Lit Quotes – Writing with “True Grit”

From the classic novel True Grit by master of understated humor Charles Portis (in the voice of the narrator Mattie Ross opining on the state of publishing):

I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article that I have titled, You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.

But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one.  They would rather print trash.  They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims. I do not fool around with newspapers.  They are always after me for historical write-ups but when the talk gets around to money the paper editors are most of them “cheap skates” … great ones for reaping where they have not sown. Another game they have is to send reporters out to talk to you and get your stories for free. I know the young reporters are not paid well and I would not mind helping those boys out with their “scoops” if they could ever get anything straight.

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  1. I don’t know why anyone would write anything for a newspaper anyway–no one reads ’em. Newspapers aren’t dying; they’re dead. If one doesn’t believe that, ask, at random, 100 teenagers, if they read a newspaper that day (on their own and not required in some class). If you get more than two affirmatives, I’ll be shocked. Actually, if you get one, I’ll be shocked.

    And, you’re exactly right about reporters never getting anything straight. I’ve been interviewed at least fifty times for articles and not once did the article get it right. Always… and I mean, ALWAYS… there are errors. Even with notes and tape recorders.

    Actually, we have a rare circumstance in our city in that we have two newspapers. I have a standing bet with a friend that he can call me any day of the year and within five minutes I’ll be able to find an error in the one paper–spelling, punctuation, syntax, grammar… you name it, I’ll find a mistake. He’s called me perhaps 20 times over the years and I’ve never lost the bet. Most times, I find a mistake within a minute or two and can’t recall when it took the entire five minutes. On the other hand, I can never find any errors at all in the other paper. I assume it’s a coincidence that the one where mistakes are common is the liberal paper (The Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette) and the one where there are none is the conservative one (The Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel). Must just be a coincidence… I’m sure that’s all it is…

    What’s humorous is that the Journal-Gazette is proud of being a member of “Newspapers in Education.” Makes one wonder what level of quality of education they’re promulgating…

    Good post.

  2. I think the level of mistakes is a product of bad editing and probably has little or nothing to do with the politics of the editorial staff. I read the very conservative Boston Herald everyday and I find all kinds of simple grammatical mistakes. This probably has more to do with a serious deficiency in our educational system than politics. The idea that someone can “have the credentials” to edit a newspaper, without being able to spot a glaring grammatical mistake, is beyond comprehension to me. Are proof readers really that expensive? Or is it just newspapers know most people wont notice the mistakes anyway?

  3. I understand what you’re saying, Neil, but in this case the political bent of each newspaper does impact. I’m familiar with both papers–was offered an opportunity to apply for the job of the copy editor of the Sentinel years ago (turned it down)–and am somewhat familiar with the hiring practices of each. The Journal makes a point of hiring from a pool of candidates that… how shall I put this?… that are examples of “affirmative action” folks. The Sentinel has a different policy–of hiring the best possible candidate, regardless of other considerations. There are decided differences in standards in each, resulting from the leadership of each paper and it’s reflected in their choices of employees. It’s kind of the same differences one might see between Fox News and MSNBC-News. One will hire a Megyn Kelly and the other a Keith Olberman… Also, the Journal uses very little local talent on their editorial page–choosing primarily to buy Washington Post opinion, while the Sentinel opts for their own editors for their editorial page much more. And, the Sentinel provides a balanced editorial page, while the Journal slants heavily to their side with little thought to providing balance.

    Your point about our educational system is spot on. I’ve taught creative writing in various universities, from UCLA to the University of Toledo, and the material I’ve received regularly from students wouldn’t have passed muster in my eighth grade class when I was in school. I saw the shift begin in the early 70’s with the advent of the unions in education. I was involved that change and everything the opponents of unions prophesied has come true. It was clear from the onset where education was headed and now it’s here. Younger folks don’t know the history of this, but I was there and saw the sea change as it took place.

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