by Robert WeibezahlJanuary 2013
Notes on writing well
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of such notable books as Among Schoolchildren and The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder is one of our finest writers of narrative nonfiction. That was not always the case. As he tells us in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, whatever raw talent he possessed at the start was honed under the exacting guidance of his longtime editor, Richard Todd. Their serendipitous pairing occurred at The Atlantic when both were young men, and the collaboration has been an amiable and clearly fruitful one.
Kidder and Todd have teamed up to write Good Prose, providing a fond glimpse into their own symbiotic working relationship along with a healthy dose of practical advice for writers of nonfiction. “Editing isn’t just something that happens to you,” Kidder writes in what might be the book’s core statement. “You have to learn how to be edited.” That essential learning curve plays out in the intertwined stories of these two literary men, which began in 1973, when Kidder was 27 and Todd 32. Their subsequent 40-year partnership seems an enviable throwback to a slower-paced, more genteel—and much lamented—era in publishing.
Structured more as a writing manual than a memoir (and it is both), Good Prose tackles the usual fundamentals, such as story, point of view, characters and structure. The two men giving the instruction, though, are masters, so even these nuts-and-bolts aspects of the book rise above the norm. Pulling examples from many great writers of nonfiction—from Joan Didion and John McPhee to David Sedaris to Thoreau and Emerson—they plumb the specifics of what makes good writing great. Much of this discussion, appropriately, focuses on Kidder’s own work and the ways Todd has helped him sharpen and invigorate it. Kidder writes candidly about the false starts and lost direction that any writer encounters; Todd supplies the rudder for getting back on course.
Pulitzer winner Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor share writing tips and the secrets of their successful collaboration.
Good Prose might be pigeonholed as a manual for aspiring writers, but it is so much more, not least of all because it is written with the same narrative grace it espouses. By building the book around their singular working relationship, Kidder and Todd are allowing us into their professional and, to some extent, personal lives, yet without the narcissistic posturing or calculated manipulation that saturates so much of today’s memoir writing. At its core, the book exudes a passion for good writing achieved through hard work—not the sexiest of topics, for sure, but one these accomplished men manage to make seem so.
The proof of Kidder’s talent rests on library shelves everywhere, but one of the delights of Good Prose is discovering an equally skilled writer in Todd. Editors, by nature, are self-effacing, and while some of them can identify good writing and even improve it, they might not have the writer’s gift themselves. Not so Todd. His sections of the book are as elegant and eloquent as Kidder’s, his insight invaluable: “All good writing is ultimately a contest with the inexpressible,” he tells us. “Every good passage leaves something unsaid. So it ought to be hard.”
Brisk and informative, Good Prose is recommended reading not only for writers, but for anyone who cares about, well, good prose.