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January 14, 2013

Experts' Experts: Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd on how to write clearly

Their book "Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction" will be published tomorrow.

Below, excerpts which appeared in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal.

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.

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.

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.

Consider the most memorable first line in American literature: "Call me Ishmael." Three words. Cited out of context, it can be taken as a magisterial command. It's more properly heard as an invitation, almost casual, and, given the complexity that follows, marvelously simple. If you try it aloud, you will probably say it rather softly, conversationally.

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.

One who did was the wonderful-though-not-to-be-imitated Gertrude Stein: "My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear." Oddly, it's one of the clearest sentences she ever wrote.

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.

The writer works in service of story and idea and always in service of the reader. 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.

Journalists are instructed not to "bury the lead" — instructed, that is, to make sure they tell the most important facts of the story first. This translates poorly to longer forms of writing. The heart of the story is usually a place to arrive at, not a place to begin. Of course the reader needs a reason to continue, but the best reason is simply confidence that the writer is going some place interesting.

Wait a sec... what's that music I'm hearing?

January 14, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


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Just ordered it through your Amazon link. Kidder & Nicholson Baker are my favorite "contemporary" authors.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 14, 2013 11:46:03 AM

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