Sneaky Writing

By Mike Feinsilber

A five-paragraph story by the Associated Press, published Sunday, February 9, in the Washington Post, carries two instances of what I call sneaky writing—the practice of sneaking facts into a sentence by a side door. The story is about a woman who was mauled to death by two dogs.

“Police say they found Klonda Richey, 57, unclothed, with her coat apparently torn off by the mixed-breed dogs.”


“The Dayton Daily News reported that police were forced to kill the two male dogs after they charged officers.”

Am I the only person bothered by the construction of these sentences? I don’t think so; I’ve read a lot over the years about Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker, and I think he didn’t like it at all.

My complaint concerns the way the writer sneaked in the fact that the dogs were males and the fact that they were of mixed ancestry.

“Torn off by the mixed-breed dogs” suggests—at least it does to me—that other dogs were involved but here we are talking about the two that were mixed-breed. Same with “to kill the two male dogs” suggests to me the police didn’t kill some female dogs.

Writers who use that technique for sneaking in facts probably think they are saving space. Maybe so, but not much. How much better it would be to give those facts their own sentence: “The dogs were males and of mixed breeds?” That would add five words to the story, and clarity.

Clarity’s worth it. Alternatively, one could leave out the issue of whether the dogs had ancestors of the same breed and their sex. Neither fact strikes me as all that relevant, but I’m not a dog.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. You say you’re not a dog. But as the famous New Yorker cartoon of two dogs “talking” says: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog!”

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