Letting the Reader Think: Another Take

By Jack Limpert

A few months back Mike Feinsilber wrote about the perils of using too many adjectives, of undercutting the we’re-in-this-together partnership between writer and reader. Here’s a battle I had with a writer over the same question:  How much do you let the reader think?


One of the great human stories ever published in The Washingtonian was “Hope All Things, Endure All Things,” and there was a fairly intense editor-writer debate about one sentence. The writer was John Pekkanen, a National Magazine Award finalist for this December 1980 story.

The story deck said: “Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox. It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him: ‘I am looking at my own obituary.’” The Pekkanen story told how a surgeon coped with a lung cancer that he had spent his entire career treating. It was a battle between a man’s head and his heart.

Late in the story, Paul Adkins’s son Mark was rushing from New York City to Washington because he’d been told his father didn’t have much time left. Pekkanen had written, “Mark raced from the airport terminal to the subway and got off at the Foggy Bottom stop. He ran up the steps of the long escalator. As he approached the top he had a full view of the front of GW hospital. The flag at the entrance was at half-mast. Paul Adkins had died.”

Would you have cut that last sentence? I wanted to, John resisted but finally said okay. In retrospect I think he agrees it was best to make the cut. The reader doesn’t have to be told what the flag at half-mast means—it’s more powerful to let the reader think.



  1. I agree with the decision. However, there is also something very powerful in starkly stating “Paul Adkins had died” or, even more heartbreaking but past tense, “Paul Adkins was dead.” Even so, I think I would have still made the cut.

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