Good Prose is not at all like other style books. It reads like a story. It has all the ingredients of good nonfiction – point of view, voice, characters, dialogue, setting, metaphor, irony, and hum
The story is about the relationship between Tracy Kidder, a writer of nonfiction books and feature articles, and his editor Richard Todd. It’s also about what they learned by working together for forty years to solve problems in prose.
The problems addressed in the book are structural – decisions about point of view, what to enlarge and what to leave out, and how to handle narrative time, for example. Despite the title, the book is not a “how-to” on writing good sentences. But it is a model of good sentences.
Good Prose delves into the kinds of prose Todd and Kidder have worked on: essays, book-length narratives, and memoir. There are also chapters on beginnings, accuracy, style, making a living and, of course, the author-editor relationship. In each chapter, they provide plenty of examples from their own writing and reading.
Todd and Kidder (they call themselves by their surnames) met at the Atlantic Monthly in Boston in 1973. Kidder, then twenty-seven, was ambitious and hard-working but insecure beneath his arrogance – in need of propping up, in Todd’s view. Todd, at thirty-two, came across as bookish, ironic, and old beyond his years, and more confident that he really was.
Kidder published his first article at the magazine under Todd’s tutelage. His first book, Soul of a New Machine (1981), won a Pulitzer Prize. And so they carried on. Over the years they developed their own rituals and vocabulary, like an old married couple.
“We need a brilliance here,” Todd will say, meaning that Kidder needs to summarize an insight in a way that is not didactic.
A “bump” signals a big problem that cannot be smoothed with surface roadwork. Something is wrong with proportion – the attention given to parts of the story – and with the connection between the parts.
A tone that is melodramatic calls for “taking the spin off.”
Their method of collaboration is unusual. Todd does not write anything down. He does not provide Kidder with an “editorial letter” or a “manuscript assessment.” He used to scribble in the margins, but early on his handwriting became illegible and he did not take up on-screen editing. They communicate by phone in the early stages of writing.
“It’s fine,” Todd will say, “Keep going.”
When the manuscript starts to look like a book, they meet in a secluded place to conduct an “autopsy.” They spread the pages in piles on the floor, pick apart the book, iron out the problems, and piece it together in best possible way.
As soon as a book is finished, Kidder will ask “What should I write about next?” Todd is involved at every stage of the writing process, from finding the story idea and getting the right angle to finessing the syntax and word choice – an approach to editing that he highly recommends.
“I don’t consider much of my life to be exemplary,” Todd writes, “but this way of working is worth imitating for a writer and editor.”
Yet Todd admits that their method may not be doable now that acquisitions editors are not so much writing coaches as “venture capitalists” looking to sign on the next best seller.
Does that mean there is nothing in the book for today’s editors who may never meet their authors face-to-face? Not at all. There is a “lifetime of learning” packed in these pages.