Archives for August 2012


On Writing: Short Takes and Second Thoughts

By Mike Feinsilber

“Writing is a solitary, late night, early morning sort of thing. Unless you’re a literary genius—a Shakespeare or a Crane—it’s never a one-shot deal, always revision, revision, revision, over time. Writing well frustrates and exhausts, and one soon begins to think he’d rather scrape the inside of his skull with a spoon.” —Rick Cannon, a Gonzaga College High School English teacher, in a memo to his 11th grade students, as quoted August 27, 2012, by Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post.

On Writing: Words We Love Too Much

By Mike Feinsilber

Sometimes the writing comes too easily. The writer who just dashes it off taps out the first phrase that comes to mind. The result is writing that’s easy but reading that’s irksome. The concept I’m dancing around here, because it sounds so harsh, is trite. When you write a fatigued phrase, stop. Think of a fresher way to say it. Succeed and you’ll be happy. I still remember sliding onto the UPI wire a description of someone as low-faluting.

On Writing: Letting the Reader Think

By Mike Feinsilber

Back when I was the writing coach for the Washington bureau of the AP, I wrote a memo about the overuse of adjectives. A particular target was the word “very,” which I argued performs contrarily to the writer’s intention—it dilutes what the writer intended to underscore. “Very,” I said, was never useful.

One of the bureau’s best writers dissented in a mumble heard round the newsroom.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I think I’d rather be very rich than rich.”

On Writing: Quote, But Only If You Must

By Mike Feinsilber

Historian John Toland, in Battle: Story of the Bulge, tells the story: December, 1944, Bastogne, Belgium. The troops of the 101st Airborne are surrounded. A band of four German couriers arrive under a flag of truce and demand the Americans surrender in two hours or face annihilation. When told, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe says, “Us surrender? Oh, nuts,” and goes about his business.

But the Germans want an answer.  McAuliffe asks his commanders what he should reply. One says the general’s first comment sounded pretty good. And so the message went back to the Germans: