Monday, July 07, 2008

How to write (latest in an occasional series)

Some old hand on The New Yorker described the magazine's journalism as being all about "a passionate specificness". This short item about the great Chip Taylor is a classic case. Every sentence contains at least one new piece of information, which isn't always the case. Hacks have written this piece before – Jon Voight's brother, professional gambler, wrote "Wild Thing", yadadada – but I've never heard the name or the profession of the third brother or the details of how Taylor used to combine writing country songs in Manhattan with playing the horses or – and this is presumably new information – how he's remarried his ex-wife but doesn't live with her. Wonderful.


  1. Anonymous11:38 pm

    I think people are scared to post - which is a shame as I'd love to hear some opinions on what makes good writing.

    Speak up!

  2. Anonymous11:25 am

    I didnt think it was especially well-written myself. Much prefer Charlie Brooker or Armano Ianucci on a good day.

  3. Anonymous4:31 pm

    Have to disagree with you Paul. Especially liked the description of domestic bliss, "wife, children, house —the full catastrophe".

  4. What I find admirable about it is that the effect is achieved through an accummulation of information rather than a turn of phrase. I know whole books that have got less detail in them than that short piece.

  5. It’s a quiet masterpiece. So much fact and detail and, though written straight and dry, conveying the atmosphere of a strange, colourful life in about thirty sentences. The sad thing is young folk starting out in journalism are probably more dazzled by the likes of Charlie Brooker (showboat writing, trying desperately hard to be funny but largely falling flat, conveying nothing original or interesting) than a piece like this.
    The New Yorker does the long stuff well too. This Kenneth Tynan profile of Johnny Carson written in 1978 is another textbook example of great profile writing. It’s a marathon, not a sprint (20 pages of A4 if you print it out), but there are no wasted sentences. Not an ounce of fat. Anyone in that line of work should read it.

  6. It is a great piece - reminds me in some ways of Dylan's Chronicles Vol. 1 and The Adventures of Kavlair and Clay (which I am currently reading) - all names, job titles, blink-and-you'll miss it descriptions held together by clever use of the full stop. ---

    "They had an extra ticket, and they didn’t have a babysitter for me. I fought them the whole way. But I’m sitting in the theatre, the music comes on, and my body was, like, on fire. At the end of the play, I didn’t want to talk to my parents. I just wanted to hold on to that wonderful feeling."

    Agree with the Brooker problem - when I was a student we entered our student magazine into an awards thing and whether we deserved to win or not (I think we did), we lost to a load of sub-Brooker rantings about 'Why life is shit!'. It was really depressing that the winner was nothing more than a rehash of one current popular style of writing. Brooker is brilliant - his screenwipe show is genius and screenburn can also be fantastic. However, the line between emulating and mere plagirism is often crossed with ease and it was worrying to me that the judges, esteemed magazine gurus, had failed to see this.

    P.s. - liked your print (Word) 'And another thing' this month David. In many ways it boils down to the fact that comedy featuring drama works a lot better than dramas with comedy, I would say. I very much liked.

    Web 2.0 at its finest - referencing a magazine article through a blog about a piece in the New Yorker.