Thursday, February 21, 2013

Advice on Writing Good Prose

Last weekend I caught a program on Book TV that got me excited about writing.

Yep. That's the word that describes how I felt watching Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd talk about their new book: Good Prose: the Art of Nonfiction - Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing.

I'm always looking for new ways to think about writing, and what could be better than to listen to advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and former executive editor of The Atlantic Richard Todd.

Although it was late at night and I was sleepy, I pulled out my handy-dandy black-and-white 2013 writing notebook and started writing. Here are some notes I jotted down:

Three forms of nonfiction:
- Essay
- Memoir
- Factual narrative

On Beginnings:
- Imagine the reader is intelligent and has knowledge not available to you.
- "There's a lot to be said for the quiet beginning." (e.g. "Call me Ishmael.")
- Invite the reader into a conversation
- Don't tell it all at once
- Trust yourself as a writer
- Trust the reader

- Broader way of thinking
- Reveal the dramatic truth

Narrative of revelation:
- Problem unfolds
- Something is important or at stake
- Someone is learning something that transforms
- Most important conflict comes from within the character
- Without revelation, leaves one asking: "Is that all?"

Finding the story:
- Have an idea
- Let it blossom
- "Luck of the conception"
- "Grace descending"
- Chance encounter
- A story is not a subject
- Begins with character

Forget the cocktail party rule for summarizing your story: "It isn't always a bad sign when a potential story does not talk well."

Writing (after research):
- Don't commit too soon
- Seek to understand
- Don't delay too long
- Find a method that works
- Write in blocks to find connections
- Make mistakes early

- Fall out of love with your words
- Let go of words that don't fit
- Leave something unsaid
- Help the reader to think
- Don't make it harder than necessary
- Read out loud
- Something that is good must go for the good of the whole
- Learn in revising

"A writer cannot hide from the sound of his voice."

"The best thing an editor can do is to help a writer to think."

That sums up most of what I wrote down.

Yesterday I visited our local library to check out Good Prose until I buy my own copy. Alas, the copy at the branch I visited had already been checked out.  Until my copy arrives, I'll rely on my notes.

So, any comments on Good Prose?


  1. It sounds like a good book, Donna. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. So many words of wisdom there. A few that really struck me: "A writer cannot hide from the sound of his voice." How true. And how lovely.
    - Leave something unsaid (I find this one thing separates the great from the merely good. There is such a fine line between being clear and explaining too much.)
    - "Grace descending" (Lovely. Just lovely.)
    Oh, and I love quiet beginnings sometimes, too.

    As always, Donna, thanks.

  3. Wow! I'll have to look for reruns of this show! I need to just set my TV to record all of the Book TV shows and then I'll never miss one like this. Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing all this. YOU are the bestest-note-writer-downer that I know! :D

  4. I have that book! Haven't read it yet...but it sits on the kitchen counter inside its Amazon box, waiting for me to get inspired or clean off the counter. Looks like I might have some spare time tomorrow.

  5. Sounds like a good book. I have quite a few craft books, but not this one.

  6. You just won another book over at Cathy's. Thanks for the info on this one.

  7. Donna, wow! I loved your review of this book. Just what I needed right now. I'm going to go to my local library tomorrow and see if they have a copy to check out. If not, I may have to make a trip to "Barnes and Noble" on Friday night! Thanks again for helping me expand my writing opportunities!

  8. Donna, thanks for sharing. The book is now on my list. So true about a writer not being able to hide from her voice. It wouldn't be hard to pick out fellow critiquer's work by their style and voice.

  9. Another one to add to my list, thanks for sharing!

  10. Wow, you did good taking notes late at night. Lots of good tips, will check my library as well. Have a great week.

  11. Great advice, Donna, thanks. I'm impressed that you stayed up late and still took notes well enough to share with us. Thanks!

  12. Hi Sioux,
    You are welcome. Glad you enjoyed.

    Hi Tammy,
    I love the "grace descending" reference too.

    Hi Becky,
    Thanks. I do take lots of notes. The hard part is reading them, especially after I jot them down half asleep. ;-)

    Hi Janet,
    It does sound good.

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks for letting me know.

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks for your kind words, and I enjoy reading your movie reviews!

    Hi Alice,
    So true about a writer's voice. I'd recognize yours because of your humor and warmth.

    Hi Lynn,
    You are so welcome.

    Hi Sally,
    Hope you have a great week too. If we can get around this snow all will be well.

    Hi Lisa,
    You are welcome. The program was worth watching through sleepy eyes.


    Hi Val,
    Yay! I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy too!


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