Jim Dwyer is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist for The New York Times. When I was an intern and freelance reporter at New York Newsday, Dwyer was writing an “In the Subways” column for the paper, which made him popular.
This post regards Dwyer’s op-ed piece:
“The Transcendent Incompetence of the L Train Fiasco”
The New York Times
January 12, 2019
I have always felt that Dwyer is a very good writer, and this piece demonstrates why. It seems to be true of all good writers — Dwyer is no exception — that they never write a weak or inferior piece.
Dwyer starts off with a clever lead which enables him to arouse reader interest, and to say something provocative and original. What the reader would not be anticipating. It’s true in writing as in music: Surprise, taken in the broadest sense of the word, can often show ingenuity and arouse interest. But novelty (an unexpected idea or fact thrown into a piece to startle or amuse the reader) will not necessary work by itself. It depends.
In a famous medical study, two doctors traced a chain of errors that brought the wrong patient, a “Mrs. Morris,” to an operating room for an invasive heart procedure that she did not want, did not need and that no one had actually ordered for her.
It turned out that 17 separate mistakes were made before anyone realized that the wrong woman was on the table. Thankfully, Mrs. Morris was not harmed. The doctors said it was an “organizational accident,” meaning that one person could not have done it alone. Sticking tubes into the wrong person’s heart required mess-ups by many people.
One day, Mrs. Morris may be joined in the great case studies of near blunders by New York’s L train fiasco. This one took a team of people, too.
So, Dwyer takes the reader by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the here and now. In January, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the startling announcement that New York City’s L subway line, whose East River tunnel was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, could remain in service while fixes were carried out.”
To New Yorkers like myself who use the L train, this was indeed welcome news, a major development.
Then, Dwyer gives the reader needed context and background: “In April , the line was to stop serving Manhattan for 15 months so the repairs could be made in the river tunnel. Its users had spent two years planning alternative routes and, in some cases, finding new places to live. They are just a fraction of the city’s subway riders, up to 300,000 people a day. But that’s more than the ridership of most mass transit systems in the country.”
He goes on to demonstrate, convincingly, why shutting down the L line for over a year was not necessary. Engineers who have been recently consulted have concluded this.
An important part of a freshman composition course is learning how to make transitions. Many writers, including experienced ones, do this heavy handedly and awkwardly. Dwyer continues:
Which leads us to the next question: [italics added] If the planned new repairs would be as safe and durable without requiring closing the line, why didn’t anyone think of them before? Shouldn’t someone downstream of the governor have thought to bring in outside experts for a fresh look, given the disruptive stakes?”
A seamless transition. Such transitions are most effective when the piece itself is coherent. Where the inner logic and the flow of ideas are apparent and, therefore, easy to follow.
With regard to the next paragraph:
Some people are skeptical about this new plan, in fact, precisely because it was driven by Governor Cuomo. That’s good. Without skepticism, society collapses. But this entire episode illustrates a failure to be skeptical. And it shows us the risks of ignoring what it means to fail, at scale, in a booming city that grows every month. It didn’t have to be the governor asking for a better way. But no one else did.
This paragraph shows one of Dwyer’s key strengths, and illustrates an important principle lost on many academics. Good writing mixes the pithy — fact based, anecdotal writing — with generalities. By generalities, I do not mean vague ones, or truisms. I mean that the writer is always trying to draw out the implications — the inferences — of what he or she is saying. Constantly moving back and forth, so to speak, between providing information to the reader (as well as context) — in the form of facts, anecdotes, data — and teasing out the implications of what they all mean, making sense out of the “facts” (in fictional detective Sergeant Joe Friday’s memorable words). Or, to put it another way, is balancing the factual and informational with explication. Example: Theodore Dreiser grew up in a family where German was often spoken at home. As a writer, he always struggled with the basics of written English. He has often been said to be an awful writer stylistically.
Dwyer goes on the explain the intricate managerial and organizational structure of the subway system, a bureaucratic tangle. He concludes by saying that “The price of all these people being in charge is that no one owns the work.” A sentence which nails the whole point and thrust of the piece down.
He then goes on to say:
In all walks of life — engineering, politics, transportation — there is a fine line between the earned wisdom of experience and the toxic self-regard of a credentialed rut. (That goes for journalism, too. For most of the time the L train shutdown was in the air, I was writing a column in the New York section of The Times. No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.)
Pedestrian writing? I don’t think so. In the work of a master craftsman, there is much to admire. The first sentence of the above paragraph is a brilliant one. It says so much simply. It gets the reader to think. It suggests a new and propitious way of looking at things. His parenthetical admission that “No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.” shows humility and self-awareness. By including himself among others (e.g., administrators and politicians) who should have questioned the need for an L train shutdown, he actually strengthens the points he is trying to make.
His concluding paragraph is brilliant:
Mrs. Morris landed on an operating table for a procedure that she didn’t want or need, and that no one had ordered for her. New York City wound up being prepped for a different kind of surgery that it surely did not want or need. This organizational accident took a lot more than 17 errors.
— Roger W, Smith
January 13, 2019