ABOUT WRITING

Reporters at Work: Does a Bit of Acting Make You a Con Man?

By Jack Limpert

Here’s how going to a Nationals-Phillies baseball game with a journalist can bring back the famous Janet Malcolm line about reporters: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and then betraying them without remorse.”


Reporting, Writing—and Being Smart

 By Jack Limpert

A magazine editor usually works closely with a writer–the magazine editor is trying to figure out what will make the story something special, something that will make it interesting in six months.  Don Hewitt, the legendary top gun at 60 Minutes, once talked about finding stories that were based on an idea, not a subject. That made a lot of sense, and it was one way to decide whether to say yes or no to a story proposal.

So what kind of writer can do that kind of story?


10 Things an Editor Doesn’t Want to Hear from a Writer

I wrote a lot for my high school paper.

My favorite writer is Hunter Thompson.

I can write pretty much any kind of story.

I usually get $3 a word.

This will be an award-winning article.

Will you pay all my expenses?

I hope you won’t edit the style out of my story.

If I get sued, do you pay for the lawyer?

And then there’s this…

This isn’t the piece we talked about but I think you’ll like it.

I went a little over the word count on this one.


10 Things a Writer Doesn’t Want to Hear from an Editor

I’ll ask around to see if anyone’s seen your resume.

An interesting idea but another writer is working on something too much like it.

We did that story three months ago.

We’d look at it on spec.

Your piece didn’t make it into this issue but it might run by the end of the year.

We could run it on the website and pay you $25.

We had to trim 20 inches at the last minute and there wasn’t time to contact you.

When I said we pay a dollar a word, that’s a dollar a published word.


On Writing: My Private Dictionary

By Mike Feinsilber

“I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells Kow with a large K. Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope…”  —Mark Twain in a speech at a spelling match, Hartford, Connecticut, May 12, 1875.


On Writing: How to Cover Politics

By Mike Feinsilber


Writing Under Pressure: Capturing It All in 40 Words or So

By Mike Feinsilber

“Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.” –Sports columnist Red Smith when asked if writing is hard.

It was a prestige assignment, but a tough one. Reporters sat before computer screens at the political conventions and puzzled over how to come up with a first paragraph that would sum up what they and most of their readers had just witnessed. Writing a good lead under deadline pressure is always a challenge. Reporters who do it see scant exaggeration in Red Smith’s characterization of it as a bloodletting.


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.”