We met in Boston, at the offices of The Atlantic Monthly. Neither of us can remember the date, but it must have been around the
time our fi rst joint effort as writer and editor was published, in July 1973.
By then The Atlantic was 117 years old. You sensed lineage when you walked up to its headquarters, an old brownstone on
the corner of Arlington and Marlborough streets, facing the Public Garden. It was prime real estate, but it was also in Boston,
not New York or Los Angeles. This was a magazine headquarters that seemed to say it was untouched by commerce, like
the wealthy Boston matron who, in an old joke, says, “We don’t buy our hats, we have our hats.” A boiler room clamor faintly
tolled in the offi ces upstairs, which had achieved High Shabbiness: faded mementos on the walls, layers of discolored paint on
the ornate moldings, threadbare carpeting. The building once, in the era of Silas Lapham, had been a single-family mansion,
and much of the fl oor plan had survived—many small rooms in back, in what must have been the servants’ quarters, and in front,
offi ces with fi replaces that editors used now and then when the Boston winter outperformed the heating plant.
It was an era that in memory seems closer to The Atlantic’s distant past than to our present, an era of typewriters and
secretaries—mostly young, wry women with fi rst-class educations trying to find their way into publishing careers. There
were a few older women, two of them editors; one wore a hat at her desk. The women of both ranks kept regular hours. The men
arrived midmorning and not long afterward went to lunch. “I’m going to grab a sandwich,” the editor-in-chief, Bob Manning,
would tell his assistant, as he headed for the all-male sanctuary and full luncheon menu of the Tavern Club. The more junior
men stepped out soon afterward, and often ended up at the Ritz Bar, a block away on Arlington Street. An editor with a writer
in tow could charge his lunch to the magazine. Eggs Benedict, a couple of small carafes of white wine, and back to work, rarely
later than two thirty. Many afternoons were cheery.
The Atlantic was more or less broke by then, just barely paying its expenses and about to become an exercise in cultural defi cit
spending for its owner. Editors didn’t earn much, less than twenty thousand a year (which bought more then than now, of
course, in part because there weren’t as many things to buy). A young writer was paid by the piece, two or three thousand dollars
at most for a long article that might take four months to complete.
The Atlantic’s archives held a trove of articles and stories and poems by just about every major American writer of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The magazine was still one of America’s preeminent cultural arbiters, but the role
was increasingly hard to play. In politics, The Atlantic had long stood for liberal thought. Now its editors stared out their windows
onto a world in which liberalism was under attack from both sides, from the Weathermen as well as the Nixon White
House. Every month the staff argued over the magazine’s cover and usually ended up with something colorful and overstated, in
the vain hope that a touch of sensation would improve newsstand sales. But the covers threatened the magazine’s cultural
legitimacy, the real attraction for its true audience and for many who worked there.
Nearly forty years is long enough to make the “us” of back then feel like “they.” We were young—Kidder twenty-seven,
Todd thirty-two—and each of us was trying to stake out a literary future. To Todd, editing at The Atlantic granted prestige,
like owning a fine antique. If he’d been in charge, the magazine would have reverted to the monochrome covers of its heyday.
As for Kidder, the idea of publishing articles at The Atlantic was more than exciting enough, since he would have been grateful
to be published anywhere. Phone calls were expensive back then and allowances for research miserly. For a young writer
short of funds, it was convenient to spend time in the building, camping out as it were in one of its many vacant back offi ces and
using the magazine’s phones for long-distance calls to sources for articles. Kidder spent many days and quite a few nights in the
building, and many hours working with Todd, whose office had a fi replace and a view. After-hours provisions could be found in
the bar in Manning’s offi ce down the hall.
We called each other by our surnames, as our sergeants had in army basic training. To Kidder, a childhood for Todd seemed
improbable—he must have been born old, and probably born ironic to boot. To Todd, and practically everyone else, Kidder
was young beyond his years. He was plainly ambitious, but his self-esteem ranged from abject to grandiose. Once, at a Christmas
party that went on too long, he confronted Bob Manning and announced, “I’m the best damn journalist in the Western
Hemisphere.” Hung over and contrite the next morning, he was comforted by Todd, who said, “At least you didn’t claim the
whole world.” Each imagined himself forbearing of the other.
Kidder wrote and rewrote many versions of his first Atlantic article, about a mass murder case in California. He had imagined
the piece as a sequel to In Cold Blood. At some point Bob Manning sent the manuscript back to Todd, having scrawled on it,
“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write.” Todd kept this comment to himself and merely told Kidder that the piece still needed fixing,
and the rewriting continued.
A long association had begun. Todd knew only that he had a writer of boundless energy. For Kidder, to be allowed not just to
rewrite but to rewrite ad infi nitum was a privilege, preferable in every way to rejection slips. And for Todd, it was possible to
imagine that a writer willing to rewrite might turn out to be useful. Todd once remarked to a group of students, never expecting
he would be quoted, “Kidder’s great strength is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.” The truth was that Kidder was afraid of
writing badly in public, but not in front of Todd. Kidder would give him pieces of unfi nished drafts. He would even read Todd
passages of unfi nished drafts, uninvited, over the phone. Very soon Todd understood when he was being asked for reassurance,
not criticism, and would say, “It’s fi ne. Keep going.” When a draft was done, Todd would point out “some problems,” and another
rewrite would begin.
That ritual established itself early on and persisted through many articles and Kidder’s fi rst two books. A time came—
midway through the writing of Among Schoolchildren, about a fifth-grade teacher—when Kidder began revising pages before
Todd had a chance to read them. This was a means of delaying criticism forever. No doubt that was Kidder’s goal, and he could
remain happily unaware of it as long as he kept on rewriting. Things went on that way for a while, until Todd said, in the
most serious tone he could muster, “Kidder, if you rewrite this book again before I have time to read it, I’m not working on it
anymore.” Kidder restrained himself, and the former routine was reestablished.
Eventually The Atlantic changed hands. Its book publishing arm was sold off, its headquarters relocated, its old building renovated
into a corporate offi ce. We lingered for a time, working under a new head editor, William Whitworth, who was to both
of us exemplary. He once told Kidder, “Every writer needs another set of eyes.” When Todd moved on to do his own writing
and to edit books, Kidder followed him.
This book is in part an account of lessons learned, learned by a writer and an editor working together over nearly forty years.
Good Prose is addressed to readers and writers, to people who care about writing, about how it gets done, about how to do it
better. That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery
of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No
other art form is so infi nitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work.
We should acknowledge some other predispositions. We’re
sticklers on fact. Nonfiction means much more than accuracy, but it begins with not making things up. If it happened on Tuesday,
that’s when it happened, even if Thursday would make for a tidier story. (And in our experience, at least, Tuesday usually
turns out to make for a more interesting story.) This is not to confuse facts with the truth, a subject we will deal with.
We also believe in the power of story and character. We think that the techniques of fi ction never belonged exclusively to fi ction,
and that no techniques of storytelling are prohibited to the nonfiction writer, only the attempt to pass off inventions as facts.
We think that the obscure person or setting can be a legitimate subject for the serious nonfi ction writer. And we think that every
piece of writing—whether story or argument or rumination, book or essay or letter home—requires the freshness and precision
that convey a distinct human presence.
During the past three decades American culture has become louder, faster, more disjointed. For immediacy of effect, writers
can’t compete with popular music or action movies, cable network news or the multiplying forms of instant messaging. We
think that writers shouldn’t try, that there is no need to try. Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of
thought and feeling. Good Prose is mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world,
writing about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempts to write and to
edit narratives, essays, and memoirs. We presume to offer advice, even the occasional rule, remembering that our pronouncements
are things we didn’t always know but learned by attempting to solve problems in prose. For us, these things
learned are in themselves the story of a collaboration and a friendship.
Copyright © 2013 by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.