Book Review: Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd’s Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Posted June 27, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd’s Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

on January 15, 2013 and has 195 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

It’s as Kidder says on the cover: “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing”.

My Take

Kidder says “it is essential only that there be something important at stake, a problem that confronts the characters or confronts the reader in trying to understand them. The unfolding of the problem and its resolution are the real payoff. A car chase is not required.”

While it’s aimed primarily at writers of nonfiction, it’s worth reading for anyone interested in writing whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or simply a casual history. It’s something of an autobiography on Kidder, dipping into highlights and low points of how he began writing, how he continued with Todd’s aid as an editor, their friendship, and using his own published works to demonstrate stumbling blocks he encountered.

Along the way, he touches on starting your book, what goes into a book with narratives, points-of-view, settings that “tell what is at issue — what a character is trying to do, what a character fears or is trying to hide, hopes to gain or stands to lose, what a character is up against.” The cautions and concerns of writing memoirs and essays.

There’s an amazing analysis of how describing Miss Brooke’s appearance provides a wealth of background information. Kidder then provides a counter to this wealth with his “telling details” with but a few words — and each appeals to me.

“…if you described not the wart but how the character covers it when he’s nervous.”

I love how Kidder wants us to “wait for the moment when we need to know her age … as a potentially significant fact”.

Painting an image of someone for “a book or a detailed and subtle magazine pice to portraying a human being, you are hoping that the reader will fall into the story and empathize with the character.

It’s a different definition for POV as “the place from which a writer listens in and watches. Choosing one place over another determines what can and can’t be seen, what minds can and can’t be entered” with “the choice … affecting the tone, the author’s apparent attitude toward the events and people of a story…” “A place to stand … a way to think and feel.”

“The world for the nonfiction writer is not a kit full of endlessly interesting parts waiting to be assembled, a garden of flowers waiting to be picked and arranged.”

And, yes, Kidder does address what he calls the “New Vernacular”, the contemporary prose of the Internet including, LOL, the OMG, “whatever”, “duh”, and more as he slides into “Institutionalese” “concealing more than it reveals”, metaphors, similes, and the dreaded clichés.

Kidder also touches on the marketing writers are told they must do from branding to platforms to book proposals to marketing plans, but the most practical advice is to think as a writer while writing the book and to see the writing as a commodity, a product when it’s published.

Ooh, I liked this one too…”Write the way you talk on your best day. Write the way you would like to talk.”

The Cover and Title

The cover is clever as an old wooden desk with a deep umber background with three hardcover books stacked end-on to us with the authors’ names floating on top of the pages. They’re well-used books with bookmarks, a loose page, and well-worn corners. I like the metaphor of the red pencil lying on top.

Every word of the title, the sub-title, and the tagline are to the point, as it’s all about Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.


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