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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Who’ll tell you to trim your leads?

He was the classic old-school newspaper editor: gravel-voiced, always had a cigarette going, hard-nosed when he had to be but soft-hearted inside. He didn’t say a lot, but you remembered what he did say. He was a pro.

“No lead needs to be longer than 40 words. Ever,” Art Swanson told me, the brand new reporter who couldn’t seem to keep a sentence from spinning into near-epic dimensions. And once, when an article of mine referred to a much-loved elderly local citizen as “the late” when he wasn’t, Art’s growl on the phone said, “never assume anything.” Also, in that same brief conversation: “You've made your mistake. Don't make another one.” I would make plenty more, of course — but never, I don’t think, another one quite as dumb as that again.

With the shrinking-to-a-remnant these days of the newspaper business, I wonder where young aspiring writers will find someone like Art — a veteran editor who’ll both take an interest and hammer on them, to help them learn to shape their work into something that will hold and reward a reader. And if you don’t find someone like that ... then how do you learn, I mean for real? Blogging is writing into thin air. There’s rarely any echo, much less one with experience and expertise. In creative-writing programs, the teacher is paid by you, and that changes everything. When your editor is your boss and your paper’s readers are just waiting to let you know what they think, the education you earn can be a solid foundation on which to build a professional career.

I was lucky that way. Thirty-five years ago, Art offered me my first newspaper job, with a family of high-quality weekly papers in central and northern New Jersey for which he was executive editor. I didn’t work directly for him, but I’d hear from him. He read my stuff, and I’d get those phone calls. Then after a couple of years, when I drove to his office to say it was time for me to look for a job with a big daily (because that’s what I figured you did), he asked if instead I’d stay, to run a new weekly the company had been planning to start. So, at age 28, I did.

There was always something new I could learn from Art, and a lot that I did. I never really thanked him. After a couple of years at the new paper, feeling smothered by deadlines and details and piles of incoming mail, I bailed out and set off overseas, with a backpack and a portable Olivetti typewriter, to write a book about traveling in the Muslim world. (It would never see print, but that's another story.) I never lived in Jersey again and lost touch with the man who'd given me my first shot at writing for a paycheck. I’d like to think I have done the best I could with what I learned from Art; but I don’t think he ever knew. He wasn’t much for sentiment, and I was absorbed by my ambitions and my dreams. (And I think he would not have favored the semicolon that crept its way, no fault of my own of course, into this paragraph.)

So how do young writers get that rough guidance today? Weekly papers do seem to be more resilient than dailies, as they fill a local niche that the HuffPost and Craigslist can’t — but overall, there are fewer and fewer jobs where a person new to reporting and writing can encounter someone who’ll tell you to trim your leads and get your facts right the first time.
Over the years till now, writers of all sorts have found their start in the news business. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.” (That’s in the Paris Review series Writers at Work. I’ve got the copy right here, have had it since those early days.)

You learn — he learned, Hemingway said — “to write a simple declarative sentence.” Forty words or less, that's what I remember. And that's a good place to start. So thanks, Art.

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