Good Prose: Beginnings

To write is to talk to strangers.
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd follow their own advice when they start chapter one of Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction with that artful sentence. This first chapter, aptly titled Beginnings, is worth the price of the book.
Their years of experience shine in this opening chapter. Here, the authors speak deeper than the writing, capturing the essence of what it truly means to live in the skin of writer. At first draft, we write this life lonely—we hone our craft behind closed doors while others orbit us like moons, drifting in and out of our consciousness as we give ourselves over the words.
But when we look deeper into the story—cross-checking facts and following up on sources—we see this loneliness is a farce. Kidder and Todd remind us that we are never really alone as we write; there is one who must always be present with us as we clickity-clack. That, my friends, is the reader.
The way we begin a story must show particular sensitivity to the reader. The authors suggest that what is at risk as we enter in is trust.

…You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself…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.

Kidder and Todd go on to say that although it is popular to tell writers that they must “grab” or “hook” or “capture” the reader, the violence suggested in these metaphors should elicit caution.

There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning.

Writers often fall victim to motives that do not necessarily serve the story: to dazzle with style or to bombard with information.
But a good beginning gives the dual experience of achieving clarity and artfulness. One must not be sacrificed for the other.

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

Confusion, vagaries, or exaggerated abstractions do not serve the reader. Clarity communicates trust.
What I love about this chapter is the way the authors encourage the writer to embrace the writing as almost a living thing—this evolving process of discovery. It makes me fall in love with writing all over again—see the excitement that lifts off the page.
What I hear these two gentlemen saying is that writing is a way to serve. This first chapter debunks the myth of the self-absorbed artist. 

Don’t concentrate on technique, which can be the same as concentrating on yourself. Give yourself to your story, or to your train of ideas, or to your memories. Don’t be afraid to explore, even to hesitate. Be willing to surprise yourself. (emphasis mine)

It sounds a bit like surrender to me.
I think I can do this.
Second Draft:
*Look at your last blog post (if you are a blogger; if not, look at mine). Consider your first sentence. How can you make that entry into story better? Does it condescend? Does it lack clarity? Do you give yourself to the story? Share your thoughts here, if you will. I would love to hear them.
Next Wednesday we’ll discuss chapter two: Narratives. I know, right? I can’t wait. 


  1. soulstops says

    what a first line…I would add: If you keep reading someone’s writing, then you will no longer be strangers. And in your case, I think of you as a friend. I pray your son’s ears are better…read a post of yours via Twitter…Grateful for you, Laura…hugs to you 🙂

  2. Jody Collins says

    Laura, I liked very much this comment about the ‘quiet beginning.’ I have SO much to learn as a writer and not a lot of time to devote to the craft, but these tidbits are great food for thought. So glad you’re doing this little solo book review discussion. You are a blessing to me.

  3. Pam OBrien says

    Oh, that rings true…when we write we talk to strangers. And I concur with Jody, below. I like a quiet beginning, too. I’m more drawn to ‘gentle and respectful’ than I am to ‘shock and awe.’
    I’ve been a dry well lately; virtually wordless. My blog has, therefore, become little more than a narrated photo journal. Still, I post a couple of times every week, hoping to spin out of the rut. Thanks for sharing this book review… perhaps it will help my predicament!
    Blessings to you.

  4. says

    I still have so much to learn about writing. I think too many times, I’ve just written. But lately when listening and getting in touch with what I’m feeling makes me have to pause. When I do that, I do write things that surprise me. And once I see it on the page, it feels authentic and true. Also after writing a draft, I go back to edit and move sentences that are further down, up to the top as the opening.

  5. says

    I feel the same way, Tammy. I think writing is something that will always be evolving for me–always growing and changing. That makes me happy and excited when I consider it. From reading your words, I can say that I believe you give yourself to the story completely. I think you hit the nail on the head–pausing and listening is a big part of writing, isn’t it?

  6. says

    I think images are a good way to prime the pump when my well runs dry, Pam :). I’ve been going through a little bit of that myself. That’s one reason I picked up this book. It is helping me edge through this desert.

  7. says

    And you bless me, Jody. I feel the same way about writing–and I think I always will. There is so much to learn. It’s a beautiful thing. A quiet beginning, yes, but there must be a constant journeying, no? Rather like faith.

  8. says


    Thanks for coming over to Wednesday’s Word and leaving a comment.

    I never really thought of the “first sentence” but I did go back and read what I had written. I think it might have grabbed readers – drew them into my story.

    I will try to be cognizant of that idea from now on.


  9. says

    I just finished reading “Good Prose” last night. There is so much I like about it, and lots of quotable material. I was thinking of putting in a post a few of my favorite quotes from it. The advice is so sound, and comes from much hard, sustained writing and editing. What I also like is the exchange between writer and editor, which is not something you find in many books on writing well. To have both perspectives is to understand how important the relationship is, when it works and when it doesn’t.

    I like the implicit sense of a conversation taking place in that quote “To write is to talk to strangers.” Those who like what you’re saying tend to stick around.

  10. says

    I’m almost done with the reading too, Maureen, and have found it just delightful. I think you’ve pegged what I enjoy about it also–that relationship between Kidder and Todd. If you write that post with some of your favorite quotes, let me know and I’ll link it to one of these weekly posts.

  11. SimplyDarlene says

    Well, my imagined intelligence explains a whole lot. Whew! That right there is like a pressure relief valve.



  12. Leanne says

    So I’m following your blog now 🙂 My first sentences definitely need work. I pretty much write the whole blog post and then come back and figure out how to hook the beginning. That’s the tough part. I don’t wait too long for that perfect sentence though …

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  14. says

    Would you believe I forgot to order this book?! I’m going to remedy that right now.

    “There’s a lot to be said for the quiet beginning.” I like that. It’s soothing. 🙂

    And the idea of writing as surrender to serve. I like that, too.

    Oh, and m last first line? “I stretch out on the blue carpet in front of the family room fireplace, palms up.”


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