Good Prose: Beyond Accuracy

In chapter five of Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,: Beyond Accuracy, authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd really show their mettle. Their integrity and commitment to the truth—a consistent theme throughout the books thus far—comes to the forefront here.  
The authors readily admit that in true reporting, things get left out; but their confidence that—in capable hands—the truth tells transformative stories is clear. A good journalist, they indicate, will be able to present the facts in such a way that captivates the reader. They quote John McPhee on truth in nonfiction: “…You arrange it and present it. There’s a lot of artistry. But you don’t make it up.” (pp. 82)
Richard Todd shares a parable involving a trip to a bar with his grandfather and an elk’s head mounted on the wall there that seems to capture the essence of this first part of the chapter.
…I may have asked my grandfather how the elk’s head came to be there, or maybe he simply took it upon himself to tell me the story. It was quite sad, he said. One day the poor elk had come crashing through the wall, and they had just left him there. “The rest of him is sticking out the back,” he said. “We’ll go around and look at him later.” (pp. 83)
Todd goes on to say that this little story illustrates the difference between nonfiction and fiction.
…Imagine that the bar is a book. In a novel, the mounted elk’s head is all there is. But in nonfiction, the rest of the elk really is on the other side of the wall.”
This was a favorite part of the chapter, this parable. Just goes to show how a good story (and a true one, at that!) reveals truth in such a way that the reader will nod the head and enter in.
Todd and Kidder also discuss the relationship between writer and subject in this chapter. They offer sound advice to anyone aspiring to such an association—such as ways journalists can help subjects think through the implications of letting writers into their lives. The subject is introduced in the frame of avoiding a lawsuit, but what is compelling about this discussion is the the insistence of the authors that journalists handle their subjects with respect and sensitivity.
…You strive to give the reader the illusion of a real person, and you have to make sure that the illusion is faithful to the truth as you understand it. (pp. 86)
You are a guest in your subject’s life and ought to behave as a good guest would… (pp.91)
…To try to depict real people is to grant yourself an immense power over individual lives, and the power is easily abused… (pp. 91)
This chapter succeeded in affirming an opinion that has been formulating in my mind as I read Good Prose; that is, not only are Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd good writers—they are good men. They have succeeded in doing what every good journalist must do—they have gained this reader’s trust.
Second Draft:
Try this experiment: Conduct an interview with someone. Make a special effort to be aware of your subject as a human being–someone’s mother, son, sister, brother. Be aware of your emotional reactions to this individual. How do your feelings shape your questions? Write the interview. How do your feelings shape the story you are telling about this person? Do you feel any conflict between presenting certain facts and the portrait you want to create? Is there a way to find balance between fact and story?

On Wednesdays, we’re discussing Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Next week we’ll discuss chapter six: The Problem of Style.

Other posts in this series: 


  1. Shelly Miller says

    After writing hundreds of features for on-line and print magazines, I know these words to be true. And I actually began to prefer interviewing over the phone so my emotions or suppositions about people were kept at a minimum. It is like working a puzzle to try to tell a story in as few words as possible and not leave anything important on the side of the road. It’s actually great way to build your writing muscle when it comes to storytelling. Asking what is important, what can be left out.

  2. says

    oh, loved this: a good story (and a true one, at that!) reveals truth in such a way that the reader will nod the head and enter in.
    what a helpful post. thank you, Laura!

  3. says

    This is great advice and a wonderful reminder. My experience as a journalist writing profiles for the paper has helped me in this area but I know I can easily slip into seeing the story through my own emotion, not theirs very quickly.

  4. lauralynnbrown says

    The thing I miss the most about the three years I spent as a religion reporter is talking to strangers and trying to listen and understand them in their full personhood. It was great practice in minimizing self, and the writing was a responsibility bound in trust.

  5. Maureen says

    The writer who can’t figure out what to leave out is simply a disseminator of information. Facts may be interesting but too many of them can obscure what we need to know to understand the person or the event. It takes a lot of practice to learn to make the story shine.

  6. Jody Collins says

    Laura, I can’t add this book to the stack right yet, but I have gleaned much through your reviews/discussions. Thanks–great stuff.

  7. says

    I loved the idea of my interviewees being a guest. This really came home in a situation when I interviewed someone and he told me something very sensitive. On one hand, it mattered to the story, but on the other hand, it didn’t. I ended up asking him how he wanted me to handle it, and he gave me the words. I’m very protective of my “people.” I want them to trust me and to be happy that they let me into their lives for a little bit.


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