Category Archives: examples of good writing

“Hitler was no good at all at first. …”

 

 

“Observer; Baseball for Hitler”

By Russell Baker

The New York Times

June 18, 1996

 

Baseball turned its back on Adolf Hitler last week. As the team owners said in a formal statement, “When your business has troubles as bad as ours, who needs to mess around with Der Fuhrer?”

So saying, they persuaded Marge Schott, majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds, to give up control of her business. In a flagrant exercise of the First Amendment, Mrs. Schott had spoken well of the early Hitler.

One sports story reported that she had said “Hitler was good at first.” This sent me to the archives where I discovered that Hitler was no good at all at first, and not at second either.

Rudolf Hess’s memoir says, “The Fuhrer could have been a great shortstop if he hadn’t gone into politics,” but Hess was crazy as a loon when he wrote it.

A more reliable source, Hitler’s masseuse, wrote a book titled, “I Rubbed Hitler the Wrong Way,” which indicates he had very little interest in baseball. “One day while massaging Hitler’s arm,” she wrote, “the Fuhrer seemed in a light-hearted mood, so I ventured to speak to him as follows:

” ‘Do you know, mein Fuhrer, that if you were an American baseball pitcher what your pitching arm would be called by the scribes?’

” ‘Scribes? Scribes?’ he said. ‘Explain scribes to me.’

” ‘They are sportswriters,’ I said.

” ‘So,’ he said, ‘these scribes would call my pitching arm what?’

” ‘They would call it “the old soupbone,” ‘ I said.”

Hitler ended the conversation abruptly, telling the masseuse that when the Wehrmacht occupied America he would like to see a game from the best seat in Camden Yards, but that would have to wait until he finished conquering Russia.

Here is final proof of Hitler’s ignorance of baseball: Camden Yards was not built until 50 years later, and even then he couldn’t have got a decent seat unless he was a corporation. By then, of course, no scribe had called a pitching arm “the old soupbone” for 50 years, and no sportswriter had been called a scribe for 45.

Most of the Nazi leaders were hopelessly ignorant of baseball, as we discover in the Hitler file. Hermann Goring, being the great collector and chief looter in the Nazi hierarchy, apparently wanted a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

In a note to Hitler the propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, wrote that Goring was writing to a woman in enemy America. Impressions in Goring’s desk blotter, said Goebbels, showed that a note had been sent to a New York woman named Babe Ruth.

Totally ignorant of baseball, Goebbels advised Hitler to turn Goring over to the Gestapo and explain his correspondence “with this American Mata Hari.”

Hitler, who was soft on Goring, was “delighted,” he wrote in a note to Eva Braun, to show his “superior knowledge of American culture to Goebbels.”

“I told him that Babe Ruth was the name of an American candy and that Hermann, who has a sweet tooth, was probably ordering some from New York,” Hitler wrote.

We now know, of course, what Goring was really up to. His gardener’s memoir, “Down the Primrose Path With Goring,” reports that he was often ordered to stand in a hay field for hours chasing fly balls Goring hit off a fungo bat. The gardener writes:

“He once said to me that Hermann Goring was not much more corpulent than the greatest batter in history. ‘What’s more,’ said Goring, ‘both of us are named Hermann.’

“I didn’t know then that Herman was only the second name of the famous Ruth and that it had only one ‘n,’ while Goring’s was his first name and had two ‘n’s.’ ”

Goring apparently hoped to meet Babe Ruth once the Wehrmacht occupied New York and to impress the Yankee slugger by smacking a few batting-practice pitches out of the park. Babe Ruth, he hoped, would be impressed enough to sign a baseball, thus making it unnecessary to loot the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The baseball owners’ distaste for Hitler reminds us that baseball and Adolf once had something in common. Hitler became furious because a black American sprinter, Jesse Owens, beat the flower of Aryan athletics in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Such an embarrassment could not have happened that year to major league baseball owners. They simply didn’t let blacks play.

 

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Absolute genius (on Russell Baker’s part).

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey” (Notable Sports Figures)

 

Please see my post

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey”

at

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey”

 

In addition to what I say about my own writing there, aspiring writers may wish to note the effectiveness of my leads to each of the two pieces, in both creating interest anecdotally, as it were, and framing the content of each article.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2020

“Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!” (a Henry Miller letter)

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Miller letter to Emil Schellock

 

 

 

Attached is the text (downloadable Word document above) of a letter dated December 1, 1930 from the American writer Henry Miller — written by Miller from Paris — to his American friend Emil Schnellock. Miller and Schnellock had known each other since schooldays at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn (class of 1905). They were lifelong friends. Emil Schnellock was a successful commercial artist.

Miller moved to France in 1930 (he made a previous trip there lasting a few months in 1928) and remained in France for approximately ten years. During this period, as an exile. Miller experienced profound feelings of liberation and a burst of creativity, both of which are seen in his autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer.

 


— Roger W. Smith

    September 2020

 

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addendum:

This letter “charmed” me when I first read it some thirty (perhaps) years ago. I thought to myself: Now that’s how to write a letter!

Reading it again now, I guess I would say that I am not quite as entranced. Maybe what thrilled Miller almost a century ago doesn’t thrill (or titillate) us the same today. But this is vintage Miller. The raconteur who when he gets going should not and can not stop. It all comes tumbling out, not carefully crafted: the minute observation and the grandiose impression or thought; the connoisseur and intellectual as well as the sensualist and extoller of the tawdry, the carnal and prosaic. One thing I would say about Miller’s writing is that, it all tumbles out pell-mell, but he has a great “ear.” The tone, rhythm, and pacing are just right. I guess that’s gift a writer such as Miller is born with.

 

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addendum:

See also my post:

“Henry Miller”

Henry Miller

 

Francis Parkman

Parkman excerpts

Excerpts from the works of the historian Francis Parkman are posted here (above) as a downloadable Word document.

In view of my mentions of the historians Carlyle and Macaulay in recent posts on rhetoric and style, I got to thinking this morning about the historian Francis Parkman, author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and the monumental seven-volume France and England in North America; and of an early, forgotten work: Vassall Morton: A Novel (1856), which, I dare say, few have ever read. (I am proud to be able to say that I have.)

A student at Harvard College of the historian Jared Sparks, by whom he was greatly influenced, Parkman was fluent in French and was an admirer of Froissart, whose works included the Chroniques (Chronicles) a prose history of the Hundred Years’ War written in the fourteenth century. Parkman’s style of historical writing would probably be termed “romantic” and perhaps lyrical. His research in primary sources was prodigious, belying the impression (which would show ignorance of them) that his works are not scholarly or objective. His narrative is crystal clear.

He can — and has by his admirers — be read almost for his style alone.

What modern historian writes narrative history with metaphors and descriptive passages such as the following?

a rolling sea of dull green prairie

On the right hand and on the left stretched the boundless prairie, dotted with leafless groves and bordered by gray wintry forests, scorched by the fires kindled in the dried grass by Indian hunters, and strewn with the carcasses and the bleached skulls of innumerable buffalo.

Yet hardly anyone reads Parkman nowadays.

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2020

great sports writing indeed (as it rarely is, yet should be)

 

 

Tex Maule, ‘The Giant Story’

 

 

THE GIANT STORY

by Tex Maule

Sports Illustrated

December 23, 1963

https://vault.si.com/vault/1963/12/23/the-giant-story

 

downloadable Word document, above

 

 

 

I was a New York Giants fan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I am sure I watched the 1963 Eastern Division championship game between the Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers on television. I knew the individual players and thrilled to the exploits of players such as Frank Gifford, Y. A. Tittle, and Del Shofner. Shofner was always getting open for miraculous receptions of Tittle’s passes lofted downfield in a high arch. I knew the defensive stars such as Sam Huff and Rosey Grier. I recall Frank Gifford’s one-handed catch in the 1963 game, assuming that this was the play I remember. Or did he (again) or another Giant player do it in a later game?

 

 

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The reason for this post is my commentary on Tex Maule’s 1963 Sports Illustrated story about the 1963 Giants-Steelers game. Does any sportswriter write like this nowadays? I would say no, there is no such example. Read Maule’s story and see for yourself.

Most sports reporting (game coverage) nowadays consists of essentially “filler’ material putting the game in context — along with a summary account of the game. Some or most of the background material is written before the game or as it is in progress. The Milwaukee Bucks were facing elimination toady in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference finals and the daunting prospect of playing at Boston Garden against a heavily favored Boston Celtics squad. And so on. Then a blow by blow account of the game, and a few post-game interviews, if the reporter can get a quote or two. Down by three runs in the seventh, the Yankees loaded the bases on a single and two walks. Red Sox manager Johnny Pesky yanked his starter and brought in flame throwing reliever Dick Radatz. “He was throwing smoke,” catcher Russ Nixon said.

 

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Every play and the game itself are put into context and elucidated with consummate skill and meticulous attention to detail in Maule’s account of the 1963 Giants-Steelers game. It is an incredible piece of reporting — it speaks for itself. The reader feels like he was there, on the field.

Note how Maul intermixes reportage (description) with exposition. Some examples:

 

* * *

Buddy Dial, who was cut by the Giants in his rookie year only to become one of the best receivers in the league for Pittsburgh, found a long stick during practice one day and sneaked into a meeting of the defensive club with it.

“Here, fellows,” he said. “You better take this. You may need it to knock down Tittle’s passes Sunday.”

He was a better prophet than he knew, although even a 10-foot pole would not have been ong enough to reach Del Shofner on some of the passes Tittle threw him.

 

* * *

 

The first touchdown came on a 41-yard pass play from Tittle to Shofner, who was yards beyond Willie Daniel, the Steeler corner back attempting to cover him. Daniel, a young back in his third season, found Shofner’s experience and speed difficult to cope with. Earlier in the game Tittle had attempted a sideline pass to Shofner, luring Daniel up close. This time Shofner faked the sideline, then broke downfield, and Daniel, coming up too hard, could not reverse direction and could only watch helplessly from far behind as Shofner took the perfectly thrown pass.

Late in the second period Tittle did almost the same thing to set up the second Giant touchdown. Again it was a first-down play–a play on which Tittle does not often pass. Again Shofner beat Daniel and this time the pass carried down to the Steeler 14-yard line for a 44-yard gain.

 

* * *

The Steelers, whose main threat is the running of John Henry Johnson and Theron Sapp, had moved sporadically over the frozen ground during the first half. Their drives were aborted when [quarterback] Brown went to the air but could not connect with his receivers and the Giant defense, with linebackers playing up close, stopped Johnson and Sapp.

 

* * *

 

The Steeler field goal came with seven seconds left in the half, and the drive that produced it was frustratingly typical. From the Giant 20, first and 10, Brown threw three passes. On all three he had plenty of time, but none of the passes was within reach of a receiver, and twice receivers were in the clear. On fourth down Lou Michaels kicked a 27-yard field goal.

For a few moments after the Giants got the ball for their next series of downs, it appeared that the Steelers, encouraged by their quick score, might take control of the game. They rushed Tittle hard and forced him to hurry a pass so that it fell incomplete. They smothered Phil King on a running play. It was third and eight, Del Shofner was out of the game with bruised ribs, and the Giants were in trouble–or so it seemed.

But then Frank Gifford took over Shofner’s role as first-down getter. Gifford had been laying flanker back all afternoon–just getting exercise. Tittle had thrown to him only once. Gifford’s covering man was Glenn Glass, a second-year corner back. Glass, aware that Tittle’s favorite pass to Gifford is to the outside, near the sideline, had been following Frank closely to the outside, almost conceding him the inside routes, where help might be expected from a safety or a linebacker. The Giants had discussed this during the half-time intermission, and now Tittle called a pass pattern that sent Gifford down and in. When he broke to his left, toward the center of the field, he left Glass cross-legged. Tittle’s pass was low, and Gifford reached down with one hand, hoping to tip the ball up. The ball, amazingly, stuck in his hand for a completion on the Steeler 47, a 30-yard gain and a first down. …

“That Gifford catch was the end for us,” Steeler Coach Buddy Parker said later. “It looked then like we were beginning to pick up and they were sliding. But you could see the whole club come alive after that play.”

 

 

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Hamilton Prieleaux Bee Maule (1915-1981), commonly known as Tex Maule, was the lead football writer for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

pithiness

 

 

 

pithiness — terseness and economy in writing and speaking achieved by expressing a great deal in just a few words

 

 

“The pretended rights of these theorists [of revolution] are all extremes; and, in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.”

 

— Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

 

 

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This is pithiness by definition. It is a great example of how a great writer and thinker, a master of expository prose, can have the reader stop in his or her tracks, and think, say to oneself: so true — I never saw this before. And of how a single statement can focus and reorient one’s thinking; and enable one to not only see things more clearly than heretofore, but anew in a way not perceived before.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2020

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

 

See my post about Samuel Johnson

 

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

 

at

 
“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

 

“Use the active voice.”

 

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

 

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Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

 
Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

 

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

 
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Addendum:

 

In a recent post of mine

 

“a red cord thing”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2020/02/21/a-red-cord-thing/

 

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

 

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

 

 

 

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

The mind yearns for completion.

 

 

A reader of one of my posts wrote to me that the essays of Johnson, Addison, and Steele “are well worth reading, … but their style is clearly dated.”

I wonder.

 

Reading some of Samuel Johnson’s miscellaneous writings today, I was thinking to myself (as I often do) how clearly written they are and how they provide models for good writing.

Yes, there are anachronisms in usage — certainly in spelling (as well as conventions in capitalization and hyphenation) — as well as vocabulary in Johnson’s writings, and in those of Addison and Steele, whose essays provided a model for Johnson’s.
Here is an example from one of Steele’s essays:

An Author, when he first appears in the World, is very apt to believe it has nothing to think of but his Performances. With a good Share of this Vanity in my Heart, I made it my Business these three Days to listen after my own Fame; and, as I have sometimes met with Circumstances which did not displease me, I have been encountered by others which gave me much Mortification. It is incredible to think how empty I have in this time observed some Part of the Species to be, what mere Blanks they are when they first come abroad in the Morning, how utterly they are at a Stand, until they are set a going by some Paragraph in a News-Paper: Such Persons are very acceptable to a young Author, for they desire no more (in anything) but to be new, to be agreeable. If I found Consolation among such, I was as much disquieted by the Incapacity of others. These are Mortals who have a certain Curiosity without Power of Reflection, and perused my Papers like Spectators rather than Readers.

But there is so little Pleasure in Enquiries that so nearly concern our selves (it being the worst Way in the World to Fame, to be too anxious about it), that upon the whole I resolv’d for the future to go on in my ordinary Way; and without too much Fear or Hope about the Business of Reputation, to be very careful of the Design of my Actions, but very negligent of the Consequences of them.

— Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 4, Monday, March 5, 1711

 

This seems to be a specimen of clear, straightforward, and plain good writing. Does such writing go out of fashion?

 

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In a different vein — but also, to provide a specimen from Johnson — here is a brief passage from a book review by Samuel Johnson from my reading today:

He [Joseph Warton] mentions, with great regard, [Alexander] Pope’s ode on solitude, written when he was but twelve years old, but omits to mention the poem on silence, composed, I think, as early, with much greater elegance of diction, music of numbers, extent of observation, and force of thought. [italics added]

— Samuel Johnson, review of Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, Literary Magazine (1756)

 

The concluding sequence of four phrases is an example of why Johnson’s writings merit study on stylistic grounds. On account — in this example — of excellence of phrasing, parallelism, and how pleasing to the ear, how euphonious, such wording is.

One phrase follows another, forming an integrated whole. A thought or concept clearly and forcefully expressed. The words strike home.

The mind yearns for completion. In Johnson, this is usually achieved.

It is very much like a cluster of notes in music, when notes follow and build on those before, when they not only fit together, cohere, but provide a sense of resolution.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 9, 2020

how to make things admirably clear

 

 

Re:

 

“A Deal That Has Two Elections, Rather Than Mideast Peace, as Its Focus; The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan unveiled by President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounds more like a road map for their own futures than for the Middle East.”

by David E. Sanger

The New York Times. January 28, 2020

 

 

 

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My English teacher, Mr. Tighe, would be proud of a paper as well written as this. It exhibits masterful observance of the three core principles of expository writing: unity, coherence, and emphasis (meaning that the key points emerge clearly).

The details and quotes are stitched together with consummate skill. The organization and logic are impeccable, and the thrust of the piece is admirably clear.

I once wrote a reference book article on the British historian A. J. P. Taylor. It was approximately 2,600 words long. My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., who was always eager to read my writings (he was a writer himself), said that there was not “a single wasted word” in the article. Without comparing myself to Mr. Sanger, I would say that the same is true of his piece.

This may seem like a routine job of reporting. It was written on the spot–at the moment. It could serve as a model for students of journalism and in English classes as well.

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2020