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Remembering Jimmy Breslin and the ‘gravedigger’ school of news writing

I am a writing teacher, not a beat reporter. No one calls me “scoop.” So it was fun last September to help break the news that the Daily Beast was about to publish a new piece of work from Jimmy Breslin.

It was a pleasure to analyze the essay, part of a fictionalized memoir, and reflect on the work of the famous/infamous New York City columnist, who died on Sunday.

I argued that part of his legacy was to have produced — in a single column — a school of news writing. Call it the Gravedigger School. While covering the funeral services of the assassinated John F. Kennedy, Breslin was the only reporter to track down the man who dug JFK’s grave.

That column remains what high school teachers would call a “mentor text” for generations of journalists. Rather than follow the pack toward conventional sources, reporters have been trying to find their own “gravediggers” ever since.
I own one small Breslin anecdote, but it was big enough to become Chapter 6 of my book, “Writing Tools.” I wish I could remember the name of the editor who years ago gave it to me. The chapter begins this way:

An editor from Newsday told me the story of how he tried to help a reporter revise the top of a story. As often happens, the editor knew that the lead paragraph could be improved, but not how. As he walked down the hallway, story in hand, he looked up to see the Brobdingnagian figure of Jimmy Breslin, who agreed to take a peek at the problem.

“Too many –ings,” said the legendary columnist.

“Too many whats?”

“Too many –ings.”

That was a new take for me and it was another artist, Dusty Springfield, who helped me figure it out. Could you have too many words in a passage that end in “ing?” On the radio came one of her great hits, in which she runs a string of gerunds: wishing (actually wishin’), hoping, thinking, praying…

That was fine for the song, but, on reflection, it became clear that adding those –ings had the side effect of erasing the distinctive roots of those verbs: wish, hope, think, pray – notice how different they look without the –ings.

Thanks, Jimmy Breslin, for this last lesson: “Take it easy on the –ings. Prefer the simple present or past.”


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Senior Scholar

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar. He contributes regularly to Poynter.org on topics such as writing, reporting, editing, coaching writers, reading, language and politics, American culture, ethics, and the standards and practices of journalism. He is the author or editor of eighteen books. His most recent include Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers, How to Write Short, and The Art of X-ray Reading.

(via Poynter)