People are willing to pay for quality journalism, says The New York Times CEO Mark Thompson. The New York Times is the best English-language newspaper I have had the pleasure to read. I try to read the columnists Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd and David Brooks whenever I can because they are excellent writers. They write so smoothly, they keep you reading till the last line.
How do they do it? They make it look so effortless and easy. But it’s an art or craft that requires practice. Only an experienced writer can write the way they do.
This is how Collins begins one of her columns:
“Big primary election for mayor of New York City next week, people. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on. If you stick with me, I promise animal stories. Including kittens.”
Don’t you want to read on? Collins knows how to hook the reader.
How does she do it?
By writing in an informal, easy-reading style and promising to tell stories.
She is writing about politics, but see how she blends political commentary with interesting facts to whip up an entertaining article. About one of the mayoral candidates, she writes:
“It is possible that Quinn is having a hard time because she’s a woman. Really, unless you’re Hillary Clinton, New York is tough. Also, she is the candidate most identified with Mayor Bloomberg. We feel as if Bloomberg has been running the city since the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
“And don’t discount the Central Park carriage horses. Animal rights advocates have long yearned to abolish the industry, and Quinn is the only major Democrat who disagrees. The horses are very well-protected by regulation — they have to have five weeks of out-of-town vacation a year. French workers do not have as good a holiday package as the Central Park carriage horses. However, they do have to walk through traffic, which makes many people uncomfortable.”
Aren’t you surprised she goes from New York being tough for women politicians to holiday packages for New York carriage horses? Yet she manages to weave the two together. That is the mark of a good writer, who can inform, surprise, entertain, all at the same time.
Maureen Dowd has been writing a column for the New York Times even longer than Collins. This is how she begins one of her columns about President Barack Obama:
“The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize had been up late pleading for war.”
The style is more studied, balancing opposites, talking about the peace prize winner “pleading for war”. The contradiction makes you sit up and read on.
But Obama is not comfortable urging war, notes Dowd. This is how she ends her column:
“But as Barry talked to the press in St. Petersburg, his lack of enthusiasm came across. He was not thundering from the top of the moral ramparts. He made his usual nuanced, lawyerly presentation, talking about the breach of international “norms.” It’s a weak, wonk word.
“Norms don’t send people to the barricades.”
It’s typical Dowd, stylish, insightful, but not necessarily amusing or humorous. She can be cheeky but tends to be more stylish than funny.
Collins is the columnist you go to for cheek and humour.
David Brooks doesn’t do humour. He is sober, serious, substantive. And readable.
You can understand the appeal of Collins – her humour – and Dowd – her way with words. But it’s hard to explain what makes Brooks so readable even when you don’t agree with him. Does that make him even more interesting as a writer?
All I know is I like to read all three of them when I can.