9/11 Closed the Skies Above DC—No More Going Up to Shoot Aerial Photos. But It Was Fun While It Lasted.

By Jack Limpert

Before 9/11/01, photos of Washington from the air appeared regularly in the Washingtonian. We’d rent a small plane, send up a writer and photographer, and we’d run good aerial pictures of everything from the National Mall to the CIA in suburban Virginia to the NSA in suburban Maryland.

After 9/11, there were no more private planes in the skies above the nation’s capital and no more photo essays of the city from the air.

Why Do This to Your Readers?

By Mike Feinsilber

Here’s a case of commendable concept, crummy execution. On Saturdays, the Washington Post turns over a page in the A section to its readers’ commentaries—mostly complaints—about what they’ve read in the paper in the week gone by. That’s a swell idea; everybody has gripes about how the local paper reports and writes the news and about stories left uncovered.

But the person who puts headlines over these readers’ contributions has a wise-guy attitude that undercuts the intention of the page, which is to act as a safety valve.

When the New Yorker Was Nonpartisan

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 2.26.46 PM“Because of its nonpartisanship, its lack of monolithic editorial policy, and its peculiar mix of cartoons, fiction, advertising, serious journalism, and cultural criticism The New Yorker had an uncommon capacity to present overlapping and contradictory cultural ideas without apology.

“In its pages elitism coexisted with egalitarianism, conspicuous consumption commingled with anticommercialism, materialism with idealism, and sexism with gender equality. The question of how deeply these two components of sophistication conflicted with one another or complemented one another was, in fact, the dominant unconscious subtext of The New Yorker in this period. ”

Editing 101: More About Editors, Art Directors, and Design

By Jack Limpert

A tweet from design guru John Maeda: “Only when design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.”

I couldn’t resist tweeting back: “Advice in 1970 from Ed Thompson, editor of Life and Smithsonian: ‘When you notice the design, fire the designer.’”

What Ed Thompson actually told me was: “When you notice the art direction, fire the art director.”

That said, the reader-comes-first spirit of Ed Thompson lives on and I can’t help wondering what that great Life editor would say to the editors of Sports Illustrated and Time, the two Time Inc. magazines I read every week.

Editing 101: The Power of Good Pictures and Captions

By Jack Limpert

I recently helped judge the general excellence category of a magazine competition and again was surprised by how many editors don’t pay enough attention to the role that good photographs and captions play in getting readers to stay reading. Here are some thoughts from an earlier post plus some new suggestions.
What Kind of Design Brings in Readers

Editors spend lots of time trying to come up with good story ideas, working with writers, editing stories. But if the magazine doesn’t have good heads, decks, pull quotes, and captions, a lot of those stories are likely to go unread.

Editing 101: No More of Those “Say Cheese!” Pictures

By Jack Limpert

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Tom Wolff: “I’m not partial to smiling at the camera.” Photo by Elizabeth Dietz.

In judging a general excellence competition among smaller magazines one of the first things you notice is the parade of people looking at the camera and smiling. You can picture the photographer lining them up, asking for the smiles, and clicking.

It can happen so easily probably because it’s the kind of family pictures most people take—and want.

Ward Just Continues to Write Very Well, One Sentence at a Time

By Jack Limpert


After covering the Vietnam war for the Washington Post, Ward Just turned to writing fiction.

Those of us who have been in journalism a long time especially enjoy reading a writer about to turn 80 who is as good, maybe better, than ever. Ward Just will be 80 in September and his most recent novel, American Romantic, is as wonderful a read as The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, his 1973 collection of short stories. Here’s the Washington Post review of American Romantic.

Bulletin Board Notes: From the Movies

“Real art is without irony. Irony distances the author from his material.” – Robert Altman

“Have someone. Get them into trouble. Get them out of trouble.” – Alfred Hitchcock’s formula

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” – Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” – This Is Spinal Tap

Wizard of Oz journalism: No heart, no brains, no courage.

“Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.” – Groucho Marx

The Partnership That Should Exist Between Writer and Reader

By Mike Feinsilber

Back when I was the writing coach for the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, 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.”

Writing Stories That Invite the Reader to Enter Someone Else’s Life

By Jack Limpert

A book I reread every few years is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s the story of a boy, Christopher Boone, who one night goes out to his backyard and discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork. It quickly becomes clear that Christopher sees the world in unusual ways, the ways a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, might see it. The story follows Christopher’s attempt to play detective and find out who killed the dog. For the reader, it’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of an autistic boy.