Don’t Back Into Things


I have received only one useful writing lesson, not counting high school English or my freshman English course at Harvard. These taught me about grammar and spelling but not writing. No, my real lesson came from William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, in the form of a two-page memorandum, dated January 8, 1962. I had written my first substantial article for the magazine—a dual profile of the physicists C. N. Yang and T. D. Lee. I had briefly collaborated with them at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1957, the year they won the Nobel Prize.

As he sometimes did with new writers, Shawn had decided to edit my piece himself. His memo was full of questions upon questions:

“But are they Chinese? Or Chinese American?”

“Which China is that? Where in China? And how old were they at the time? And did they know each other in China or meet in Chicago?”

Two single spaced pages like this. Then came the following:

Ah! They had been collaborating. But, again, comes in here by indirection—the word “their” we’d feel is over-burdened. Just as the “his” is, above, in the phrase “his teaching duties.” Our feeling is that, in factual writing (though often not in fiction) indirection should be avoided, for the sake of clarity, grace, structural strength, and so on. We believe in not backing into things.

That was a writing lesson.



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Jeremy Bernstein is the author of a number of books, including Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know and a collection of essays titled Physicists on Wall Street. His most recent book is A Palette of Particles.


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