Writing Lessons

All Writing is Reporting

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By Henry Wiencek


 

Amidst the mind-numbing literary theory courses I had to take at Yale, I took a once-a-week evening seminar taught by the legendary New York editor Ted Solotaroff, founder of The New American Review. He wasted none of his cantankerous breath, not even for a NY minute, on the “signified” vs. the “signifier” and all the attendant theorizing. He was a working writer and editor, and he said the writer’s first job is to describe. No matter what you’re writing, you’re a reporter first. Tell the reader what you saw and heard—clearly, simply, vividly. Everything flows from that. This meshed neatly with the basic lesson of my equally cantankerous high school Latin teacher, Fr. Alphonse Yumont, S. J. Mister! he would say—he addressed everyone as Mister, in a range of tones reflecting his level of annoyance—Look at the text! Tell me what it says! This was the rebuke, sometimes accompanied by the sharp slap of his stick on his desk, that inevitably followed a student’s lazy or imaginative attempt to paraphrase or embellish a Vergilian passage rather than translate it literally, precisely, faithfully. This lesson—the opposite of pedantry—taught me to put the evidence first. Now when I’m stuck, I reread the documents to see what I missed, or what I had trimmed, bent, or left out to make the evidence fit an argument. I spent weeks on the opening chapter of my book The Hairstons, and it never felt right. So I went back to the interview tapes and found that I was leaving out everything that didn’t fit the comforting reconciliation narrative I wanted to write. I transcribed the interview tapes word-for-word and started over. Lesson learned. Be a reporter, observe closely, listen closely, follow the evidence, look at the text.

Henry Wiencek is the author of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for biography. His most recent book is Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. He is at work on “Gilding the Metropolis: The Lives of Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.”

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