When Writers Seem to Shout “Look at Me! I’m Important, Too!”

By Jack Limpert

unnamed-1Bill O’Sullivan, senior managing editor of the Washingtonian, has started a language column, mostly about what he calls loathsome words. For many years Bill has edited every sentence that appears in the magazine. Why the column? “I have an aversion to jargon and what I consider trendy, nonsensical, or simply unnecessary versions of clear English,” he says.

Bill and I worked together for much of the past 30 years. He came to the Washingtonian as an intern in 1983, became a staff editor, then left in 1987 to get his M.F.A. After editing at Common Boundary and the Center for Public Integrity, he returned to the Washingtonian as features editor and became senior managing editor in 2007.

We sometimes email back and forth about words. I recently reminded him that maybe a thousand times I changed “participate” to “take part in.” I loved changing a long word into several four-letter words.

Our latest email exchange was triggered by a mostly wonderful story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about a man who loves clouds. Titled “Head in the Clouds,” the story was written by Jon Mooallem about Gavin Pretor-Finney, a Brit who founded the Cloud Appreciation Society. Members paid $15 to join and receive a badge and certificate in the mail.

Pretor-Finney said he “recognized that joining an online Cloud Appreciation Society that only nominally existed might appear ridiculous, but it was important to him that it not feel meaningless.” In a few months, the society had 2,000 members and it grew to 40,000 paying members.

A charming story but here’s what kept stopping me from enjoying it.

They [clouds] were everywhere, he told me recently.

“I found myself missing them,” he told me.

Everyone in the office stood up, Wiggins told me.

…a W.M.O. official named Roger Atkinson told me.

“There’s a long history of people finding signs in the sky,” Pretor-Pinney told me…

“One of those things that’s so close, but different,” Pretor-Pinney told me…

One task-team member, George Anderson, told me…

“My argument is not that this is some hugely significant thing,” he told me…

As the piece went on, it appeared that maybe an editor had seen enough “told me”—there seemed to be more use of “said.”

In emailing Bill about it, he mentioned one writer who keeps doing it and Bill keeps changing it to the always useful “he said” or “she said.” We agreed that overdoing “he told me” is like a writer waving his arms and shouting, “I’m the writer! Look at me! I’m important, too!”


  1. joe rhodes says

    This one ain’t the writer’s fault. The Times magazine editors prefers “he told me” to “said” for reasons I can’t fathom. They like to drop in as much first-person verbiage as possible. I fought them on it during the last piece I wrote for them, but didn’t prevail in every case. It makes me cringe to see it under my byline, but there it is.

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