Legendary literary journalist Kidder (Strength in What Remains, 2009, etc.) and his longtime editor trade war stories and advice for the ambitious nonfiction writer.
“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write,” an Atlantic editor told Todd about Kidder, who had been constantly revising his first feature in 1973. The authors tell this story upfront as an inspirational anecdote for young writers: Great writing is less often the product of flashes of genius than it is dogged persistence as a researcher and rewriter. The book is largely an entertaining handbook on matters of reporting (do lots of it, much more than you think you need) and style (simpler is better), but Kidder and Todd are not prescriptive the way Strunk & White and its inheritors are, and they allow greater leeway for writers. Throughout, they implore writers to shrug off the shackles of “journalese” and blog-y posturing and strive for creative, essayistic approaches. They’re also forgiving, to a degree, of the imperfect memories that propel many memoirs. Outright fabrications (see James Frey) are out of line for them, but they appreciate that no memoirs “that strive to dramatize moments in the past can be wholly faithful to knowable fact.” After the practical matters are settled, the two indulge in “Being Edited and Editor,” a lengthy chapter in which they recall their contentious relationship tussling over paragraphs. Even here, though, the memories are studded with practical tips and memorable aphorisms—“Something is always wrong with a draft,” in particular, should hang over every writer’s desk. The authors also offer fine recommendations for further reading, from Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (1967) to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012).
Other writing guides have more nuts-and-bolts advice, but few combine the verve and plainspokenness of this book, which exemplifies its title.