The Art of Writing Non-Fiction

Historian Robert Caro’s new book, Working, suffers from redundancy (similar points, down to the phrasing, reappeared throughout the book), but I enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who writes non-fiction. Here are a few of my takeaways.

1. Writing well is hard work. Caro explains his tedious research process—the travel and hundreds of interviews he conducted for his books. He didn’t take other people’s word for something. He confirmed every detail with multiple primary sources. Caro and his wife moved to the Hill Country of Texas, and lived there for three years so he could better understand the hardscrabble youth of Lyndon Johnson. That’s commitment.

2. Writing well takes time. Caro writes fast, but he revises so much his output is low. He’s only written a handful of books, and it’s his full-time job. To be fair, his books are massive (350,000 words were deleted from one), and he’s won two Pulitzers. So his method, while tedious, is, as his title suggests, working.

Caro writes several drafts of each chapter longhand before he types them. He is continually revising, even galley proofs, in order to say it better. He says that non-fiction writing should be as powerful and beautiful as fiction. He doesn’t want to merely dump facts on the reader; he wants them to feel and see what his characters experience. I wish more history writers cared so much for good writing!

3. Writing well requires purpose. Caro is best known for his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. I’m sure the books are excellent—I’m going to start the first volume today—but I felt a twinge of sadness for Caro when I learned about his life’s work. It seems second rate to give your life to writing about somebody else. Wouldn’t it be better to be the Man, than to write about the Man?

Caro explains that he isn’t merely writing about Johnson. He’s using Johnson to understand twentieth century America and how power is acquired and used. He’s really writing about power. I like that purpose better, though I’d still rather be on the front lines than be the guy describing what happened and why. Then again, Caro wields a unique kind of power. How future generations think about Lyndon Johnson will be largely determined by Caro’s books.

4. Money is power. Caro has many interesting points to make about power. They mostly reduce to one, which he makes several times in different ways. He said he wrote about Robert Moses, the architect of the New York City highway system, because he wanted to understand where power came from. I thought, I know this one. Power comes from money. As Caro explained his research and interviews with Robert Moses, he confirmed my intuition. I’m sure The Power Broker is worth reading, as I’d learn a lot about the way power is useful and corrupts. I also suspect it confirms with data what we already know: the person with the money gets to make the rules.

5. Listening requires silence. Caro explained his best interviewing technique. He shuts up. When he is quiet, the other person feels compelled to fill the silence and shares more. This is a life hack I’m going to use.   

6. Worldviews matter. I don’t get the sense Caro is a religious person, and I think his work would have more purpose if he was. He defends his tireless research methods by saying, “while I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts—through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing—can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time” (p. 112).

I’m not sure I entirely understand his view on truth, but it seems that he thinks it doesn’t quite exist. Imagine giving your whole life, and your wife’s life (she is his research assistant), to learning historical facts but never coming to grasp the truth. That’s a large investment with little payoff. It seems Christians, who believe in Truth, should be motivated to write the best histories. Histories like Caro has done. I can’t wait to dig in. This may be my summer of learning about Lyndon.  

7. Character counts. Caro depicts Lyndon Johnson as an angry, insecure, and sinful man who did a lot of good.He’d be one of our greatest presidents except for Viet Nam. But given his character, Viet Nam or something like it was inevitable. You can’t run from who you are. Character always shows, especially when you wish it was late.

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