Writing Lessons

Goodbye, ! ! !


By Owen Gingerich

September 8, 2014


I will always remember the unanticipated Great Comet of 1965. The visitor from outer space was independently reported by two young Japanese comet hunters, Kaoru Ikeya and Tsutomu Seki, who detected a fuzzy glow not on their star charts. I decoded the telegram from the Tokyo Observatory on a Sunday morning, little imagining the spectacular comet that was on its way. As the director of the International Comet Bureau, I was on duty 24–7, disseminating information via the Smithsonian Observatory’s satellite-tracking cable network. We alerted observatories around the world in order to obtain the accurate positions needed to compute an orbit.

As the observations came in, it was quickly apparent that Ikeya-Seki was no ordinary comet—it was a rare sun-grazer that would be seen by the naked eye next to the sun, and later with a tail stretching 25 degrees across the sky.

The public information department at the observatory saw that this was an opportunity not to be missed. They persuaded The Atlantic Monthly that I could write an essay about the comet for them, and it would be easy, they assured me, because they would simply transcribe it from a talk I was planning to give on the comet.

The transcription of my talk was a disaster. I was appalled by the amount of redundancy and the total lack of crispness. How could the Atlantic agree to go ahead with such a muddle? And I couldn’t understand how they had even been sent such a meandering performance.

Later, I came to the realization that the reader of an essay can always reread a sentence if she didn’t catch the message at first glance. The captive live audience has no such opportunity. Creative redundancy is exactly what can make a technical lecture widely comprehensible.

The Atlantic cheerfully accepted my rewrite. My recall today is hazy, but I think the editors made only six editorial suggestions. Three of them were to remove exclamation marks. “You don’t need them if the sentence is not really an exclamation,” the editor explained.

Ever since I have been saying goodbye to exclamation marks, like here.


Owen Gingerich is professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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