As I get older—and my time on this planet gets shorter—I go berserk when people promise one thing in writing, deliver something else and waste my time.
At right “IN THE NEWS” is the lede of Howard Shapiro’s review of “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller at the University of Delaware, roughly an hour’s drive from my house in center city Philadelphia.
I wanted to know one thing quickly: was this production worth the trip?
Of the 403-word review, the first 88 words are devoted to the excruciatingly dull details of how Shapiro got stuck in stop-and-go 8 mph traffic that caused him to miss Act I.
Shapiro spends the next 94 words dumping all over Arthur Miller’s first act—which he has not seen:
Ah, yes, the babbling, daydreaming Willy Loman, aging badly from a hard life of sales on the road, is in his Brooklyn house, frightening his wife with his erratic behavior. He’s also yelling at his grown boys—particularly Biff, who had been Willy’s great hope and now is his constant disappointment.
In all, 182 words—or 45 percent of this supposed review—are expended (1) highlighting Howard Shapiro’s self-described inability to keep an appointment and (2) wasting my time.
Shapiro and his editor—if such an animal exists in the bankrupt Philadelphia Inquirer—should be fired for letting this irrelevant drivel see print.
My message to Howard Shapiro—and to everyone that writes for public consumption (as opposed to private diaries or journals):
- Consider the reader’s needs and wants before your own.
- Ruthlessly self-edit, because most businesses do not have professional editors.
Takeaways to Consider
The Two Greatest Editors
Shortly after six o’clock on a rainy March evening in 1946, a slender, gray-haired man sat in his favorite bar, the Ritz, finishing the last of several martinis. Finding himself adequately fortified for the ordeal ahead, he paid the check, got up, and pulled on his coat and hat. A well-stuffed briefcase in one hand and an umbrella in the other, he left the bar and ventured into the downpour drenching mid-Manhattan. He headed west toward a small storefront on Forth-third Street, several blocks away.
Above is the lede paragraph of A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography of legendary editor at Scriber’s, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.” Perkins was heading off to take questions from a room full of college students. It was Perkins (1884-1947) who shaped, slashed and flyspecked the works of a number of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists—Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.P. Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnon (“The Yearling”) Rawlins, Alan (“Cry the Beloved Country”) Payton and James (“From Here to Eternity”) Jones.
Berg’s biography, first published in 1978, was an expansion of his Princeton senior thesis—beautifully researched, written and edited—that became a best seller and won a Pulitzer Prize for the fledgling author.
In the non-fiction arena, I would nominate Briton Hadden (1898-1929)—co-founder of TIME with Henry R. Luce in 1923—as the twentieth century’s greatest editor.
Back in the late ’60s under the guidance of Rhett Austell, Time-Life Books began publishing a series of $1.65 paperbacks called “TIME Capsules,” and I began collecting them. The first one was “TIME Capsule/1923: A History of the Year Condensed from the Pages of TIME.” The subheads:
- President Harding’s Sudden Death
- Mussolini’s First Year in Power
- Hitler’s Abortive Beer-Hall Putsch
- The Murder of Pancho Villa
- Dempsey Knocks Out Firpo
If you can get your hands on any of the early “TIME Capsule” books, you’ll be dazzled by the short, snappy prose that positively crackles. It became known as Timestyle—the invention of Briton Hadden, whose influence on all journalism that followed is incalculable. In the words of The New Yorker:
When Briton Hadden died, in 1929, at the age of 31, he had earned a million dollars, invented the radio quiz show, coined the terms “socialite” and “pundit,” and seismically changed American journalism by conceiving of the weekly news magazine TIME.
The Wall Street Journal’s Editor Problem
Until the redesign of The Wall Street Journal a number of years ago, the front page always had three main news stories on the front page. In the center column—known as the A-hed—the articles were often lightweight and amusing. On Monday, September 25, 1989, I was the subject of the A-hed with a column by Cynthia Crossen titled “You Call It Junk, But Denison Hatch Sees Gold in It.” Her lede:
STAMFORD, Conn – Imagine a guy who sits in his basement 12 hours a day, poring over junk mail the way Frank Perdue scrutinizes chickens. That’s Denison Hatch.
This lighthearted story did provide value to business people, because Peggy and I were the pioneers in analyzing direct mail—the medium on which the most advertising dollars were spent at the time. We created a research system that discovered which direct mail efforts were winners and what made them successful.
Our cranky little newsletter, WHO’S MAILNG WHAT! was a breakthrough product that helped a great many people work smarter—specifically advertisers, marketers, mailers, copywriters, designers and suppliers to the direct marketing community.
Today, the A-hed is gone, but The Wall Street Journal continues to clutter its front page with frippery that by any measure is of no help to anyone and forces busy people to search elsewhere for vital information. In an economic mess with rampant unemployment, yo-yoing markets, record foreclosures, bankruptcies, two endless wars, squirrelly weather and a business community scared to death, you tell me if any of these fatuous, cutesy-poo stories belongs on the front page of the world’s premier business journal—stories I file in my giant archive under the heading, “WSJ Stoopid Shit”:
In Maine, a Rivalry Boils Up On the Lobster-Boat Racing Circuit
To Catch Mr. Alley’s Speedy Vessel, Mr. Johnson Tries a Pontiac; Prizes of Cash, Bait
—Robert Tomsho, August 25, 2009
Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing!
‘Extreme’ Pogoers Do Backflips, Hop Minivans; In This Sport, Bounces Per Second Matter
—Kris Maher, August 28,2009
Snow-Shovel Racing Went Downhill, But It’s Getting a Second Chance
Speed Demons Really Dig It; The Shovelmeister Waxes Nostalgic
—Miguel Bustillo, February 8, 2010
Slaw and Order: Hot-Dog Stand in Chicago Triggers a Frank Debate
‘Felony Franks’ Is Staffed by Ex-Cons, but Some Neighbors Don’t Relish the Name
—Julie Jargon, October 13, 2009
Chill of Victory, Agony of the Feet: The Art of Snowshoe Racing
Newfangled Gear, an Element of Danger and No Time to Savor the Scenery
—Barry Newman, March 7, 2009
Amusing, yes; front-page material, no. The Wall Street Journal has its priorities askew—one more reason why I dropped my print subscription and pay for online only. Rupert Murdoch’s editors do not have their priorities straight.
Quite simply, no takeaways exist for any of this fatuous drool.
And recreational reading has no place on The Wall Street Journal‘s front page.
Salon.com’s Editor Problem
Every day I scour print newspapers and Web sites for stories and ideas. As circumstances in my life change, my attention shifts. For example, we recently traveled to Italy. In this mental mode, I read anything to do with airline travel, such as Patrick Smith’s column (March 25, 2010) titled: “Ask the pilot: The drama of flying.” Here’s the lede:
Before we get going, some important news: Effective today, Ask the Pilot is switching to a new format and a new schedule.
After 300 words all about Salon.com, the column, the writing, the timing, a plug for the author’s home page and a pilot fan page on Facebook, Smith ends with:
And now, the first installment of the all-new Ask the Pilot …
Clearly editor Joan Walsh and writer Patrick Smith are so enthralled with Salon.com that they selfishly put themselves ahead of the readers.
Any editor worth a tinker’s damn would realize that this secondary—perhaps even tertiary—content belongs as a sidebar.
Note to Joan Walsh and Patrick Smith: You promised one thing in your headline and delivered something completely different in your body copy.
That is called a lie.
Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.