About Writing

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. …

He later studied literature and philosophy at a university in Buenos Aires and at 20, despondent over a failed love affair, resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him. When the planned confrontation ensued, however, reason prevailed — as did the gun he had with him.

The obituary is of adventurer John Fairfax, who died February 8, 2012. It was written by Times obit writer Margalit Fox. Her lead: “He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there.” It went viral on the internet after its publication on February 18, 2012.

One has to first say the obvious: The reporting is what made it so good. Writing, no matter how imaginative, cannot compensate for shallow reporting.  But solid reporting, done by a curious mind, can carry even a pedestrian piece of writing. The reader doesn’t notice the writing’s shortcomings.  I’m using “reporting” liberally to mean bringing information and detail to the reader that he otherwise didn’t know.

And, of course, some things are inherently less interesting than others. The life that Ms. Fox reported on was about as interesting as a life can be. Every obit can’t be this interesting. But all can be as interesting as the material allows if the writer’s skill allows.

Every paragraph in the excerpts here ends with a surprise twist.  Sometimes they fall into your lap, but more often they come from keeping your mind open to them and from arranging your elements so that the surprise comes at the end. Be cautious about setting the surprise off with a dash—it’s overworked. As I’ve just demonstrated.

Margalit brought a sense of fun, an ability to stand back from her subject, and a writing style that captured what she was writing about, an eccentric life. The reader sees the gleam in her eye.

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