I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can remember the day 30 years ago that I met Steve Lovelady for the first time. It was April 10, 1978, at a convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). The title of the panel was “Can Writing Be Taught?” and it would be my debut as the writing coach of the St. Petersburg Times.
I remember how impressed I was by Steve’s opening remarks, which were recorded and published as part of the record of the convention. Upon the news of Steve’s death on Sunday, I ran to the Poynter library and got my hands on the volume of convention “proceedings” and read what Steve had to say.
That little speech encapsulated everything I would learn about Steve over the next three decades. His work as an editor at The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer (where he helped turn the investigative team of Barlett and Steele into a two-headed legend), and Time Inc. put into practice those remarks from back in the day.
Steve could be very funny, and I remember a story he used to tell about trying to make readable and compelling the complex investigative information presented to him by Barlett and Steele. “I have this recurring nightmare,” Steve said on more than one occasion. “In it, Barlett and Steele walk into my office like robots holding stacks and stacks of files in their arms. They recite together in the same robotic voice: ‘We have discovered that there are many evil people in the world. Here are the names of some of them.’ “
We are happy to republish here from 1978 the wise and funny remarks of Steve Lovelady, one of America’s greatest editors. May heaven be for him a place something like Key West, but with horses — and newspapers that carry the racing form.
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Most of what I have to say is very obvious and elementary. That hasn’t prevented most editors, including me, from ignoring the obvious and elementary at one time or another.
My belief has always been, and remains, that good writing cannot be taught, but it can be nurtured and cultivated and encouraged. I’ve become convinced that there are a fair number of people who are, by all accounts, intelligent and pleasant folks who can never learn to write.
There is a gift of some kind. One must kiss the Blarney Stone or some such. But by “nurtured,” I mean that a writer can be in an environment where good writing is given praise, like the right newspaper where there are people whose praise can serve to inspire and offer help.
I have some examples of encouraging work. I can remember one instance when I told a particularly awkward writer not to come to me with her lead but to trust herself. She may not have had then or now the gift to become a fine writer, but there is no doubt in my mind that attitude boosted her competence and her confidence.
I also think I’ve seen situations where repeating the basics over and over again has helped: reminding the writer to develop his theme, to develop a sense of place and story, to provide the telling detail, the corollary, the anecdote that brings a subject to life. I believe if a teacher or an editor can develop an attitude of enthusiasm in writers for their work, this will help. I also believe that most don’t try to do that.
If the gift is present in an individual, studying foreign languages will help. I feel strongly enough about that that I look for it on job applications. It develops a sense of language in the abstract, and learning that other languages use different kinds of construction heightens one’s awareness of the purpose of structure in English and the various uses to which it can be put.
Reading good writing also helps. Bob Lancaster, who once worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and now works for the Arkansas Democrat, is a fine writer. He used to say that whenever he wrote well he could literally hear in his mind the sound of Mark Twain or E.B. White or H.L. Mencken. I feel this myself. In fact, I have an unfortunate tendency to mimic the last thing I’ve read, which indicates, I guess, that you can go too far in that direction.
Practice helps. Writers should be forced to write frequently and to have their work judged against high standards. If writing cannot be taught, discipline can be taught — spelling, syntax, vocabulary. As I get older, these mechanical abilities are much more important than I used to think they were. They are the path to precision and clarity. But, I repeat, the ability to string words together in ways that make people laugh or cry, march or cheer or vote or pay their taxes or not pay their taxes, cannot be instilled.
If someone has it, there is probably no way to prevent that person from becoming a good writer, though the schools of today seem to be doing their level damnedest. Grammar helps, too. The best tool that should be in every newsroom and in every reporter’s desk is the old reliable, Strunk and White’s, “The Elements of Style.” It provides, as Paul Swensson has said, “a safe journey of words from one mind to another.” Also, Strunk and White provide the best discussion I have ever seen of the way in which the order of words changes the impact. Supposing Tom Paine had written, “These are trying times, soul-wise.”
We all know, as the readership discussion earlier this afternoon pointed out, a lot about the demographics of our readers, but we rarely discover how we turn our readers off one by one. I tell my reporters that the reader is looking for an excuse to quit reading at the end of every sentence and every paragraph. Don’t give him one.
I also tell my reporters — and I can’t repeat it to them enough — that almost every story is a people story; that they should research a problem or an issue or a trend for its human qualities and write in terms of real people with real problems. And I tell them particularly on complex non-spot news stories, to use an outline.
Swensson has called this a clothesline, a piece of rope you hang your literary or journalistic wash on, and you look to see what you hung on the line. You see if all the purple socks match up, or see the empty spaces saved for the trousers.
Sometimes the editor must impose his own outline on the reporter. When that happens, the reporter may complain that he is being forced into a formula. I tell them that there is nothing wrong with a formula. There’s a formula for a triple back flip off the high dive, but that doesn’t make it any easier to perform. I tell them to use transition, to start and finish each paragraph with an interlocking nut, a thread, so that the story is seamless. The best reporters have this. They can write a story that is so seamless, you cannot find their transitions without a second reading.
I’m thinking of reporters like Peter Kann of The Wall Street Journal who, alas, has become a publisher, Richard Ben Cramer of The Philadelphia Inquirer who, thank God, has not. But mostly I tell them when it’s good. I tell them when it’s bad. I pay attention, I expect the other people who work for me to do that — the city editor, the regional editor, the national editor.
Mike Gartner has said that good writers are born and not made. But he has also said that bad writers can become workmanlike, and workmanlike writers can be taught a bit of grace and style. I think that’s true.
Roy Peter Clark has said that writers must know that their environment encourages and rewards good writing. When they know that, they revise, they refine and they struggle, and their editors do it with them. Their editors praise them, critique and kick back.
There are other approaches that sound good to me that I haven’t tried. Dave Lawrence at The Charlotte Observer asks job applicants to write a critique of his paper, to cover a real reporting situation and to write a story on it and, most interestingly, to write an autobiographical sketch, past, present and future, on the theory that personal journalism is the hardest thing to pull off.
Stuart Dim, also of Charlotte, has suggested putting together an anthology of writing, good and bad, annotated for reporters, telling them how the good is good and why the bad is bad.
But I think, most of all, the profession needs editors who also know and appreciate good writing, editors who can in fact write, men and women who are attuned to the rhythms of a language or the power of it. If the editor cannot, then he can hardly tell a reporter how and where he went wrong or where and how he did well.
Maybe the head of the construction doesn’t have to have been a master carpenter, but it helps, and he certainly should know at least his rudimentary way around a hammer and nails. And he should be able to say, “No, that’s wrong, and here’s why,” or “Yes, I like that, and here’s why.” Many editors don’t do that, whether from a lack of skill or because they are convinced that other things — VDT systems, libel law, budget fights, whatever — are more important. Those things are important, but if all of those things end up being performed in the service of a rigidly written newspaper, then we might as well be in the shoe business and not in the business of trying to communicate thoroughly, clearly and well.
Roy Clark has said that newspaper writers often forget how good newspaper writing can be. Newspaper editors do that, too. They shouldn’t.