Book review: Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
"That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is in vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infinitely immutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work." - Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
How to write good prose
I picked up the book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd last month because I write nonfiction, and I would like to write nonfiction better. To level up my writing skills, I need to practice and I need input from better, more experienced writers and editors. I need to work on my writing—to learn about good writing, to get feedback, to revise—to consider writing a craft and treat it as such.
Good Prose was published in 2013 and only recently acquired by my local library system. The authors make an interesting pair, one the editor of the other: Richard Todd, longtime editor at The Atlantic and also Houghton Mifflin; and Tracy Kidder, literary journalist and author of ten books.
From the first chapter, I felt their humility. They are experts to be sure—in their introduction, they are quick to mention their four decades of experience working together. But they wrote humbly: they recognize that writing is an art, and they have only their own perspectives on how to write well.
I found a lot of good advice about writing in this book. Chapters cover character, settling, conflict, truth and fact, style and editing, as well as specific advice for writers of long-form journalism, memoir, and essays. I highly recommend it to anyone writing nonfiction.
Human stories in nonfiction
First, Kidder and Todd talk about stories. In nonfiction, they argue, a good story doesn't have to follow the clear arcs we've come to expect from fiction and from great literature:
"It is a misleading truism that drama comes from conflict. Conflict in stories is generally understood as an external contest between good guys and bad guys. … The most important conflict often happens within a character, or within the narrator."
I found their focus on character interesting, because of another way of analyzing stories that I've encountered recently: the MICE quotient. The MICE quotient originated with Orson Scott Card. In short, story arcs can focus on milieu, ideas, characters, or events. There are many explanations and examples online of classic stories fitting each group: classic milieu stories involve travel to Oz or Narina; many mysteries are idea stories; character stories involve internal change and learning; many event stories are plot-driven, such as a catastrophe the characters must deal with. Here's a set of fantastic podcasts on the MICE quotient.
Using the MICE quotient, the problems and resolutions in stories are broken down into distinct kinds of arcs, which can be nested inside each other. But in this book, Kidder and Todd didn't dig as deep, instead saying all stories can be described as problems with resolutions, as someone learning something:
"Revelation, someone's learning something, is what transforms event into story. … The unfolding of the problem and its resolution are the real payoff. A car chase is not required."
I wonder if their focus is still more on character because they assume that in all human stories, what appeals most to many of us, what motivates humans, is all the internal character stuff. As they note later,
"Once you have selected a person to write about, that person becomes the central mystery you want to solve, knowing that you will never solve it completely."
Writing a nonfiction story, then, is an act of discovery and careful selection of what events and details to include. You cannot make up new details that illuminate someone's character more clearly, but you can choose which details to use to paint the picture.
Kidder and Todd recommend that nonfiction authors should study how characters are portrayed and presented in fiction:
"Nonfiction writers spend useful time there [in fiction], trying to figure out what they can borrow and, equally important, what they can't."
But ultimately the constraints of the two forms are distinct. The nonfiction writer has to stay all true to what's real, there is no room for invention to make a story work better.
Fact and truth in nonfiction writing
The heart of nonfiction is facts and their representation in writing. The expectation is of truth, of being faithful to the facts as you could discover them.
How truthful, exactly, does one have to be? In memoir, for example, it is common practice to condense timelines, merge characters or conversations, rename people, and occasionally reorder events. Some amount of fictionalization may be necessary in memoir, but if you fictionalize—even if you tell the reader you are doing so to protect identities—you set up different expectations. The reader knows not everything in the story is exactly true.
But what is truth? Whose truth? The picture you have of someone is invariably different from the picture they have of themselves. Reality—what really happened—is always interpreted through the lens of the experience of living. The writer is embroiled in the world, hands deep in the facts, changing the world by their existence even as they attempt to capture it.
"We know that as soon as writers begin to tell a story they shape experience and that stories are always, at best, partial versions of reality, and this objectivity is a myth. … Subjectivity simply acknowledges the presence of a mediator between the facts and the truth. That mediator is you, the writer."
Writing is always imperfect. The written word can never entirely depict reality. As a truism from Rodney Brooks goes, from my cognitive science and social robotics days, the world is its own best model.
Which facts do you render visible? What do you emphasize or omit to get the truth of the story across? As Kidder and Todd said,
"The honest nonfiction storyteller is a restrained illusionist."
Writing about other people
I don't have personal experience writing stories about other people, but it's very common in longform journalism. Kidder and Todd discussed the difficulties of profiling others:
"One can sometimes feel a peculiar closeness to a subject, a compound of gratitude and sympathy, something that feels like true affection. And yet when the subject must in fact become a subject, must turn into words, that feeling changes. You the writer do not feel the same things you felt as interviewer and observer."
When the writer moves from second-person interaction during interviews to third-person observer and writer, the feeling about the subject changes. Some cognitive science and neuroscience literature that has explored this feeling (e.g., this paper): interacting with you is different than observing her.
"No one can capture the ever-changing interaction between a writer and a subject: observing another person and describing ones observations, and being altered oneself in the process and thus altering the observations."
Voice, style, and structure in stories
Kidder and Todd have a lot to say about voice, style, and structure and style. Structure is about chronology and detail: which details to emphasize and in what order to recount the events, such that the story comes to the surface. It's the art of "making readers feel the relative importance of characters, events, ideas."
Things out of place, or out of proportion, or that aren't given appropriate time in the story or are given too much time, lead to the feeling that "things in a story aren't connected, they aren't meshing, they don't meet." And this is usually indicative of problems with structure and logic of a story.
Style is how and when you apply the rules of language. The authors discuss four distinctive styles you might recognize: journalese (compressed, noun-as-adjective heavy sentences, what you find in newspapers), the new vernacular (aggressive informality, sincere, often the language of bloggers), institutionalese (absent author, passive "mistakes were made"), and propaganda (language that obscures differences, distorting meaning to one's benefit). I found this section interesting because the contrast between these styles is easy to see.
Voice, on the other hand, is the writer's presence in the words. It's how you can tell you're reading a particular author. It's the sound of your own writing.
Both style and voice are the result of practice. As Kidder and Todd said, style is not a one-time discovery. Voice develops over time.
"Use enough words wantonly and you disappear before your own eyes. Use them well and you create yourself. This is why writers must own their language. Own your language or it will own you. "
Types of nonfiction: Memoir
I liked the deep dive into different kinds of nonfiction writing, in particular, the sections on memoir and essay, as these were both relevant to me personally.
The authors say a good and honest memoir is a record of learning. It's part self-discovery, part self-creation. That's what much of this blog is for me—like this post on reflection and writing. Memoir is about making sense of ourselves by exploring one's past self.
"You tell the stories as accurately and artfully as your abilities allow. If you succeed, you replace the fragments of memory with something that has its own shape and meaning, a separate thing that has value in itself."
The challenge is in determining how much to reveal. What's the right way to explore a piece of one's past—without too much voyeurism, without too much modesty, and without too much emphasis on how much better the current version of the self is? Kidder and Todd discuss the continuum of memoir as being anchored by recollection and dramatization.
One of the primary challenges is of fact and truth. Memoir engages in memory, which is faulty—far more so than most people imagine. Humans are very good at remembering the gist of events. We are not so good at remembering the exact details. As much research has shown, we are prone to rationalization and invention, entirely unaware that we are doing so. Perhaps that's why so many memoirists have diaries and journals they reference.
Types of nonfiction: Essay
Kidder and Todd distinguish essay from memoir in that memoir aims at self-understanding and allows the reader to come to understand the writer. Essays aren't so narrow in scope. They are the natural medium of ideas. Blog posts are often a form of essay.
Essays, the authors say, do not have to be linear and straightforward in the way of journalism; essays transcend the facts to go into experience:
"This is not to suggest that essays should be illogical, But they may be, and generally should be, extra-logical—governed by associative more than by strictly linear thought."
Essays often "treat something specific with such attention that it magnifies into significance." No subject is too big or too small. Essays are often used to trace the course of thought, which aligns with my idea that writing is thinking: it's useful for reflection, for coming up with new ideas, for exploring the self. It's not only an idea for essays, though; memoir writing gives shape to the past and brings new insight from one's experience; writing generally can give structure to thoughts and theories, by turning feelings and experiences into concrete words.
"The essay can illuminate both the public and the private by placing the self in the context of time, politics, ideas."
Writing as an art and a business
The authors also tackle the fact that writers need to eat, too. I don't think this topic gets enough attention, so it's good they include a chapter on it in the book. Many writers wish they could focus solely on their art, but you don't make money unless you market your product:
"A writer who wants to write and to be published successfully has to try to cultivate a certain doubleness of being. When you are writing, you have to think of yourself as a writer and not as a commodity. But when your book is published, it becomes a product."
Writing a book has to be, in part, is own reward, because most books don't make a lot of money. Furthermore, the best writing (and the best work generally) is done when it's done for its own sake, because you're curious about it and intrinsically motivated to make it happen.
The writing process
I particularly enjoyed the advice about writing, editing your writing, and working with editors. I haven't worked with editors as often as I would like, and every time I do, I enjoy having someone else give me constructive feedback on what made sense, what needs fixing, and what I can improve. This book had special insight into both parts of the process, since Todd had been editing Kidder's writing for decades.
Kidder discussed his writing process. He highlighted that it's just one way to write. Other writers write differently. This comes up every time you hear writers talk about writing, and probably can't be stressed enough. The way one writer writes doesn't have to be the way you write. Hearing about their different methodologies can serve as inspiration and can, perhaps, get you unstuck by allowing you to try a new methodology. But don't feel like you have to copy anyone exactly.
Editing your writing and other people's writing
I found useful advice about editing both my own writing and editing for others. Randy and I edit each other's blog posts and occasionally I edit other people's writing.
"Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting. Revision by an editor never works as well as when the writer does the work."
When editors rewrite, it's a sure way to stamp out style.
"A writer should be on the alert when an editor starts by fixing commas or suggesting little cuts when the real problem remains at the level of organization or strategy or point of view. Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of a page. Something isn't flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off."
Editing, the authors argue, is not mere tinkering with sentences and phrases. Instead, editing has two parts:
"The first is trying to fix what you've already written, but doing this can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you're trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story."
Writing first drafts and revising them
Todd champions the fast first draft. It seems like a popular idea, and one I agree with. The first draft has the most leeway. As author Kameron Hurley has put it, the job of the first draft is to exist. Once there's a first draft, you can fix it. You can't fix it until you know where you're starting.
If you need to throw some of the first draft away, which you inevitably will, well, that can be easier if you didn't labor over it in the first place.
"Perhaps the most important is the concept of sacrifice. Sometimes passages, even chapters, characters, or themes, that are perfectly good in themselves must go for the good of the whole."
Kidder and Todd also point out that writers need a little objectivity. The point of writing is to communicate some idea, some story; if you haven't done that clearly, you haven't done your job. You need to see your writing with a little objectivity—to separate the writer from the writing—and try again, until you tell the truth with your words.