Singularly plural

The hair between the shoulder blades of my pet, Peeve, stiffened and he emitted a low growl. No less than The New York Times published this line: “None of the protesters were armed.”

See why Peeve deserves a treat? “None” is a contraction of “no one.” It therefore always takes the singular form of any verb, especially “to be.” Ditto “neither” and “either.” “Neither of the doctors was familiar with such symptoms.” “Either donut is fine” Say or write “neither of the doctors were familiar…” and you’ll reveal yourself to be a thoughtless lummox stampeded by the herd into using our beautiful language incorrectly. Likewise, if you answer the question, “How are you?” with “Good.” The correct answer is “well” or “fine,” unless you feel like I do, in which case, the correct response is, “How do you think I am? I’m a terminally ill 62 year-old insomniac who was in lousy shape to begin with.” Although that does end the sentence with a preposition.

All right already

Can we nail something down and never return to it again? “All right” is always written just that way: as two words: “all right.” It is never “alright.” Ditto “a lot.” It’s always two words, not the one-word bastardization “alot.”

There. Done. I hope I never have to mention this again.

By the way, this blog will continue for a while, because despite a creditable effort, Margaret did not succeed in hiking me to death on the sun blasted, steep, rocky trails of  Canyonlands National Park this week. Canyonlands.jpg

Wisdom of the Masters

Forgive my being lazy today and simply passing along other people’s wisdom. But since the other people are Mark Twain and Stephen King, it’s pretty good stuff:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

— Stephen King

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Douglas Adams.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain

(Margaret has frequently pointed out that “very” usually makes the point weaker, not stronger. Leave it out. Ditto “just,” a word I way overused until Margaret beat it out of me. If you find yourself writing “just,” reread the sentence and then read it again it without the “just.” It will be better.)

Twain again: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Bonus item, from Harry S. Truman: “I have found that the best way to give advice to the young is to find out what they want to do and then advise them to do it.”

Footnote, footnote, footnote

To continue with the theme of how to make yourself an easy writer with whom to work, here’s one important tip:

FootnoteMost of us work in Microsoft Word, and Word has an excellent footnote function. Use it. Footnote everything in your article — every fact, every quote, every number. Most sentences will contain several footnotes. Never use ibid, but rather write out complete footnotes every time — even if one is identical to the one above — because when lines get moved, footnotes move with them. Put sources’ phone numbers and email addresses in the footnotes, and don’t just put it in the footnote for the first reference to the person, but in the footnote in every reference. (See the manuscripts of our killed stories, here, to see how thoroughly we footnote. The sources’ contact information has been removed, but you’ll get the idea.) Footnote as you write the first draft; don’t expect to add them later. That would be a nightmare. It’s when you’re writing that you have your notes open; add the footnotes then. Don’t use endnotes, which put all your references at the end of the article, but rather footnotes, which put them right there at the bottom of the same page. That way your editor can glance down as she reads to verify that your facts are backed up.

 Footnoting is there mostly to help the fact-checkers. It’s a courtesy, but it helps you as well. You want the head of fact-checking, when he runs into the editor at the coffee pot, to mention how great it is to work with your copy.

 Footnotes are also there for the editors, who might wonder as they’re reading how you know some particularly stunning fact. If they see the cite right there on the bottom of the page, it will inspire in them a great deal of confidence.

 Footnoting is also there for you. During the editing, you may need to remember where you got a particular fact. And months later, when you go back to your story in order to build an entirely new one around a related topic, you’ll have a guide to your sources. I’m now working on a book proposal based on an article I wrote six years ago. My old footnotes are a life-saver.

Make Nice

This is a theme to which I’ll return often: Magazine editors are among the most unhappy people in the country. This is especially true now, with the industry imploding. But it’s been true for years. They work under relentless deadline pressure. They never know when the company for which they work is about to spring some awful surprise — closing the magazine, shrinking it, changing the format, replacing the top editor. They live in perpetual terror of losing their jobs. They’re underpaid. The work isn’t as glamorous as they thought. It goes on and on. 

It’s long seemed to me that these people are desperate for any brief respite from the hideous stress under which they work. One way that Margaret and I have enjoyed our limited success has been to make a conscious effort to be that respite. Briefly put: We try hard to make ourselves effortless to work with. We work as hard at that, sometimes, as we do on the quality of reporting and writing.

We strive to make a phone call or email from us a moment of blessed relief in an otherwise dreadful week. Ah, we want the editor to think. Dan and Margaret are on the job. I can relax a little.

Certainly we have to do acceptable work. But read our stories. This is not wiggy-brilliant poetic wordsmithing. We do thorough reporting and then write it clearly. (Our work can be expressed in the equation Good Information + Strunk + White.) The work is fine.

We’ve gotten repeat assignments from high-paying magazines, I believe, only in part because our work is good. Another big part is that we make editors’ lives a little easier. 

The actor Joe Pantoliano once said in an interview that he realized early on that he was neither the most handsome nor talented actor in Hollywood; that he had a high, unpleasant voice; and was generally a dime a dozen as a character actor. So he set out to make himself the nicest man in Hollywood. He showed up on time, ready to work. He accepted direction. He didn’t throw tantrums. He simply made himself pleasant and effortless to have around, so people liked hiring him. Then, his natural and remarkable talents were given a chance to shine through. 

For the rest of this week, I’ll share some techniques that Margaret and I have used to make ourselves easy to work with. Some of them will seem, at first blush, to be lifted from the Book of Duh. But we’re constantly amazed at how many writers fail to observe the most basic courtesies, and how many seem to founder as a result. Stay tuned.



Death to the Anecdotal Lede

Like many of us, I was thrilled to move from newspapers to magazines because now I could unspool anecdotal ledes. No longer was I bound by the inverted pyramid. I could begin every story by setting a scene, usually in the present tense. Here are a couple of examples:

 No Pulse which I wrote for Popular Scienceand my Rolling Stone piece about the  Ruckus Society, both with anecdotal ledes.

I relied on the anecdotal lede for years. It felt like the thing that made me a writer as opposed to a mere reporter.

The anecdotal lede can be a fine thing. I still use it occasionally. More and more though, I find myself — as a reader — skipping over other people’s anecdotal ledes. Yeah, yeah, I think. Very nice. But what’s this story about?

 What I started using more in the past few years is the conceptual lede, in which the story begins with an idea rather than a little literary moment. Here are a couple of examples:

 Gloria Trevi for Rolling Stone

The Lost Year for The New Yorker.

See the difference? Somehow, I’m more enamored with the conceptual lede lately. It seems less self-indulgent, more modern and streamlined. This might seem odd, since I inveighed against the nut graf here. A conceptual lede, though, is subtly different from a nut graf. For one thing, it’s at the very top, so obviously isn’t an escape hatch for the reader. But also, it usually isn’t a summary of the article’s entire point. It’s merely the idea that begins the piece and sets its intellectual tone.

Here’s a good example of how lopping off the anecdote to get straight to the point can really improve a story. When covering the Asian tsunami for The New Yorker, I originally wrote the piece like this: Relief.8.

 Margaret, in her wisdom, drew big red X’s over the first seven pages of the story! I almost had a heart attack. What she was doing, though, was digging down through a useless anecdote to get to the concept around which the story was built. Her edit looked like this: Relief.9.  And Mission to Sumatra pdf is how the story ran in The New Yorker. If you’ll notice, it isn’t much changed from the way Margaret edited it. 

 This is not a jeremiad against the anecdotal lede. Anecdotal ledes still have their place. But as I read magazines, it seems like writers are using them too often. They can be a bit of a crutch, actually; they can put off, for the writer, the moment at which you have to decide what it is you’re trying to say. They also can be rather flowery and somewhat useless.

So all I’m arguing here is, as you begin an article with an anecdotal lede, ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Or would I be better off grasping the nettle with a conceptual lede?


Mrs. Whitcomb

Mrs. Whitcomb must have been about as old as I am now — 61 — because otherwise South Orange Junior High would have made her retire. In my memory, though, she is ancient — a tall, ramrod-straight, primly dressed old lady with a perpetually unsmiling face. She taught seventh-grade English (the first year of junior high in those days) and everybody feared her — for good reason. First, she spoke in a refined accent that hovered somewhere between British and southern — either way, intimidating, especially since her chin quivered, which made her look as though that formality was holding her back from exploding. 

It was in Mrs. Whitcomb’s class (God help you if you pronounced her name “Witcomb.”) that I memorized Alfred Noyes’s poem The Highwaymanwhich taught me for the first time about metaphor. (“The moon was a ghostly galleon…”) We also read and recited for each other Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigadewhich Mrs. Whitcomb insisted we pronounce “Charge of the Light BRIGADE,” not “Charge of the LIGHT Brigade,” as most of us were wont to do. “The Brigade is what the poem celebrates, not the adjective ‘light,’ she explained. “We properly put the emphasis on the subject, not the descriptive.”

What mostly remains with me is what a stickler she was for grammar and syntax. Anyone who asked, “Mrs. Whitcomb, can I go to the bathroom?” was sure to get in reply, “I’m sure you can, but you may not.”

Tell her that you pen ran out of ink, and she’d reply, “Did it run right back? Or are you trying to say, ‘my pen’s ink supply is exhausted?'” Write in a paper that those who remained of the light brigade’s six hundred horsemen were glad to finally reach safety, and her red pen — flashing like a Cossack’s saber — would reverse the order of “finally” and “to” in order not to split the infinitive. Tell her that Liz Milner was the one you hoped to go to the dance with, and she’d extend a crooked index finger skyward and say, “Liz Milner is the one with whom I’d like to go to the dance.” Mrs. Whitcomb was the first to explain to me that the first and last words of a sentence were the most powerful and that to end a sentence with a preposition is to sacrifice power. “Prepositions are weak words. Better to end on “the dance” — or better, Liz Milner, than on “with,” she told me, and I don’t think I’ve broken that rule, writing or speaking, more than a dozen times since then.

Anybody who knows me knows how deeply ingrained are Mrs. Whitcomb’s lessons, because I tend to make a nuisance of myself correcting people’s speech in just this way, but unbidden. 

As I look back on Mrs. Whitcomb from the high hill of my old age, I’d like to pin a medal on her. All teachers want to be liked, I imagine, and I suppose that she was no different. But she sacrificed being liked — made herself hated, in fact — in order to force into our heads the tools we needed to appreciate and master this beautiful language of ours. That was heroic of her, a huge sacrifice in the day-to-day comfort and gratification of a hard job. I would like very much to express to her my gratitude.