Clarity vs. Letting the Reader Think: Not Always an Easy Decision

By Jack Limpert

As an editor I was a disciple of New Yorker editor Harold Ross who liked to write in the margin of a writer’s copy: “What the hell do you mean?”

The virtues of clarity, of avoiding confusion, of not slowing the reader down.

But there are times, especially in feature writing, when the writer may try to do too much thinking for the reader. I had one writer who wanted to preface every quote with guidance for the reader on what the quote meant. It was too much.

Here is one case of a writer and editor trying to decide that question: How much do you let the reader think?
One of the most moving stories The Washingtonian published was titled “Hope All Things, Endure All Things.” The writer was John Pekkanen.

The deck with the headline 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.’”

Pekkanen then told the story of how a surgeon coped with a lung cancer that he had spent his career treating. Dealing with the cancer became a battle between a man’s head and his heart, what he knew and what he hoped.

Late in the story, Pekkanen described Paul Adkins’s son Mark 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.”

As the editor, I wanted to cut “Paul Adkins had died.” I thought the writing would have more emotional impact if the reader only was told the flag was at half-mast.

John resisted cutting the sentence—for reasons of clarity. He finally accepted the idea that the reader didn’t have to be told what the flag at half-mast meant, that it was better to let the reader make the connection.

It could have worked either way but looking back I think both John and I were comfortable with the edit and the story was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for feature writing.

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