Book Review: “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction”

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You may never work with an editor, but whether you do, or you work only with an internal editor, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction will provide insight into the process of developing content.

Good Prose, a collaboration between Tracy Kidder, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine in 1982, and his frequent editor Richard Todd, lays out the writer-editor relationship in a series of chapters in which the collaborators take turns. It also functions as a sort of memoir for Kidder, describing his career as a freelance writer closely associated with the Atlantic Monthly, and, to a lesser extent, for Todd, who was an editor for the magazine for many years.

At first, I was underwhelmed, wading through these reminiscences in hopes of finding the good parts, but somewhere along the line I found that it is all good parts. Each chapter teems with insightful advice about how to produce narrative nonfiction. This isn’t a chapter-and-verse handbook, but it illustrates how a good editor can help a writer turn an amorphous mass of research, interview transcripts, and observations into a compelling story. It may even help you, without an editor’s guiding hand, help you overcome your preconceptions and biases about the story you want to tell to discover the story you must tell.

In a chapter on narrative, the authors detail three essential elements of storytelling: point of view (“The author’s understanding of the subject becomes the story”), characters (“The goal is to get characters off the page and into the reader’s imagination”), and structure (“You can mess with chronology, but you have to have a good reason to do so”).

The next chapter, among more detailed discussion, lists four essential rules for the memoirist (some truncated here): “Say difficult things,” “Be harder on yourself than you are on others,” “Try to accept that you are in part a comic figure,” and “Stick to the facts.” Their advice on essay writing admits, “There can’t be many general lessons for a form that depends so heavily on nerve and poise and having something idiosyncratic to say,” but that statement itself says much about what makes essays worth reading.

In the chapter titled “Beyond Accuracy,” Kidder writes, “One still encounters people in journalism who talk of objectivity. . . . Either they are disingenuous or they are dunces, and in either case they pose little threat.” But he then cautious against schussing down the slippery slope to subjectivity, which he says “is for some people a disinhibiting drug. It absolves them of responsibility.”

In a discussion of style, he says, “The familiar rules about writing turn out to be more nearly half-truths, dangerous if taken literally,” and he describes the pitfalls of colloquial language, the jargons of journalese and institutionalese, and propaganda, calling to account, for example, the dangerous imprecision of terrorist.

Following a brief chapter about the tension between the art of writing and publishing and the business of doing so, the book concludes with an extended contemplation of the writer-editor partnership, concisely distilled in the statement, “The best thing for an editor to do is to help a writer to think.” This book performs the same service.

Here’s the link to the book on Amazon.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction””

  1. I really enjoyed Good Prose and found the suggestions helpful and the background interesting. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have put out some amazing books. Books like Mountains Beyond Mountains or Strength in What Remains are wonderful, insightful reads and back up everything they talk about in Good Prose. Knowing Kidder’s writing helps lend validity and interest to this book.

  2. Mark, did you post this before you had your morning coffee? Third paragraph, last sentence — it inspired me to reach for a new metaphor to replace “train wreck” . . . I’m still reaching. Then, sixth paragraph, third line, last word. Better fix those before D.A.W. shows up.

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