I think it is a daunting task to write a book on how to write well, yet there are volumes of such books published each year. Few become classics, like The Elements of Style, but there is a new book published today that I think is worth noting. The title is Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. It is written by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and in the description of the book, the publisher makes this claim, …Good Prose—like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—is a succinct, authoritative, and entertaining arbiter of standards in contemporary writing, offering guidance for the professional writer and the beginner alike. This wise and useful book is the perfect companion for anyone who loves to read good books and longs to write one.
Time will tell if this volume holds up to that claim, but the sections I have read are quite good. Here are some of the statements I found particularly insightful. Some of these excerpts will also featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition.
- To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not —why else presume to write?—but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism.
- Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting. What you “know” isn’t something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best of conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together.
- Beginnings are an exercise in limits. 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. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning.
- Meek or bold, a good beginning achieves clarity. A sensible line threads through the prose; things follow one another with literal logic or with the logic of feeling. Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it’s a virtue always, and especially at the beginning of a piece of prose. Some writers seem to resist clarity, even to write confusingly on purpose. Not many would admit to this.
- For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information. It’s one thing for the reader to take pleasure in the writer’s achievements, another when the writer’s own pleasure is apparent. Skill, talent, inventiveness, all can become overbearing and intrusive. The image that calls attention to itself is often the image you can do without.
- Sometimes the writer who overloads an opening passage is simply afraid of boring the reader. A respectable anxiety, but nothing is more boring than confusion.
- You can’t tell it all at once. A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never to say at all. Take one thing at a time. Prepare your readers, tell everything they need to know in order to read on, and tell no more.
For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information