By J.F. McKenna
Writing well is a pleasure in itself. The joining of the ideal subject to the perfect verb, the crafting of paragraphs that tell a story long on clarity and style, the fashioning of a clever lead promising an equally clever ending—all are delights of writing well.
No one knew that better than William Zinsser. And few preached the joy of writing well to others better than Zinsser.
“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can’t,” declared the writer, editor and teacher in his 1998 introduction to On Writing Well, the best-known of his shelf of books. “Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I’ve quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too.”
William Knowlton Zinsser won’t be with his disciples to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his classic next year. The East Coast native and one-time drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune died this past May at 92. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, or to introduce him to the journalists who literally guided me in my apprenticeship in Cleveland—Russ Faist, Stan Modic, Joe Breig. Stan would have been fiercely devoted to Zinsser’s advice that “when you’re ready to stop, stop,” and Zinsser would have gladly endorsed Russ’ favorite newsroom doggerel: Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.
Zinsser started creating On Writing Well in 1974, the year I talked my way into a Kent State-approved journalism internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. “By then I had been teaching at Yale for four years,” Zinsser would later recall in his 2009 memoir, Writing Places, “and I liked the idea of trying to capture my course in a book.” Back in that Summer of Watergate, I would have considered myself lucky to have just a copy of Zinsser’s notes to go with my frontline education from such old pros as Joe and Russ at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue.
“Joe, with Randy on his vacation, you’re going to handle obituaries, ok?” Russ said. “It’s standard stuff, a chance to pick up house style. You’ll get it quick.”
“Got it, Russ.”
“One more thing, Joe. No one in this paper ever ‘passed away.’ Here one moment, gone the next. Everyone ‘died.’”
By the end of that summer I had moved from obits to news and feature stories—and to this day I still haven’t lost my appreciation for the basics of any craft, but especially journalism. A couple of years after that internship, I discovered William Zinsser and On Writing Well. The discovery has proved my continuing post-graduate education in the word trade.
Here’s how the author, in his 2009 book, Writing Places, recalled putting together the first edition of On Writing Well:
I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview how to write about travel and science and technology and sports and the arts, and how to write topical humor. Throughout I provided examples of writing I admired in those fields. The authors I chose were very different in personality and style, but all of them wrote good English. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices. Any style is acceptable if the writing is clear.
For many non-journalists, On Writing Well has been a trusted guide, too. “Countless careers,” Zinsser advises in the book, “rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently….But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity….”
So sayeth still—from the eternity of book publishing, that is—William Zinsser, a man who spent 13 years at the Herald Tribune, 11 years as a freelance writer and other years as a writing teacher at Yale and to the larger world. Hard credentials to ignore. And, for extra measure, add in his other books, including Mitchell & Russ and Spring Training, a book about my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.
Zinsser modestly called himself “a writer who taught”—until glaucoma brought an end to seventy years of writing in 2012. And even then he welcomed requests for help with writing problems. As he said, “No project too weird.”
So is there a suitable epitaph for William Zinsser, a fellow who said he was cursed with optimism, an acknowledged demon who chased word clutter, and a common man’s philosopher who was often wary about security in life as a goal? That epitaph is found in the last paragraph of Writing Places:
And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will staff and have to write those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts….Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By J.F. McKenna
During my often misspent days at St. Edward High School, how I wished I had someone like Arthur Plotnik to spice my daily diet of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, the standard-issue manual on sentence building and righteous rhetoric. Lawrence Cody, my sophomore-year English teacher, cleverly leveraged Mr. Warriner’s tome to fashion students who could communicate properly and effectively; and for that I have long been grateful. Messrs. Cody and Warriner’s diligent efforts duly if belatedly acknowledged, I still insist even a dollop of sagacious sass from Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite would have enlivened my Brothers of Holy Cross education.
I’m just glad I discovered Spunk & Bite after its debut less than a decade ago.
Plotnik, a bestselling author and former publishing executive, is a wordsmith after my own heart. He readily acknowledges the long-standing impact of Will Strunk and E.B. White’s iconic The Elements of Style, pointing out that the little book of English usage—often seen in the company of Warriner’s text in my SEHS days—“may yet save America from choking on its own jargon and obfuscation.” At the same time, Plotnik correctly declares that even the compact good-writing supplement understands “that bending the rules—judiciously breaking them—can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style.”
So with a punny nod to Strunk and White through his book’s title, Plotnik lays out a writing strategy for our hyper-wired 21st-century world.
“With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even Match.com troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”
Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”
Wisely observing that “readers love surprise,” Plotnik advises his writers to look for the figurative route to Unexpected Stimuli. But while on the road, AP adds, always stay alert.
“Even as you set out to be surprising,” Plotnik cautions, “gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts. Let them appear, as they tend to do when the brain is spewing words. But in the editing process, show no mercy. Occide, verba, ure! Kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable. cliched, formulaic, labored, or lazy. Force yourself to fill the gaps with language that hoists a big exclamation point (but not a question mark) above the reader’s head.”
Great stuff, eh? And that’s only a slice of Chapter Two. From there Plotnik acts as a sure guide to negotiating verb tenses, commanding both hyphen and semicolon, looting a Thesaurus like a literate pirate, and more.
At the end of his playbook Coach Plotnik delivers a rousing go-get-’em speech to his players in prose, each of whose next big game may involve an email, a critical proposal or a website feature:
When virtuosity of language and style starts to overwhelm story (or, in nonfiction, the point), it is time to tug at the reins. But writers often rein in themselves in from the start, never giving sacred frenzy a start….
Writing has always been about surmounting fears. But at the end of the day—at the beginning, too—only a single fear, that of boring your readers, merits a change in the direction of one’s language and style….
And if you occasionally land on your tokus, that is only the journey, the way, of spunk and bite.
This St. Edward alum’s advice to those at the alma mater in 2015—and to writers everywhere else, for that matter—is simple. Plunk down $12.95 for that copy of Arthur Plotnik’s book. I look forward to reading your spunky and biting thank-yous.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a ’71 SEHS graduate and longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com . Check out Arthur Plotnik at http://www.artplotnik.com .
By J.F. McKenna
Francis Flaherty has done as much for today’s bedeviled writers as the celebrated pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock once did for anxious and uncertain parents up late at night with sick and inconsolable tots.
Similarly to what the good physician accomplished when he first published Baby and Child Care in the 1940s, story doctor Flaherty has shared years of newsroom savvy in The Elements of Story. Flaherty’s 2009 book clarifies non-fiction writing in terms of “the level of story, by which I mean the architecture, the bones, the tendrils, of an article. This book is about how to make a story move.”
Make no mistake: This kind of prescriptive advice has been far too sparse in the past—and is certainly needed more than ever today, as much of the instantaneously delivered writing makes readers wince if not wander and causes demanding old-school editors to add a dash of Pepto to their Jim Beam. For readers, writers and editors alike—this one included—The Elements of Story may be the greatest advancement in real journalism since the inverted pyramid, or at least the page-two Editors’Correction.
And the progress doesn’t stop at the newsstand, be it brick or click. “I find that the tenets of story doctoring apply not just to journalism but to writing writ large,” insists Flaherty, whose professional pedigree boasts a long tenure as a New York Times editor and clips from such tony pubs as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. “Story doctoring is all about prose that is riveting and persuasive, and as such it has currency for every writer, from the freelancer in his garret to the English grad student, from the beat reporter to the aspiring blogger.”
Admittedly, I may be a bit biased about Flaherty as a craftsman in the trade. He’s earned his rightful spot in the writers’ bunk house, yet he’s still eager to share his wealth of hard-earned knowledge with darn near anyone. Just wander down the digital trail to the Gotham Writers site — http://www.writingclasses.com/FacultyBios/facultyProfileByInstructor.php/TeacherID/234956. There you’ll find the portrait of the artist with a real-world deadline:
When Frank first began working at the Times, he was assigned to write an investment column for the Business section. “It’s quite difficult to write a compelling column about bond funds,” he says. “You have to learn a way into it.” But the good news? “If you can write compellingly about stuff like that, then it’s all the easier to write well about something you do care about.”
Particularly impressive to this Kent State J-school grad is Flaherty’s advice on the masterful treatment of leads, transitions and kickers—the basic newswriting components that, handled with deftness, can make a reader sit up and smile, get angry and red-faced, cry aloud in sympathy, or a combination thereof.
Good story leads, for example, “must fill two contradictory roles,” Flaherty counsels his by-the-book disciples. “They must paint with a ‘broad brush’—that is, state the essential point of the story—and they must be vivid and specific.
“How can they do both these things?” he continues. “The secret is this. While good leads are specific, the specifics they cite must sound the central chord of the tale.”
The Elements of Story is chockablock with similar time-tested advice for serious writers—those guys and gals who instinctively gravitate toward a genuine wordsmith such as Flaherty, who himself modestly describes the book as “a ‘field guide,’ really, into the newsroom.”
Back in my own J-school days, one of our standard texts featured Matthew Arnold’s description of early-day journalism as “literature in a hurry.” Through the years my colleagues have joked that Arnold lost his poetic license over that comment. A lot of today’s contemporary news and commentary, in print or online, is unstructured, barely readable proof that haste makes waste.
Maybe, just maybe, Francis Flaherty and his well-constructed guide will prove that old English scribbler right, after all.
J.F. McKenna, a former resident of Cleveland’s West Park, has worked as a reporter, business editor and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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.
By J.F. McKenna
The universe contorts and, being the universe, makes its contortion felt even in the most common of places, such as the local coffee shop on Business 22 in Monroeville, Pa. That’s where I learned about Ray Bradbury’s death June 5. That’s where I felt those cosmic pitches and rolls.
Bradbury would appreciate such momentous reporting from a small square of the universe. In life, Bradbury appreciated damn near everything and its interconnection to everything else. That’s what made him a great writer. He was a chronicler not only of those things Martian but of witchcraft, whales and Shakespeare. To call Ray Bradbury only a science-fiction writer would be as false and futile as trying to construct a fence around the ever-expanding universe that inspired his writing.
“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used,” Bradbury intones in the opening paragraph of his essay The Joy of Writing. “How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
That’s the advice of a good man to other good people, whether they write professionally or not, and whether they prefer fantasy over physics or today’s sports section over a glimpse at tomorrow’s marvels. To Bradbury, zest and gusto were the indispensable combination that lubricates man’s imagination and his actual progress.
I discovered Bradbury as an adult merely seeking strong writing models, rather than as another eager fan of his science fiction. In time, though, I realized that Bradbury and his works cannot be conveniently segregated by me or any other person who opens The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 or Zen in the Art of Writing. So goes the nature of zest and gusto as promoted in print by the fellow born in Waukegan, Ill., in 1920.
Writing in the 1980 introduction of his collected stories, Bradbury acknowledged that he had been a happy child collecting Buck Rodgers comic strips. “My life has been happy ever since,” he wrote. “For that was the beginning of my science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” In effect, the true Renaissance Man, as Bradbury would tell you, is also the Neolithic Man and the Space Colony Man.
All of us should be grateful that Bradbury embraced his muse wholeheartedly as a child. Otherwise, today’s world would be minus such tender short stories as The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair and the censorship novel Fahrenheit 451 (the first draft of which he wrote for $9.80 in dimes, in the basement of the University of California’s library in 1950).
“While science-fiction purists complained about Mr. Bradbury’s cavalier attitude toward scientific facts—he gave his fictional Mars an impossibly breathable atmosphere—the literary establishment waxed enthusiastic,” The New York Times reported the day after Bradbury’s death. “The novelist Christopher Isherwood greeted Mr. Bradbury as ‘a very great and unusual talent,’ and one of Mr. Bradbury’s personal heroes, Aldous Huxley, hailed him as a poet. In 1954, the National Institute of Arts and Letters honored Mr. Bradbury for ‘his contributions to American literature,’ in particular the novel Fahrenheit 451…. ” Likewise, many in business and industry point to Bradbury’s literary contributions as the inspiration to their own pursuits.
Back in 1953, in The Nation, Bradbury defended his science-fiction writing. Soon after, a world-famous art historian sent Bradbury a fan letter, telling him that The Nation article was “the first time I have encountered the statement by an artist in any field, that to work creatively he must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or as a fascinating adventure.” Later recalling that letter, Bradbury wrote: “I had my way of seeing, writing and living approved….We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we’re not crazy after all, that what we’re doing is all right. All right, hell, fine!”
Nearly 40 years later, Bradbury passed along that universal sense of zest and gusto in a handwritten letter I hold dear:
DEAR JOE MCKENNA:
WHAT A GIFT OF LOVE YOUR LETTER OF FEB. 14, ARRIVING ON ST. VALENTINE’S TO NOURISH MY SOUL! I SEND IT BACK TO YOU AND YOUR YOUNGER SON, REDOUBLED. MUCH, MUCH THANKS. PRAY FOR SUMMER, AND PEACE. YOURS, Ray Bradbury
Many, many thanks to you, Ray.
J.F. McKenna is a business journalist and communications consultant. Reach him at email@example.com .