What I learned about good writing from François X. Clines

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Francis X. Clines arrived at The New York Times in 1958, a year before the death of the Times’ most brilliant writer, Meyer Berger. It was the biggest replenishment of talent the Big Apple has seen since Mickey Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field for the New York Yankees.

Today, Clines has passed away, leaving behind a legacy of sharp and graceful writing, arguably unrivaled in its range, energy and creativity.

During my formative years as a journal writing coach, it was the work of Frank Clines that revealed to me the true potential of journal writing. He came to Poynter in the 1980s for one of our first writing seminars, sharing a wisdom that still resonates in my brain: “I knew if I could just walk out of the office, I could come back with a story. ” And, “Journalists must tell the morbid truth, no excuse for that.”

In 1988, Clines won the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for deadline writing. At the time, he was covering sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a topic of particular interest to an Irish-American Catholic. He wrote this track of Belfast on March 16, 1988:

Three people were killed and dozens injured today as an assailant threw grenades into a screaming crowd at a funeral and then fled through the cemetery past enraged mourners.

Or this one three days later:

There was more gruesome violence at an Irish Republican Army funeral today as two armed British soldiers in civilian clothes drove their car into a crowd of panicked mourners and were grabbed, beaten and eventually slaughtered.

Their bloodied bodies were discovered shortly afterwards in a landfill.

These two stories were reprinted in an annual volume of ASNE winners, under the title “Best Newspaper Writing”. This volume was edited by Poynter’s writing teacher, Don Fry (who died late last year). Fry wrote appreciations of Clines’ stories and interviewed him at length about his craft and his sense of mission and purpose.

One of the stories they discussed also came out of Belfast with the headline: “In Belfast, death too is diminished by death.”

Here are the opening paragraphs, in which Clines takes two things that shouldn’t go together and juxtaposes them, creating narrative tension that runs through the story:

Beyond the coffin, in the cemetery, redhead Kathleen Quinn had fun and flirted shamelessly during her eight years of life. “Sir, I have to be on TV tonight,” she told a stranger, squinting, happy and stilted. Kathleen had taken her brother’s bike and scraped her bloody knee, while people inside the church prayed goodbye to another wayward body in another coffin.

Soon the cameras were watching the coffin being carried from the windowless fortress of a church, along the loop of the street in the simple hamlet, and to the still-filled cemetery dedicated to Republican rebels.

In the end, TV ignored Kathleen and missed a classic Irish truth, a sight for sore eyes. She got back on the bike and drove off in a blur, oblivious to nearby graffiti that seemed to speak to all of life’s dangers: “I wonder every night what the monster is going to do to me tomorrow.”

The conversation between Fry and Clines spans 23 book pages. The best I can do here is mine it for gold coins. Here they are:

I read a lot when I was very young, forbidden things, like Mickey Spillane. These stories escalated things. There was reality, and then there was a story about reality. I’ve always liked that.

An editor… by the name of Sheldon Binn was in the city office all my years in the city, and he was just a very smart, very sweet, very curious man. You would report to him at the end of the day and that really targeted what we were doing. You had to tell him a story.

He would say to you, “And then Rockefeller did what? It would always stay at the level that I like. And he laughed or not, and said, “You know, this guy is incredible”, like in the street. By the time you wrote the story, you were reinforced in what was fun or important. He was always human.

I looked a little behind a tombstone. And I took some notes, and it was just a wild scene. Journalists always want to witness what they write, and when you witness it, then you know there’s no way the story won’t be interesting. I wondered if they had buried any bombs and if the grave would be dirty. Then I saw the mob chasing this guy who had done all this, and standing on top of a tombstone I could watch him run down the hill. He ran over them, shot a few of them, and they finally caught him on that highway, and the cops pulled him over. Even then, after that, the funerals of the three IRA people resumed.

Everything grows from lead, and the only problem in this case was that so much happened. You want everything to be rooted there, and you want to give yourself options to spawn everywhere, just like the story did. So naturally you need to get the number of people who were killed, but quickly move beyond this notion of people in a graveyard. Not a “graveyard”; you meant “cemetery”. You start picking out words right away: ‘in’, ‘throwing grenades’ and ‘people are panicking’. And it’s a whole circuit of emotions, I thought. So I have all of that in mind. And then once you get the advance to where you’re happy, it’s all about making sure you hit the various keys (items) fast enough.

Of course, it’s perfectly natural. If you talk back to the real people who were on a stage, they start over and they have to keep telling it. It’s so convincing. The strategic reason is that you have more information to get and there is enough energy left in the story to tell it on a different level. So I did it naturally. And it’s a long story, longer than what we usually write, which naturally invites a narrative with other things, with more details and more colors.

Every paragraph should contain something like this, because you’re in that invaluable position where you’re describing what you’ve seen. I love little phrases with just bing, bing, like that. It is difficult to premeditate them. But you are grateful when they come.

It’s a simple matter of space. If you’re not careful, you can let too many people into the story, who are more or less going to make the same point, and eat the story, so you haven’t told the story. It is, after all, a story first, not a catalog of commentary. I have to repeat this every time: don’t let a crowd into the story. I always feel guilty when I interview a lot of people and don’t use a lot of them. But you interview them for your telling the story and not for their telling the story, unless they are in a unique position.

You read, and you know what you like when you read and it fades. It’s a give and take, and you’re still adjusting. It’s a learning process, but it’s self-taught. I do a lot of revisions. I cut a lot of words, and I tighten up sentences, a lot of little things that are important to me, that take away sprawling writing. But I do it quickly as I go. I don’t write once and then come back to it again and again. I just know there’s something in a paragraph I don’t like, and I’ll get to that in a minute. I’ll look at it and say, “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have done all that.” I can remove this and that, and still keep the one word that makes it acceptable. I do it quickly though.

You always wonder whether or not you are annoying the reader. So you imagine yourself staying away from the reader, but also conveying what you thought was the most interesting thing, especially the most interesting feeling. You know when you have an honest reaction. It’s important to get into the story, so the trick is to find an oblique way to do it. That, to me, is as important as someone’s name. And that’s the fun. That’s the human part of it. That’s what makes it a story. It’s a human being saying, “Look at this. And in this way, you speak as an individual to another individual.

Few New York Times obituaries read like hagiography – the life of a saint – but this one by Frank Clines approximate.

By the time of his reporting on Northern Ireland in 1988, Clines had already spent three decades at The Times. He grew up in Brooklyn and completed a year at St. Francis College in New York before a two-year stint in the military. He worked his way into The Times as a copyist in 1958. He became a journalist-in-training for six years, covering police and general assignments in all five boroughs. He even wrote a copy for the Times Square marquee, perhaps one of the only places a young journalist could see his own words in the lights.

He worked his way through the following beats: Real Estate, Eastern Long Island, New York City Welfare, State Legislature, and Governor. From 1976 to 1979, he wrote the “About New York” column, which had been started by Meyer Berger and given over the years only to some of the newspaper’s top writers.

He covered the 1980 presidential campaign and was assigned to the Washington bureau from 1980 to 1986. He was a correspondent in the Philippines before moving to London for two years, where he reported the stories from Northern Ireland. He then joined the Moscow office.

During the last years of his career at the newspaper, I saw his byline less often, as he wrote for the editorial pages.

Clines died a year and a half according to his colleague Jim Dwyer. The Times has lost two of its all-time best. Here’s the good news: new generations of reporters and writers are ready to take up the torch.


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