way. Successful reporting and writing also involve so much of a special kind of pursued luck that they’re usually irreparably harmed when they’re dissected. Reassembled descriptions of the process often end up sounding like prescriptions. Or bragging.
Lucky readers of Tracy Kidder’s and Richard Todd’s conversation about their four shared decades in the writing life, “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,” don’t get pulled into those weeds until the book’s very end. And, by then, Todd and Kidder have earned the right to offer a few quick tips. Besides, their final chapter, “Being Edited and Editing,” opens with a description of this crucial part of the writing process that is more frank and helpful than any in recent memory. It’s more than a fig leaf when Kidder, a long-form journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and many other accolades, mentions his editors’ harsh assessments of his early work. Those are important to hear. And it’s important to know that Kidder still suffers from disorganization, ballooning prose and melodrama. He still spreads printouts of a piece all over the floor or a table to see its parts more clearly, he still needs help shaping ideas, he must “work on keeping quiet,” and he still reaches a point in each project when he wants to quit.
For his part, Todd is gorgeously open about how many editors work. “All magazines are dictatorships,” he asserts in describing his own mid-level role at The Atlantic. His most succinct argument for the work of editors is equally sweeping: “Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. … Editors ideally can hear and see prose in a way that is difficult for the writer.” For anyone who’s tried her hand at editing, it’s great fun to hear his descriptions of its opportunities, as well as its limits, and to imagine learning from him.
“Good Prose” is a personal account at its core. Both Todd and Kidder insist that they prefer not to be effusive, that they’ve grown close almost by accident. But listen to Todd preface his reminder that “editors need writers more than the reverse”: “Editing is a wifely trade. … (It involves) those skills that are stereotypically female: listening, supporting, intuiting.” He graciously (or maybe self-servingly!) omits the obvious: nagging. But “Good Prose” never feels voyeuristic. We want to know how this mysterious process really feels when it works, and especially when it works for so long.
Kidder and Todd introduce “Good Prose” as “a practical book.” And it is. In the chapter on “beginnings,” the pair cite several of the most beloved openings in English and American literature — but with such fluidity and relevance that there’s no danger of overload, and plenty of their references are current. Organized around topics such as using time elements, being accurate and developing a compelling voice, or “sound,” ”Good Prose” is as approachable and applicable as any writing manual available.
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