George Plimpton on the Importance of Suspense

George Plimpton acknowledged the importance of suspense in sports books, saying that the degree of danger, rather than the size of the ball, might be a more reliable indicator of literary quality. “Most of the great accounts,” he wrote, “have someone teetering on the edge, if not to the point of tragedy itself. Do I dare refer to this as the ‘Look Out!’ or ‘Uh-Oh’ Theory?”

—From a Wall Street Journal review by Jonathan Eig of the book Ten Innings at Wrigley by Keven Cook


John McIntyre on Why Editing Is Important

Posted April 30th by Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre on his blog “You Don’t Say: John McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

This morning was the last day of class in my twenty-fourth year of teaching editing at Loyola University Maryland. The concluding remarks to my students are briefer than the Miranda warning on the first day, because they have been listening to me for fourteen weeks and there’s only so much the human spirit can bear.

Here’s what I leave them with.

Before you go, I want to remind you why editing is important.

Writing With Restraint and Fidelity to Human Complexity

From an appreciation, by Adelle Waldman, in the New York Times headlined “Herman Wouk Wrote Historical Novels But His True Subject Was Moral Weakness”:

That an American, a person of some authority, could be so cavalier about the Nazis in a story set after the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of equal rights, not to mention after Hitler had imprisoned his political opposition and eliminated the free press — was both mind-boggling and infuriating.

When Robert Caro Told His Wife Ina They’d Be Moving to the Hill Country of Texas

From Evan Thomas’s review in the Washington Post of Robert Caro’s book, Breaking: Researching, Interviewing, Writing:

In 1975, “The Power Broker” won Caro the Pulitzer Prize, his first of two.

Along the way, Caro went broke. His wife had to sell their house, without telling him first. Instead of speeding up, Caro intentionally slowed down. He still writes in longhand, copying drafts with an old-fashioned typewriter. When he interviews people, he often writes himself a reminder in his notebook: “SU” — for “shut up!” Caro understands that human nature abhors a vacuum. Keep quiet and interview subjects will talk — eventually.

Herman Wouk RIP: “He Came Out Onto the Deck, Saw the Helicopter, and Shook His Fist at Us.”

Herman Wouk, the best-selling author of The Caine Mutiny and other books, died Friday in Palm Springs, California. He was 103, 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

Here’s an April 27 post about the time he shook his fist at a Washingtonian helicopter and then later wrote me a nice note:

Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny and other great World War II novels, will turn 104 on May 27. A look back at a post that marked his 100th birthday and recounted an airborne Washingtonian encounter with him:

If Robert Caro’s Book Doesn’t Help You Get a Journalism Job, Why Read it?

In email conversation with another magazine editor, who now teaches at a university J school, I mentioned the new Robert Caro book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. The editor-turned-teacher said he admired the book and was now using it in his magazine writing class.

My question:

The Caro book does have good advice on how to write great books and do great journalism. At the Washingtonian, I had two writers who put that kind of work into their stories—the problem was that both were making a good salary ($80,000 or so a year) but they were writing only three or four pieces a year.

Looking Back at Nancy Reagan and What She Saw in the Stars

By Barnard Law Collier

I spoke often with Nancy Reagan and I was aware that after the Hinckley assassination attempt she and her husband made very few personal or policy decisions without Joan Quigley and/or two other astrologers blueprinting horoscopes to determine the wisdom and timing of meetings and decisions.

I knew next to nothing then about the celestial mechanics of astrology, nor do I now. However, my personal astrologer was the late Sidney Omarr (born Kimmelman), who was, in wartime, the chief astrologer for the United States Army, and later for a cluster of Hollywood celebrities.

What’s a Puff Piece?

Ben Zimmer explains in a Wall Street Journal piece titled “Puff Piece: From Pastries to Journalistic Insult”:

In the classic journalism textbook “News Reporting and Writing,” Melvin Mencher defines “puff piece” or “puffery” as a “publicity story or a story that contains unwarranted superlatives.”…

“Puff” as a noun and verb goes back to an Old English word for blowing with the mouth, imitating the sound of breath being emitted from the lips. The final “f” sound—what linguists call a “voiceless fricative”—is well-suited to such an airy onomatopoeia, also showing up in “huff” and “whiff.”…

Writing Advice From Mark Haddon: “It’s Not About You”

By Jack Limpert

One of the books I reread every few years is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s the story of a young boy, Christopher Boone, who goes out to his backyard late one night and discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork . It quickly becomes clear that Christopher sees the world in unusual ways, the ways a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, might see it. The story follows Christopher’s attempt to play detective and find out who killed the dog. For the reader, it’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of an autistic boy.

Looking Back: White House Chief of Staff Gets Fired, Fights Back in Print

By Jack Limpert

By the time Donald Regan came to Washington as Secretary of the Treasury, he had fought and won a lot of battles. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was a student at Harvard Law School; he joined the Marines, fought in five major campaigns in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he went to work for Merrill Lynch and by 1971 he was running the big investment firm.

In 1981 he moved from New York to DC to be Treasury Secretary under newly-elected President Ronald Reagan. He pushed Reaganomics—cutting taxes to boost the economy—through Congress and became one of the most powerful men in Washington. Then in 1985 he swapped jobs with White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker, making Regan part of President Reagan’s inner circle.