29 Jun 2009, 10:58am
by admin

The Definitive How to Write A Book Book

Stephen J. Pyne. 2009. Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction. Harvard Univ. Press.

A review by Mike Dubrasich

Note: We usually place book reviews in the W.I.S.E. Colloquia, but this book does not fit readily into any of those, or perhaps it fits in all of them. So we placed it here.


It is a rare thing for a champion of a sport to write the definitive instruction manual. Jack Nicklaus’ Golf My Way springs to mind, as does Ted Williams’ The Art of Hitting.

Voice & Vision is one of those remarkable and special All-Star pedagogies: a how-to-write-a-great-book-book written by a champion of the sport.

Dr. Stephen J. Pyne is Regents Professor at Arizona State University. He is author of Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada (2007); Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 (2001); Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982); Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (1991); World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (1995); Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe’s Encounter with the World (1997); The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986), and numerous other histories, memoirs, essays, and texts about fire, history, and the human condition, (and a novel, too: Brittlebush Valley).

Steve Pyne is a literary master, a leading historian, a weaver of words, a lyrical scribe, a story teller, a humorist, an indefatigable researcher, and most especially, a teacher.

And a friend. I admit my bias. But he was a great writer long before I knew him. Indeed it was through his books that I first came to know him. Many of Pyne’s essays may be found at W.I.S.E. (see the History of Western Landscapes and Forest and Fire Sciences Colloquia).

Now, with kindness and mercy, he has written a book that explains how he does it, for all of us who aspire but need a guidepost or two, without which we would flounder in ruts and get nowhere, or worse, write some putrid academic drivel that no one can read nor would they want to.

There is the craft of writing nonfiction. Many are forced into it, chiefly because they need that sheepskin and have to write a thesis or dissertation, or else must publish or perish, or else did some research and are duty-bound to write it up, or have something say and no microphone, just a pen, or a wordprocessor. Voice & Vision will help you.

There is also the art of writing. If you aspire to write artfully, Voice & Vision will inspire you and light your way.

The craft of writing can be learned, and probably taught. It’s a skill, like building a workbench or planting tulips. Its techniques are those of literature generally. The art of writing is more mysterious. Like Xeno’s Achilles chasing the tortoise, one can approach it ever more closely without ever catching it. At some point there must be a germ of genius, a talent that might be planted and pruned but can’t be concocted out of the ether. … What books like this one can do is try to demystify and make conscious what is often subconscious and intuitive.

Nonfiction is sometimes thought of as plain and even dry, but there is no reason it can’t be as artful as fiction. Pyne has proved that many times over. There are two rules that apply specifically to nonfiction, though:

[Y]ou can’t make anything up, and you can’t leave out something that really matters-meaning something that, if included, would alter our fundamental understanding.

Errors of commission (telling fibs) are easy to avoid. Errors of omission (leaving key ingredients out of the recipe) are a little bit trickier. Both will, of course, spoil the nonfiction soup.

But the real art of writing comes from having vision — something to say, a Big Idea, a message crying to get out — and voice — a sensibility about the audience and the lungs to reach them. There are songwriters who can’t sing, and singers who can only cover the tunes written by others; a great writer must be both.

In Voice & Vision Pyne explains all that and then instructs on the basics: design, character, setting, point of view, technique, editing, more editing, and then editing some more. But throughout his prose is artful, so that Voice & Vision is fun to read, even if you have no ambition to write a nonfiction book yourself. If you like to read, then Voice & Vision is satisfying in and of itself, and may make you a better reader, regardless of whether you hammer on computer keyboards or not. Some passages, randomly chosen:

One mode of voice demands special consideration. It is so common that pointing it out is like identifying crab grass or house flies. For a century, irony has been the customary medium of the modernist perspective, whether of art, literature, biography, history, or culture generally. While critics will harp on someone who shuns it, no one is ever criticized for adopting it. Yet irony is not something that falls naturally out of sources like stringy bark from a eucalypt.


There is a puritanical belief that simplicity, meaning the fewest and briefest words with the least flourish, equals truthfulness. The plain expression, unadorned, is always best. This, however, is an aesthetic judgment, although one granted a powerful boost by George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which, following a long lineage of English puritans, he savaged a collection of wretchedly wrought prose, badly written because its theme is either poorly understood or deliberately obscured. In each of his instances, bad writing displays or disguises bad thinking, which is to say, faulty morals and flawed politics. This malady is manifested so routinely that we hardly recognize it from background blather (and is usually dismissed as “just a lot of b.s.”).


Diction-word choice, the particular vocabulary used-is also a part of design. Colloquial language will grate against, even mock, a scholarly argument; so will exalted language in the service of the mundane. It’s like putting a Tudor gable on a hogan, or painting a hunting lodge flamingo pink.


Technical information often gets treated as either clunky or cute. Either it staggers from data point to data point, with no more internal order than a fist full of nails, or it slithers into coy allusions, authorial asides, and flighty analogies that further the text but not the reader’s understanding.


Perhaps the most fascinating figuration uses tropes to shape a section of text or even an entire manuscript; the figure of speech serves as an organizing conceit… Begin with Wallace Stegner’s essay “Mormon Trees,” in which he appeals to Lombardy poplars as peculiarly diagnostic (”the characteristic trees”) of Mormon settlement, as “typical as English hedgerows.”

Pyne is generous with examples of great nonfiction writing, including passages from Orwell, Stegner, Carl O. Sauer, William H. Goetzman, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Barbara Tuchman, Joan Didion, Norman Maclean, Bernard DeVoto, Francis Parkman, and many others, and naturally, from his own writings. (I was very pleased with the examples because those dudes are some of my favorite writers, too).

Pyne also reveals some of the nitty gritty of writing as a career. It is not easy, nor financially rewarding, unless you happen to hit the jackpot with a best seller, and chances are you are better off playing the lottery because the likelihood of cashing in at mini-mart Keno or PicSix is greater.

He also repeats a rule of writing that we all know about: you have to make the time and do it. Writing is a time-consuming chore, like weeding the garden, and if you spend your time in the garden instead of behind the keyboard then not much will get written, although you may achieve bushels of zucchinis instead.

One other rule of writing that he fails to mention, one that I know about from sad experience, is to Save To File frequently. Man overboard, if Obama Forbid the power glitches and you have failed to Save To File, your inspired prose oft cannot be regurgitated again. You cannot chew your cabbage twice. I know, from painful and fist-cursing episodes, and so do my wife and dog, who find my flashing rage at the Rural Power Grid deeply unpleasant.

Voice & Vision is brand new, fresh off the press with that new book smell, and you can get it from Amazon or your favorite book pusher. I highly recommend that you purchase a copy, so that Steve gets rich. One of us ought to, and it doesn’t look like I have much of a chance. Plus you (I am addressing in particular all you aca-dim-ics) may be inspired to write gooder than you do now, and frankly, speaking as your pal and buddy, that wouldn’t hurt any of us. Looky at how it’s helped me already!



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