on January 21, 2013
Wanna-be writers like me are always looking for good books on good writing. I love Tracy Kidder's writing and, if Richard Todd is, indeed, Kidder's long-time editor, then he is also on my Good Boy list.
So I thus fell into that old trap of Anticipating and Having Expectations that so often disappoints.
I tell you this so you won't Anticipate and Expect, too.
This is a lovely book, a lovely story of friendship and learning to work together, and learning to write and learning to edit, but it is not much of a book about how to write well. That isn't to say that this book isn't full of ideas about how to write well, but put it down if it's an authoritative how-to book that you are seeking. Lots of stories that will make you smile if you've read much Kidder but that's really it.
I'm going to really be daring here---as I step out on a thin limb---and assert that in my (VH) opinion what this book could have used is a good editor. And a better title.
Just my two cents as a reader. And let me close by using an old psychological technique of Blaming the Victim: had this been a better how-to book, perhaps I could now be writing a better review of this book.
Pulitzer prize winner Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a New Machine) and his friend and frequent collaborator Richard Todd share the wisdom they have accumulated over a 40 year span. Both readers and/or writers who buy Good Prose can reap the benefits of the authors' experience.
I often paused to ponder the authors' words and opinions about what it takes to produce solid and resonant nonfiction. One example: a warning not to confuse facts with "truth". Information can be tailored to express a particular viewpoint that might be factually accurate - but still off base in so many other ways - perhaps missing the heart of an event, a person's experience or more.
There is more about fact and truth in "Beyond Accuracy", a chapter which focuses both on accuracy as well as the picture created in readers' minds by writers. Do the facts convey the deeper realities and truths behind those facts?
When it comes to interviews, Kidder and Todd urge writers to respect those people who are generous and trusting enough to share parts of their lives. The authors also suggest that writers behave as guests- knowing when to listen, question, and encourage those they interview.
This book should be a staple in any aspiring nonfiction writer's library, especially as an aid for understanding what goes into creating solid nonfiction pieces - and discerning those which are weaker or inauthentic. Examples from various writers: George Orwell, Janet Malcolm, and John D'Agata (among others) provide lessons as well as perspectives on various forms of nonfiction.
Kidd and Todd are not shy about criticizing other writers' beliefs and practices. They provide plenty of material which illustrate mistakes, both in writing and viewpoint, from others.
There were certain parts of the book which stood out for me. In the section on "Being Edited and Editing", I discovered more about the editing process and how writers can "learn how to be edited." Writing styles and evolving words and usages are also covered in the book. Examples of overused intensifiers, cliches, tired phrases, etc ought to improve writing - if reviewed and remembered.
Good Prose goes beyond writing advice. It also reveals the authors' friendship. Kidder and Todd learned much from each other through the years and certainly had their differences. But their combined experiences led to a remarkable collaboration as authors, teachers, and editors.
At the end of the book, there is a bibliography of writing guides and references, useful for additional perspectives on writing.. It is fairly short but the works included are gems. I've read many of them and find they are often worth revisiting.
on August 26, 2013
Though I have 3 self-published and 2 soon to be released traditionally published books, I consider myself to be a mostly untrained writer. To that end, I try to read every book about the art of writing I can such as Stephen King's "On Writing."
This book is both inspirational and educational. Some reviewers have complained that the friendship narrative is too strong and that the educational aspect is too light. I rather enjoyed the balance. This is not a how-to guide; rather it is a series of the most important epiphanies that a writer and his editor experienced during a decades long partnership.
Here are my takeaways:
- "imagine for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself"
- "Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting."
- "Beginnings [of books, articles, etc.] are an exercise in limits."
- "Clarity does not always mean brevity or simplicity."
- "[Putting most important facts of a story first] translates poorly to longer forms of writing."
- "The most important conflict often happens within a character, or within the narrator."
- "Revelation, someone's learning something, is what transforms event into story."
- "Point of view is a place to stand, but more than that, a way to think and feel."
- "As a rule, the smaller the canvas, the more intrusive the first person is likely to be."
- "Writers of fiction and nonfiction still have the distinctive and necessary task of getting the reader to do the necessary work of imagining... what we want are essences."
- "Above all, setting tells what is at issue."
- "Kidder discovers his stories by writing and rewriting them."
- "The fundamental elements of a story's structure are proportion and order."
- "the good and honest memoir is neither revenge nor self-justification, neither self-celebration nor self-abnegation. It is a record of learning."
- "Memoirists operation on a continuum between recollection and dramatization."
- "But originality and profundity are not identical. Profound ideas bear repeating, or rediscovery, and many original ideas do not."
- "Self-doubt, fatal in so many enterprises, fortifies the essay."
- "Assume that all potential subjects don't understand what they might be getting into, and tell them what you know about the possible consequences, especially the unpleasant ones."
- "One of the most helpful things an editor can say to a writer is, 'Make this two sentences.'"
- "Write the way you talk on your best day. Write the way you would like to talk."
- "Whatever art any book achieves may or may not be rewarded in the marketplace, but art isn't generally achieved with the market in mind."
- "... there are at least two kinds or rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you've already written... the second [better] kind [is]... figuring out the essential thing you're trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story."
- "Don't try to tell the reader how to feel."
- "It has taken on average, about three years for [Kidder] to research and write a [nonfiction] book."
- "When the proof pages come, we read the book aloud to each other, pausing now and then to imagine bad reviews..."
- "That was when I began to learn a skill which for me needs constant relearning, how to fall out of love with my own words."
- "Everyone can sense when someone is looking for the good within them, and it opens people to questioning in a way that reveals the good and everything else as well."
- "Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting."
- "Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn't flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off."
There are also a number of technical (style & grammar tips) but the gist of the material (minus the narrative) is what I have summarized above.
on January 17, 2013
This book is not what I expected, which was a cohesive guide to writing good nonfiction. Instead it's more a collection of essays sharing thoughts about different aspects of the writing process. They are some interesting reflections, but the topics covered are not in any way covered thoroughly. The book is definitely much more philosophical than how-to. It's also in many ways a memoir, with lots of bits shared about the authors' history as writer and editor, their personal writing projects, etc. Some of it is relevant to the subject of good prose, but a lot of it is not.
If you're interesting in musings and memories related to nonfiction writing, the editing process, etc, then give it a try, because that is done well in a conversational style. But, if you're more interested in something that will help you learn how to write well (and I'm not meaning grammar and basic mechanics, but beyond that), then I'd keep looking.
This book is a collaboration by writer, Tracy Kidder and editor, Richard Toddd who have worked together for 40 years since Richard Todd edited Kidder's first story for the Atlantic Monthly in the early 1970's.
The author and editor discuss narrarives, memoirs, essays, acuracy, style, art and commerce and being edited and editing.
The chapter, 'Notes on Usage' which discusses neologisms and 'bad' (my word) form is helpful and may raise a smile of recognition.
There are words of good advice: Start slow; 'The trick is not to make everything into a grand idea, but to treat something specific with such attention that it magnifies into significance'; 'market plans are nonsense'; 'fall out of love with your own words'.
This book is an amusing companion.
Todd thinks (not unkindly) that writers are by nature narcissists. He thinks to maintain one's project as preminently worthy requires a distorted sense of reality.
There's an excellent biblography.
The gems in this book make reading through the boring parts worth the effort.
on December 1, 2012
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have been partners in writing and editing for over thirty years. They came together when Todd was an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and Kidder was trying to find his place as a writer. I found it interesting that Todd chose to work with Kidder through so many revisions because Kidder was so willing to rewrite. That is an interesting insight into their success. Successful writing is attained by rewriting.
The authors tell their story in first person narratives then use this experience to discuss the mechanics of writing. The section on Narrative is excellent and should be read by both fiction and nonfiction writers. How to select the material, pace and most important when to cut scenes for clarity apply to both types of writing.
The section on Being Edited and Editing is a must read for anyone seriously interested in writing for publication. By giving the view of both the editor and the writer, it's possible to see the dynamics operating on both sides. Both want a successful product, but when it's your baby that's being torn apart it's hard to see this. Likewise, it's hard for the editor to know how and when to push to get the best possible product.
I found the section on The Problem of Style liberating. The chapter in addition to discussing various styles, like journalese and propaganda, discusses traditional rules of writing: when to use them and when to break them. That discussion is worth the price of the book. Sometime writers try too hard to slavishly follow the rules and end up losing their distinctive style.
I highly recommend the book for both nonfiction and fiction writers. It gives wonderful insight into writing and editing and is the story of a special friendship.
on January 24, 2013
I am deeply absorbed in this book. Here is the opening of their chapter on beginnings: " To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not--why else presume to write?--but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn't generosity; it is realism....Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting...Writers are told that they must "grab" or "hook" or "capture" the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. "
If you love reading the writing this philosophy of craft produces, or aspire to write it -- I mean writing so fine that the stitches don't show, rather than the whiz-bang Tom Wolfe "look at me on the high wire stylin' " type of writing -- you may very well love this book. I have just finished writing my first book, and frankly I wish I'd read Kidder's book first, because it might have helped me resist the temptation to overpower or overconvince the reader. It inspires trust -- in yourself, in the material you have researched and the people you have interviewed, and in the way that you and your reader will engage with that material. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, it inspires a realistic faith in some sort of goodness within us. Not the faith that comes from ignoring things, but something subtler and deeper.
on January 21, 2014
As someone who is delving deeper into the intricacies of writing, this book has proven to be one of the most helpful books I have ever come across on this subject. As I was reading and studying the material, I recall there being many moments where I would have to pause and reflect on the profound ideas presented in the book.
The authors write in such a way that their message is both clear and entertaining; and they teach you how to do the same (to not bore your audience when it comes to reading your fiction book).
Whether you're new to writing or you're a long time wordsmith, this book is a great read and deserves a spot in your library.
on May 9, 2016
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction is not what I expected. The title suggests this book, like most craft books, will provide a cohesive guide to writing good nonfiction. Instead, the authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have assembled a collection of essays discussing their thoughts regarding the writing process, specifically as it pertains to writing nonfiction works like memoirs, essays, and the like. The story they share is touching and thoughtful, and occasionally I found their reflections to be helpful and insightful, but overall the topics covered are not explored thoroughly. If you are looking for a philosophical discussion on writing non-fiction, then this book works. If you are looking for a solid how-to craft book, I would suggest looking elsewhere.
Good Prose shines here and there, particularly when the chapter focuses on a relevant writing topic, like the ones on narratives and essays. In the narrative section, the authors place a strong emphasis on settings. Settings, they argue, are needed in order for the characters to live. The setting of a work communicates what is at stake: what is the character trying to do? What does he fear? What is he trying to hide? What does he hope to gain? Settings are used to help the reader imagine, and therefore figure out why the characters do what they do, or feel as they do. The ultimate goal with all of this is to not only make the reader understand the character in the story, but help the reader better understand themselves as well. A writer wants a reader to place themselves within a setting so they can envision their own character. I found this lesson on settings to be as useful for fiction as it is for nonfiction.
Regarding narration, one of the arguments the writers make involves the choice between past and present tense. They assert that it is better to avoid the present tense because it “proves all too convenient for many writers” (44). I agree. When I read present tense, it comes across as a melodramatic effort to engage me as a reader, to create a false sense of urgency instead of just telling the story. Not only that, the authors of Good Prose argue that present tense has a tendency to “commandeer the reader’s attention” in a way that engenders resistance (ibid). When we read something like “It’s a stormy day and the clock says 3:00” and we look outside and see that it’s a sunny morning, it can jar us out of our suspension of disbelief. This is definitely something I always try to avoid in my own writing, and I am glad to see the authors of Good Prose hold to the same position.
My favorite section of the book covered the topic of essays. The chapter opens: “There is something you want to say, and yet you are dogged by the perennial questions—sometimes useful, but sometimes fatal—that can visit any writer. Who am I to be writing this?” (67). As most writers go on to learn, chances are nobody really asked you for your opinion. But the authors argue that if your idea is fresh, you’ll surprise more people than just yourself, because a good essay transcends mere argument. Interestingly enough, I noticed a parallel between the argument here in Good Prose and Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence. Kidder and Todd believe that essays can and should be extra-logical, meaning that as a writer, you can approach your essays with an associate style of writing, rather than strict linear thought. For a journalist or a nonfiction writer used to formal strictures often found in other media like journalism, the essay offers unparalleled freedom. Additionally, the authors insist that all essays are personal. They don’t need to make huge, broad pronouncements, but they must bear the imprint of an individual mind. Original ideas must be present. Essays are “like poems in that they may confront old wisdom in a fresh way” (70). I agree with this advice on essay writing and hope to incorporate it into my own essays in the future. I am drawn to essays because they offer the most freedom, and as a fiction writer, I like the approach laid out here by both Kidder and Todd.
Unfortunately, much of Good Prose reads like a memoir. The authors are actually an author-editor pair who worked together for many years. As such, much of the book centers on their memories regarding nonfiction writing, editing, and the process of publication. It’s written in a conversational style, and the musings are interesting. Some of the musings are actually relevant to the subject of good prose, but a lot of it is not. That is not to say the book is bad, it is just not what I expected from a craft book. Finding the nuggets in the story can be a bit of a challenge, especially when it appears many of the chapters are written in the associative style mentioned above. For a craft book, it’s different, and that makes it enjoyable. A pleasant break from the usual structure seen in Writer’s Digest books. So if you’d like an inspiring writer’s story with bits of nonfiction writing advice sprinkled in, give this a try. Fiction writers be warned: you will only be fed a few sparse crumbs.
on June 27, 2013
It's as Kidder says on the cover: "Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing".
Kidder says "it is essential only that there be something important at stake, a problem that confronts the characters or confronts the reader in trying to understand them. The unfolding of the problem and its resolution are the real payoff. A car chase is not required."
While it's aimed primarily at writers of nonfiction, it's worth reading for anyone interested in writing whether it's fiction, nonfiction, or simply a casual history. It's something of an autobiography on Kidder, dipping into highlights and low points of how he began writing, how he continued with Todd's aid as an editor, their friendship, and using his own published works to demonstrate stumbling blocks he encountered.
Along the way, he touches on starting your book, what goes into a book with narratives, points-of-view, settings that "tell what is at issue---what a character is trying to do, what a character fears or is trying to hide, hopes to gain or stands to lose, what a character is up against." The cautions and concerns of writing memoirs and essays.
There's an amazing analysis of how describing Miss Brooke's appearance provides a wealth of background information. Kidder then provides a counter to this wealth with his "telling details" with but a few words---and each appeals to me.
"...if you described not the wart but how the character covers it when he's nervous."
I love how Kidder wants us to "wait for the moment when we need to know her age ... as a potentially significant fact".
Painting an image of someone for "a book or a detailed and subtle magazine pice to portraying a human being, you are hoping that the reader will
It's a different definition for POV as "the place from which a writer listens in and watches. Choosing one place over another determines what can and can't be seen, what minds can and can't be entered" with "the choice ... affecting the tone, the author's apparent attitude toward the events and people of a story..." "A place to stand ... a way to think and feel."
"The world for the nonfiction writer is not a kit full of endlessly interesting parts waiting to be assembled, a garden of flowers waiting to be picked and arranged."
And, yes, Kidder does address what he calls the "New Vernacular", the contemporary prose of the Internet including, LOL, the OMG, "whatever", "duh", and more as he slides into "Institutionalese" "concealing more than it reveals", metaphors, similes, and the dreaded clichés.
Kidder also touches on the marketing writers are told they must do from branding to platforms to book proposals to marketing plans, but the most practical advice is to think as a writer while writing the book and to see the writing as a commodity, a product when it's published.
Ooh, I liked this one too..."Write the way you talk on your best day. Write the way you would like to talk."
The cover is clever as an old wooden desk with a deep umber background with three hardcover books stacked end-on to us with the authors' names floating on top of the pages. They're well-used books with bookmarks, a loose page, and well-worn corners. I like the metaphor of the red pencil lying on top.
Every word of the title, the sub-title, and the tagline are to the point, as it's all about Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.