How to Do Long-Form Journalism That Makes a Difference

By Jack Limpert

Tracy Kidder is one of those writers—Erik Larson, Hampton Sides, and David Maraniss are three others—who write books about subjects that no publisher will buy thinking that lots of people would like to read about that. But Kidder, Larson, Sides, and Maraniss are so good at reporting, thinking, and writing that their books get good reviews, win awards, and sell.

This week Kidder—on the day he turned 70— gave a talk at the University of Indianapolis as part of the Kellogg Writers Series. Dan Carpenter interviewed Kidder for Indiana’s Sky Blue Blog, and Kidder told him, “I’m always less interested in subjects than in people.” Carpenter wrote:

It started, more or less, with maverick computer engineer Tom West in the seminal Soul of a New Machine, Kidder’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner. It continued through a string of “ordinary” protagonists, such as a schoolteacher and a family building a house, before slamming into an extraordinary character named Farmer who was applying his Harvard education to the destitute villages of Haiti….

“Things bother me,” says the quiet chronicler of things that bother other people. War profiteering is one of those great wrongs Kidder muses about getting his hands around. So is the “astonishingly reckless” behavior of contemporary high-end entrepreneurs. But by no means has the veteran storyteller evolved into a pamphleteer.

His two most recent published works are a self-deprecating memoir about his Vietnam tour (My Detachment); and a team effort with a revered longtime editor, Richard Todd, called Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.

A memoir and an instructional text might carry the ring of valediction for a writer past the standard age for reportorial legwork. But fans need not fear. Kidder just finished a book of heavy-lifting journalism that revisits the tech industry to which he introduced many of us back in the ’80s, and he sounds on the phone more like the irrepressible kid Richard Todd took under his wing a half-century ago than an aspirant to a fishing boat off Cape Cod.

He and his artist wife of 44 years, Frances, do enjoy their four grandchildren; but the holder of every major award in American nonfiction still eyes mountains beyond mountains.

Meanwhile, he’s guardedly sanguine about the future of his profession, even as he worries about the anarchistic impact of the Internet upon it. Call him nostalgic, but he points to news about physical books’ overtaking e-books in sales and the resurgence of independent bookstores. And newspapers may be emaciated, but they’re far from dead, as evidenced by blockbuster investigations by Kidder’s local Boston Globe that are featured in two current films, Spotlight and Black Mass. Like brilliant doctors who forsake wealth for service, such sparks of defiance keep Kidder going.

“Can craftsmanship still be practiced in this society? Can meaningful work still be done? That question still interests me.”
The book, Good Prose—The Art of Nonfiction, that Kidder did with editor Richard Todd is worth reading. Here, from a 2013 post on this site, is Kidder talking about what he’s learned:

About writer’s block: “For a time, I insisted that the first sentence be perfect before going on, and therefore spent whole days and nights getting nowhere. This sort of thing happened often enough to make me fear it. So I abandoned care entirely when writing rough drafts. Instead, I wrote fast. I would spend a day or two in reverie over my material, then scratch out a sort of plan, not even an outline but just a list of events, and then churn out pages as quickly as I could. Writing as fast as possible would prevent remorse for having written badly. I would take every path that looked interesting, and keep myself from going back and reading what I’d written, let alone trying to fix it.”

About rewriting: “I learned to like rewriting, maybe too much, but really it is the writer’s special privilege. We rarely get the kind of chance in life that rewriting offers, to revise our pasts, to take back what we’ve said and say it better before others can hear it.”

He has some fun with Fitzgerald: “I remember in college reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: ‘Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look—rewrite from mood.’ I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory. Fitzgerald knew that there are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you’ve already written, but doing that can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself, he might have said, ‘Rewrite from principle,’ or ‘Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.’”

And about his relationship with Todd 40 years ago when he was trying to write his first piece for The Atlantic Monthly and Todd for many months kept helping him: “I never dared to ask Todd why he put up with it, but some years later, I raised the question with his wife, Susan, and she said, ‘He’s willing to work as hard as the writer is.’”
Here, from another post about Good Prose, is some of what Todd says about editing and writing:

1. Todd on writers:

I was once on a panel with another editor, who said the most extraordinary thing. Asked why she went into publishing, she said, “Well, I just really like writers.”

Imagine liking writers! I mean liking writers as a class of people. Safecrackers or jugglers or dental hygenists, sure—but writers? Writers are by nature narcissists….In a way they have to be narcissists, at least while they are working. To maintain the concentration and self-belief necessary to see one’s project as preeminently worthy generally requires a distorted sense of reality.

2. Todd on editors:

Editing is a wifely trade. This is a disquieting thought for editors, certainly for male editors, and in a different way for some female editors, too, but editing does involve those skills that are stereotypically female: listening, supporting, intuiting. And, like wives, editors are given to irony and indirection.

3. Todd on whether editors also should be writers:

To write can have a good or a bad influence on your editing. Being edited makes you more sensitive to the way in which the editorial hand, so innocuous seeming when you are wielding it, can cause pain. On the other hand, if you think of yourself as a writer, you may too easily imagine that the answer to another writer’s problem is your own fine prose.

4. Todd on whether an editor should rewrite:

Editors, in any medium , should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting. Revision by an editor never works as well as when the writer does the work. If editors do add words, they should try to maintain the author’s style and idiom, in the spirit of those signs you used to see at dry cleaners: “invisible reweaving.” The surest way to do harm to a piece of writing is to impose one’s own style on it.

5. Todd on the most important work an editor does:

Editors need a hierarchical sense of a manuscript, book, or article. They need to see its structure, its totality, before they become involved in minutiae. A writer should be on the alert when an editors starts by fixing commas or suggesting little cuts when the real problem resides at the level of organization or strategy or point of view….Editors ideally can see and hear prose in a way that the writer cannot.

The best thing an editor can do is to help the writer think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.

Speak Your Mind