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:
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.