Advice That May Seem Quaint But She Did Write Great Stories for 70 Years

Lillian Ross and New Yorker editor William Shawn in the 1960s.

—From Reporting, a book by Lillian Ross, a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker. She died September 20, 2017, at the age of 99.

All I have to offer as answers to the question of “how” are some  principles—some of them old, instinctive ones that guided me from the beginning, and others that I learned, and learned to define, along the way.

Write as clearly and simply and straightforwardly as possible.

As soon as another human being permits you to write about him, he is opening his life to you, and you must be constantly aware that you have a responsibility in regard to that person. Even if that person encourages you to be careless about how you use your intimate knowledge of him, or if he is indiscreet about himself, or actually eager to invade his own privacy, it is up to you to use your own judgment in deciding what to write.

A reporter who has meanness or pettiness in his nature, or is superficial or sentimental, or is closely attached to other worlds—of wealth, glamour, academe, politics, gossip, show business, say—may not only impose these tendencies on what he sees and hears but try to reduce subjects to what is within him.

In reporting, the writer must watch his own weaknesses. . . .Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not serve yourself. Do not, in effect, say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!”. . . If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor.

To go on a television talk show to sell myself and my books or to try to be a stand-up comic or a sit-down celebrity in order to interest people in reading what I write would be the ultimate foolishness.

Come as close as you can to telling the truth, and let the reader make up his own mind.

Comments

  1. These comments look to me to be pretty timeless. Are they un-commercial?

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