Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Good Prose

To get away from The Hill for a respite, Manhattan Project scientists would take a short drive to Bandelier National Monument to hike in the Jemez Mountains.
Bandelier National Monument (Thursday’s field trip at SciWrite)

To read the first part of our “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular” series, click HERE. That post discusses Elie Wiesel’s wisdom about words and writing. This week, we are immersed in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and continue our series with a discussion of a new book about writing.

Pultizer Prize-winning Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd have made their collaboration more overt and produced a collection of stories and advice called Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.

Their advice? For one thing, don’t start a piece the way we just did. “The habit of compression,” they write, “along with the exigency of a deadline, can lead a reporter to insert information into a sentence randomly, as if tucking in loose shirttails.” We wanted our readers to be impressed by Tracy Kidder even if you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine or Mountains Beyond Mountains, so we changed the Pulitzer Prize into an adjective to describe Kidder. Likewise, editor, a noun, was used as an adjective so that you’d know Todd plays a different role.

Other advice? Well, don’t do what we just did in the last paragraph. Okay, what Kidder and Todd call “the new vernacular” can work in a blog post because it’s “fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar.” All well and good, but the danger is that this style “imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons ‘You’re family’.”

Good Prose isn’t all nitty-gritty advice, though. Kidder and Todd tell stories, offer different perspectives on the same writerly issue, and give a full sense of the writing life. Since we’ve been revising early chapters of our book manuscript, we were drawn to the section called “Being Edited and Editing,” to which each author contributes an essay. Here, we find out about the evolution of the relationship between Kidder and Todd, and we are reminded of the crucial role that revision and editing play for most writers, for most books.

Books to Read“Editing isn’t just something that happens to you,” Kidder reminds us. “You have to learn how to be edited.” We consider ourselves pretty good at being edited, in part because we edit each other all the time. Kidder adds, “[W]hen someone takes the trouble to read and respond honestly, I ought to feel grateful, even if I don’t.” Suck it up, we tell ourselves, when our writing group questions the length of time we spend on the history of the development of the space shuttle. We really were grateful when our agent suggested our original two book chapters be jettisoned completely before she submitted the proposal to editors, which, of course, meant that we needed to polish up new chapters to include.

More recently, these past couple of months, we’ve been revamping again, not jettisoning whole chapters, but deleting the equivalent of a quarter or a third of a chapter, then rebuilding with greater focus. Kidder distinguishes between tinkering, which “is the kind of rewriting that the advent of word processing encouraged, by making it so easy,” and “figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for ways to tell your story.” And we make that distinction too. Both kinds of revision become crucial, but, as Elie Wiesel said a few weeks ago, we must resist falling in love with our own words.

In fact, Kidder echoes Wiesel in several ways. They both overwrite early drafts and consider revising—sculpting, in Wiesel’s word—a writer’s privilege. They look for what’s essential. They want to tell a good story.

Todd offers other ways of looking at editing. He asserts that the writer and editor need not be of a similar temperament or share confidences in order to create a strong, long-term working relationship that makes for good literature. What quality must the writer have in order to make the relationship work? “A ‘thick skin’ doesn’t begin to describe the necessary virtue. It is essentially an act of generosity [to be edited].” And what quality must the editor possess? “The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly.” The relationship between writer and editor is, ideally, one steeped in reciprocal generosity.

SpacePen1Writers—we among them—might keep in mind the changing role of editors in the publishing realm, with increased emphasis on acquisition and marketing and less reward for working extensively with writers to shape the book. Todd points to two pleasures for editors: “One is acquisition, the collector’s pleasure. The other is working with writers. […] As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both accounts.” Ultimately, though, he sees the resistance to editing far more likely to reside in the writer than the editor.

That said, he also draws a line. “Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting.” It’s not that the editor couldn’t rewrite—and a part of us wishes that our agent had produced a few new pages for us to claim—but revision will almost certainly work better if the writer does the work so that the style feels seamless.

Here’s a passage from Good Prose that captures our sentiments, that suggests why we remain grateful for our discussions with our writing group and with our agent:

All good writing ultimately is a contest with the inexpressible. Every good passage leaves some thing unsaid. So it ought to be hard. But you don’t want to make it harder than necessary. The best thing and editor can do is to help the writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.

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