Kidder wrote his first book, The Road to Yuba City: a Journey into the Juan Corona Murders, while at the University of Iowa. The Atlantic Monthly commissioned the work, and he continued writing as a freelancer for the magazine during the 1970s.:128 The Road to Yuba City was a critical failure,:128, 137 and Kidder said in a 1995 interview that
"I can't say anything intelligent about that book, except that I learned never to write about a murder case. The whole experience was disgusting, so disgusting, in fact, that in 1981 I went to Doubleday and bought back the rights to the book. I don't want The Road to Yuba City to see the light of day again.":129
Kidder has said that, unlike many other writers, he was not much influenced by his Vietnam experience: "Of course, whenever you're in an experience like Vietnam, it is bound to influence your work; it's inevitable, but I really don't think it greatly shaped me as a writer.":128 His works for Atlantic Monthly include several essays and short stories about the Vietnam War, including "The Death of Major Great" (1974), "Soldiers of Misfortune" (1978), and "In Quarantine" (1980). Writing in 1997, David Bennett rated these three pieces "among the finest reporting to come out of Vietnam.":128
Kidder's second book, The Soul of a New Machine (1981), was much more successful than his first. His account of the complex community and environment of programming and computer development won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1982. He has continued to write nonfiction books and articles, and these have been well received by the critics.:127 Kidder's latest book, Strength in What Remains, is a vivid and moving portrait of a man who survived the genocide in Burundi (former Rwanda).
He has explored a wide range of topics through his books, House (1985), a "biography" of a couple having their first house built, and the people involved in the project; Among Schoolchildren (1989), set in an elementary-school classroom in Holyoke, Massachusetts and reflecting on US education through the lives of these 20 children and their teacher (these two books were both bestsellers); and Old Friends (book) (1993), which explored the daily lives and personal growth of a pair of elderly men in a nursing home. His books have made "Notable" annual lists of the New York Times and received positive praise from critics, in addition to awards.
In fall 2010 Kidder was selected as the first A.M. Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. At the center, he worked with his onetime editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd, on a book about writing, titled Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. He lectured to students and did research to identify his next narrative subject.