So You Think You Can Write?

Good prose? Do we really need yet another book filled with tips, instructions, and warnings against this or that? Only if the take on the subject is as uncommon as the one offered by this book. One of the authors, Tracy Kidder, is a Pulitzer Prize winner with an impressive line of nonfiction books to his credit, including Soul of a New Machine, House, and Among Schoolchildren. The other is his longtime editor, Richard Todd, a well-respected practitioner of the trade at the Atlantic, Houghton Mifflin, and other venues. Parts of the book are written by Kidder, parts by Todd, in a joint enterprise that mixes good sense, wide experience with the written word, and plenty of ironic reflection on the vagaries of the bookman’s world.

These “stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing,” as the subtitle has it, mark a connection that began forty years ago when Todd, a young editor at the Atlantic, met Kidder, an aspiring writer with an unpublished novel in hand. The result of their collaboration over the decades is “a practical book,” addressed “to people who care about writing, about how it gets done, about how to do it better.”

Good Prose allots mercifully little time to airy generalizations. Its first chapter, “Beginnings,” considers various opening sentences and paragraphs from well-known books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, along with some that are new to me. The following chapter, “Narratives,” hazards an unpretentious, sensible definition of the well-worn phrase “point of view” as “the place from which a writer listens in and watches.” As a nice example we are given the first sentence of a famous 1950 New Yorker profile by Lillian Ross: “Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, rarely comes to New York.” This intimate and unobtrusive beginning signals a mode the authors call “first-person minor,” with the writer assuming a rather dutiful persona—“like a stock figure of the time, the ‘gal Friday,’ cheerful, omni-competent, without apparent needs of her own.” Joan Didion, in contrast, is said to specialize in “mild and stylistic derangement”; whereas Norman Mailer’s third-person narrator in The Armies of the Night is both “wildly egotistical and grandly self-mocking,” a pose perhaps impossible if we hadn’t already heard about “Norman Mailer” and his various escapades. Mailer’s voice is the opposite of first-person minor—very major indeed, one might say.

These chapters on narrative beginnings suggest that one must decide “what to withhold until later, or never say at all.” At the start of their work together, we learn, Todd told Kidder that his novel manuscript—the book in the end would remain unpublished—was in need of “irony.” As Kidder explains, the irony his editor had in mind was no “mindless joking or nihilism,” but rather “irony in the older sense of saying one thing and meaning another, or of saying one thing and not saying the other”—in short, “meaning more than you say.” That older sense of the word was the one Robert Frost was fond of, and when Todd tells Kidder to “play the novel for comedy. The flatter the better,” we’re again in Frost territory, who liked his humor dry “with all the wet squeezed out of it.” To both Todd and Kidder, this capacity for meaning more than what is said, this habit of implication, is what makes a successful storyteller “a kind of restrained illusionist.”

The book is filled with good sayings about writing, many of which were new to me—such as A. J. Liebling’s boast that he could write better than anybody who could write faster and faster than anybody who could write better, or T. S. Eliot’s observation that some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. (The book lacks footnotes, and I could have used one here.) But the most amusing part of Good Prose is a brief closing section, “Notes on Usage,” in which the authors skewer “words whose main function is to call attention to themselves”—such as “eponymous,” now frequently encountered in student papers. Everyone has his or her candidates for most disliked phrase, and I was pleased to encounter such personal favorites as “proactive,” an annoying neologism; or “pass” for “die”; or any word, like “indescribable” or “ineffable,” that “proclaims one’s own inability as a writer.” Also coming in for deserved scorn are various words and phrases of the digital age; all sports metaphors; and the use of “folks” for “people,” on which topic the authors point out that “when a president says ‘folks like me,’ you are only reminded that there are no folks like him—he’s the president.” “Bottom line” and “at the end of the day” don’t get mentioned, perhaps because they’re too obviously wretched.

The most engaging thing about Good Prose lies not in any specific advice it offers, but in its generally humorous manner. Todd, for instance, takes note of the frequently heard complaint that this or that book “needed an editor” by remarking, plaintively, that “often it had an editor, but the writer prevailed.” As for his own work with Tracy Kidder over all those books and decades, Todd describes a partnership that proceeded mostly via “amiable insult.” The pithy and unobvious phrase catches a certain social tone regarding contemporary male relationships. “This mode of being is much lamented, but it is not entirely useless as a basis for lasting friendship, at least if you have time,” Todd writes; “and as it turned out we had decades.”

In a book filled with enlivening moments, perhaps the best one concerns a publishing panel Todd was on. When asked why she went into the trade, one panelist answered, “Well, I just really like writers.” Todd’s response, years later: “Imagine liking writers! I mean liking writers as a class of people. Safecrackers or jugglers or dental hygienists, sure, but writers?” This witty response, like the book overall, does its teaching by example: Anyone who finds it a terrific piece of writing is well on his or her way to appreciating, if not mastering, good prose and the art of nonfiction.

Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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