February 19, 2013
Good Prose 1: Talking to Strangers
"To write is to talk to strangers."
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd practice what they preach by starting their book Good Prose quietly, with a sentence at once disarming and muscular. Indeed, the whole book is about this one, deceptively simple, nearly passive, seven-word sentence. Its rhythm is as beguiling as its substance is vital.
All writing and editing comes down to the fact that you don't know your readers. And if you want to transform your readers from strangers into friends you must trust them, treat them with respect and, of course, not bore them.
And if you want to make friends, it's also best not to be too aggressive.
Writers are told that they must "grab" or "hook" or "capture" the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes, "I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention."
I've read a lot of good books on writing. Good Prose is one with a twist. A writer and editor who have worked together for forty years on multiple articles and books talk about the craft of nonfiction from both sides. They don't wow you with literary pyrotechnics. Rather, they gently walk writers through some very practical issues, but in such a way that by the end of the stroll you found you enjoyed the journey as much as you did arriving at your destination.
They cover the genres of memoir and essay with effective examples from the authors' own work and that of others. They consider style, point of view and structure along with less common subjects like the tension between art and commerce. In the closing chapter, the authors focus on their experiences of editing and being edited as they fill out more of the story of how their decades-long relationship grew.
As a result, not only are we guided in how to write to strangers, we see how these two themselves became friends.
Next Installment: Good Prose 2: The Problem with Memoir