While most writing advice books seem to focus on fiction writing, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd delves into the subtleties of fiction’s counterpart. It’s a genre I particularly appreciate, as evidenced by this blog series. Some of their advice goes against the writing wisdom we’ve heard over and over, and it’s nice to hear a different perspective.
Read this book to peek under the hood of how narrative nonfiction works, and to hone your ability to write a better article or essay–or even a blog post or written argument.
- Written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of narrative nonfiction and his esteemed editor, Good Prose explores the craft of writing in this increasingly competitive genre. The book provides practical tips on structure, character development, and the importance of revision. Some of their advice is as follows.
- In writing nonfiction, be ruthlessly honest, even in the details. This is a matter of ethics as well as of earning and keeping the reader’s trust. “We’re sticklers on fact,” write the authors. “If it happened on Tuesday, that’s when it happened, even if Thursday would make for a tidier story. (And in our experience, at least, Tuesday usually turns out to make for a more interesting story.)”
- Your reader might not be an expert in the topic of your work, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart. Write as if your reader is at least as intelligent as you. This will help you avoid subtle condescension. It will also help your reader trust you and your level of intelligence.
- Don’t worry so much about hooking the reader in the first sentence, as you’ve been told to do. Quiet beginnings are often just fine. The main goal is that you don’t lose the reader right away: “You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion.”
- You’ve also been told to have a one-sentence elevator pitch that summarizes your story. But these authors believe that this advice is also misleading at times. “I tend to worry now when a story is easily summarized and in summary sounds interesting or, even worse, exciting. This may be superstition, but I believe there is one sure dictum about judging one’s material, a cocktail party rule so to speak: it isn’t always a bad sign when a potential story doesn’t talk well.”
- Conflict isn’t just about bad guys and good guys. The most important conflict in any story is the main character’s internal one. A good story is a “narrative of revelation.” Without revelation, the reader doesn’t see the point.
- A story is exciting when a character has a something important at stake. “A car chase is not required.”
- “Although many are simplistic, all rules of writing share a worthy goal: clear and vigorous prose.”
- Another mark of good writing is the development of an individual style, one that is not copied from another writer or set of writers. “The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.”
- Pay a lot of attention to the rhythm of each sentence. Short sentences can actually feel more difficult to mentally process, while longer sentences are sometimes exhausting.
- Be careful not to automatically imitate the breezy, casual tone that many writers take in articles and blog posts these days. “The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.”
- Don’t write the way you talk. But here’s a good rule of thumb: “If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it.”
- Don’t eschew the tasks of marketing and promotion. These are now part of the writer’s job, too.
- Enjoy the process of writing. Not just because the writing may not be received well, or received at all, but because when you are rewarded by the process, that feeling comes through your words.”
- Smooth out the bumps. A bump isn’t something you drive over then move on from. It’s a place in the story in which events aren’t connected, that could interfere with the story’s logic.
- “Don’t try to tell the reader how to feel.” Don’t spin it.
About the Author
Tracy Kidder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for his immersive and detailed works of narrative nonfiction. Some of his notable books include The Soul of a New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Strength in What Remains. Kidder’s writing often delves into the lives of individuals and their experiences, tackling complex subjects with depth and empathy.
Richard Todd is an accomplished writer, editor, and teacher of writing. He has worked as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and is known for his expertise in the field of nonfiction. Todd has collaborated with Tracy Kidder on multiple projects, bringing his editorial insight and writing skills to their joint efforts.
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