Writing That Is of Marginal Interest

By Mike Feinsilber

So there I was happily reading Lynne Olson’s fascinating book, Those Angry Days, about the pre-World War II struggles between the isolationists who wanted to keep America out of the war and the internationalists who couldn’t stand America’s hands-off policy while Nazi bombers were pounding London night after night.

And there I came across a series of pencilled in comments in the book’s margins by a previous reader of the book, which I’d borrowed from the D.C. Public Library. “Dear Reader” is how I’ve come to think of Olson’s ghostly second guesser. And  I’ve come to think of Dear Reader as elderly and a woman because of her frail, thin, and tiny handwriting. Maybe that’s sexist. My evidence is thin.

Remembering George V. Higgins

By Jack Limpert

George died on November 6, 1999, a week before his 60th birthday. Today he would have been a week away from turning 74 and think of the great books and magazine pieces that could have been.

Here’s a link to a long post from a year ago, Thanks to Brad Pitt, a New Appreciation of George V. Higgins, that tried to capture the man and his writings.

Learning to Write: Six Months on a Copy Desk With Demonic Standards

By Richard Babcock

I think I started to learn to write—you never really stop learning—when I spent six months on the copy desk of The Record, a mid-sized newspaper in northern New Jersey. I landed a reporting job at the paper on the strength of my law degree—I’d never studied or practiced journalism, I just thought it sounded more fun than reading contracts. After six months covering a little New Jersey town, I got rotated through the copy desk, the regular procedure for rookies.

The Joys of Chronology

By Mike Feinsilber

“Once upon a time…” we say when telling a story to a child.

“So a bear walks into a tavern and orders a beer…” we say when telling a joke to a friend.

“I was walking down L Street yesterday and this car comes racing along, going the wrong way, and suddenly…” we begin when relating what we saw yesterday.

These yarns have something in common.  They’re told chronologically. This thing happened, then this, then this.

That’s the way people speak. That’s they way they think. That’s the natural way of relating an event. And that’s the opposite way so much writing—especially so much journalism—goes about telling a story.

On Writing: When Good Enough Is Good Enough

By Mike Feinsilber

Most writers have a shelf of books on how to do it, ranging from the instructive William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White to the inspirational William Zinnser. They all reach for the same goal—How to Write Well, as Zinnser puts it in his title.

Benjamin Yagoda, editor, writer, and teacher, aims lower. His book, How to Not Write Bad, is about how to write good enough.  He compares writing good enough to parenting; even if the kid isn’t perfectly Spocked, he’ll grow into adulthood reasonably well.

The Key to Writing Good Novels? You Use the Reporting Skills of a Good Journalist

By Laura Elliott

Mark Twain was first a journalist, then a novelist, and here’s how he explained the difference: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Fiction has to make sense.”

It’s easy to imagine Twain making this pronouncement with a wry smile and an emphatic puff of his cigar. Real life sometimes makes no sense, and if a journalist has written a solid piece, he can legitimately shrug when questioned about the lunacy of his subject’s actions and say, “Just reporting the facts.” A novelist, on the other hand, will be attacked by critics if she hasn’t planted clues throughout a narrative that once strung together in a reader’s mind explain why a character acts as he does.

On Writing: What Makes It Great?

By Mike Feinsilber

Here are three terrific paragraphs from a wonderful obituary that ran in the New York Times. Let’s look at what makes them so good:

In 1972, he and his girlfriend, Sylvia Cook, sharing a boat, became the first people to row across the Pacific, a yearlong ordeal during which their craft was thought lost. (The couple survived the voyage, and so, for quite some time, did their romance.) …

On a camping trip when he was 9, John concluded a fight with another boy by filching the scoutmaster’s pistol and shooting up the campsite. No one was injured, but his scouting career was over. …

On Writing: And Coming Up With the Lead—Fast

By Mike Feinsilber

Walter Mears, happily in retirement in North Carolina, likes to say he knows what the first words of his obituary will be: “Pulitzer Prize winner Walter R. Mears…”

Mears won for his coverage for the Associated Press of the 1976 campaign for the presidency. But earlier than that he was given a pre-death epitaph that’s also sure to appear in his obit: “What’s the lead, Walter?”

Mears, who helped cover 11 presidential campaigns for the AP, may have been the fastest writer in the business. So fast that an evaluating editor wrote a memo to his boss: “Mears writes faster than most people think, and maybe faster than he thinks.”

Writers at Work: Entering Someone Else’s Life

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.

On Writing: Unearthing a Lost Language

By Mike Feinsilber

Assume it is the 1950s, and two guys in white shirts, ties undone, cigarettes dangling from lips, are in United Press International bureaus, one in Tokyo, one in New York, communicating with each other. The teletype machine in Tokyo sounds three bells and these words clack out:


These were marching orders from headquarters to the fellow in Tokyo.

Tokyo sighs and replies with a word: “ONWORKING.”