Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House, January 2013) is a volume about what makes nonfiction great. Using their own experiences as a writer of nonfiction (Tracy Kidder, bestselling author) and an editor of creative nonfiction (Richard Todd, Atlantic editor), the two friends provide a compelling tale of what makes good writing good, and what makes a good writer a good writer, covering everything from how to begin and how to structure a narrative to the more complicated specifics of memoirs, essays, style, and writing as job in today’s society.

I once again had the disadvantage of never having read the authors who wrote this book, but it did not impact my enjoyment of it. I loved their discussions of the important aspects of story, point of view, how to discuss characters, and how to structure a creative nonfiction work.

I thought of this book often as I recently read through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As I mentioned the other day, I found that was a particularly compelling nonfiction book that mixed the “nonfiction” sub-genres: was it memoir, biography, science, or creative nonfiction? It was compelling because of how well it was pulled together.

Kidder and Todd’s book helps address the questions of why such a book is compelling, as well as counseling on how one can capture their own story in a compelling way as well. When writing nonfiction, it is clear that the narrator or writer who is telling the story is in a precarious position. How does one write about events as if he or she is not there if the presence of the storyteller alters the story? In the case of Rebecca Skloot’s book, her roll became central to the unfolding story. On the other hand, in other cases, a careful researcher, journalist, or other nonfiction writer may be able to keep the story more compact. It is interesting to consider the impact of the narrator/writer on the story.

I really enjoy reading nonfiction that is well done, and so I enjoyed reading Kidder and Todd’s look at what makes it so. When I finished reading it at the beginning of January, I felt much more enthusiastic than I do now, almost a month after the fact. Was it a forgettable volume, or have the past weeks of family flu and other distractions simply dimmed my memory of the experience of reading it? I don’t know, but since I have it on my shelf, I may revisit it again in the future to see what I think about it after I read some more compelling nonfiction.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of Good Prose from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.


  1. says

    The best nonfiction is when it is like reading fiction. Is that what creative nonfiction is? I just realized I don’t even know. I like reading nonfiction but hate when it starts feeling like I am reading a paper published in a professional journal. It has to have flow, the writer still has to keep the reader gripped so that they keep turning the pages. If I want to read a professional paper, I will look for it in a journal, not a book.