‘The Writer’s Art’ at 30 Remains Invaluable

By J.F. McKenna

The writer’s craft is one learned, relearned, reworked and further burnished every day. Over time the guides to the craft stand above you, teach by correction as well as encouragement and sometimes appear in the form of books that keep you company over lunch or late into the evening.

As a writer I’ve been blessed to have such a cadre of teachers.

In my newsroom apprenticeship at the Universe Bulletin, I often heard Russ Faist sing out a journalistic saw he himself had learned from Randall Brown at the old Cleveland News: “Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.” The lesson, like all of Russ’ lessons and kindnesses, has stuck with me and has been passed on many times to other wordsmiths looking to sharpen their work.

Many of my so-called graduate classes came courtesy of Stan Modic, a magazine editor whose broad vision for business and industry never deterred him from his primary desire to get the best story possible for the reader. Underneath his outwardly gruff handling of staff writers and editors lay a genuine caring about the stories featured in print and about the folks he directed to fashion those stories. (See Stan Modic: Guardian Angel and One Hell of a Journalist)

Readers, of course, remain the best lab instructors for writers—the first to tell us when the experiment has been an unqualified success, the first to point out that we’ve singed our ego while reaching for literary immortality. Be it ever so humbling, there’s nothing like a printed correction if you plan to make a career out of writing.

And then there is the arm’s-length teacher who provides wholesale instruction but offers encouragement and caution that one swears is directly aimed at him or her. That describes the late James J. Kilpatrick, aka Jack Kilpatrick or Kilpo. I’m convinced that part of his heavenly reward is knowing that his book The Writer’s Art continues to inspire and caution folks like me 30 years after its debut. We believe, as Kilpatrick writes in the book’s introduction, that “there is more to writing than merely being ‘effective.’”

“If the purpose of housing were solely to provide shelter from the rain, the Sun King could have built an A-frame,” Kilpatrick continues. “Instead, he built the Palace of Versailles.”

In a society that handles its instant, and not-so-instant, communication with all the care it gives to unwrapping a stick of gum, Kilpatrick’s comparison is worth pondering longer than the time it took to send that last tweet or e-mail. No? Wonder why today’s newspaper article or the inchoate company proposal seems disjointed and uninspired?

In The Writer’s Art, Kilpatrick insists that “writing comes in grades of quality in the fashion of beer and baseball games: good, better and best. Some usages, in my opinion, are better—not merely more effective, but better—than other usages….Second, I advance the proposition that these better ways can be mastered by writers who are serious about their writing.”

Those are the introductory chords of The Writer’s Art. The music gets even better from there.

“In the end,” he advises, “the test of how well we do our job is not in how well we cover the news, or review the movies, or chide a president, or criticize and actor, but in how well we write…. The chief difference between good writing and better writing may be measured by the number of imperceptible hesitations the reader experiences as he goes along.”

That sums up the philosophy of James Jackson Kilpatrick—reporter, editor, political columnist and very readable author. After a distinguished career Kilpo died August 15, 2010, at the age of 89. Along with his family, he left thousands of better writers who had relished the professional advice he offered in columns. Those writers continue to be influenced by The Writer’s Art and Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art.

Jack Kilpatrick is sometimes remembered for his wrongheaded defense of racial segregation years ago, but he deserves nothing but praise for creating The Writer’s Art, a classic how-to that has mentored many a working journalist, including me.

“The writer’s art, of course, lies not in merely collecting words or in distinguishing among them,” he writes. “The art lies in stringing the right words together artfully. Newspaper reporters may begin by covering a luncheon speech at the Rotary Club, but if they are good reporters—reporters who write con amore—they will aspire to something higher.”

As a fellow who started newspapering as an obituary writer, I often urge others to heed Kilpo’s advice. “If you have little passion for the work, get out now,” I say. “Otherwise, your efforts will expose you.”

If your love for the craft is great but you don’t know Jack, quickly find a copy of The Writer’s Art and borrow all of Kilpatrick’s tips on wooing the muse. Maybe start with his thoughts on cadence—advice that appears in too few writing books. Follow that lesson with Kilpatrick’s prescription regarding the “music of words,” which is showcased in Fine Print:

“We must listen for it, for we read not only with our eyes, but also with our ears. It is therefore desirable that our sentences both read well and sound right. A writer—a serious writer—must cultivate an awareness of life’s rhythms. They are all around us, in the sounds of waves, in the changing of the traffic light, in the phases of the moon.”

As a syndicated columnist expounding on good writing, Kilpatrick was truly the Jack of our trade, composing a paean to the period or leading the hunt for the two-toned gerund. Good stuff filled with wit.

I’ve said it more than once. As a journalist, I’ve met many interesting people, some of them famous and others accomplished in the most unusual of ways. I’m sorry I never crossed paths with James J. Kilpatrick in person.

I did get a Christmas surprise from Kilpo in 2005. After I sent him an e-mail about his paean to the period, he was kind enough to write back. It was the kind of short, witty reply one would expect from the author of The Writer’s Art:

Dear Mr. McKenna—Many thanks for them kind words—and Merry, Merry. Jack Kilpatrick.

Season’s greetings aside, Kilpo has long been my trusted mentor at arm’s length—the distance from desk to bookshelf.

So he’ll remain.


J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. He also appears on the online site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: