How to write, lessons from the muckrakers edition

I read a collection of essays by Jessica Mitford during my travels. The book Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking was not only a delight to read, it was full of some the most delightful prose I’ve seen. Here are some suggestions she gave on writing in the introduction:

Choice of subject is of cardinal importance, as one does by far one’s best work when besotted by and absorbed in the matter at hand… In my Yale class,…those who tackled hot issues on campus such as violations of academic freedom, or failure to implement affirmative-action hiring policies, turned in some excellent work; but the lad who decided to investigate “waste in the Yale dining halls” was predictably unable to make much of this trivial topic.

Gathering background information

The goal is to know, if possible, more about your subject than the target of the investigation does. To this end, I soak up books and articles on the subject, type out relevant passages, and accumulate a store of knowledge before seeking an interview with said target.

Picking other people’s brains

I have found experts to be amazingly generous with their time – they actually seem to like the chance to expound their knowledge to us ignorami, although I recall one rather disappointing experience: wanting to know what 6 percent of a million is, I called the Department of Higher Mathematics at the University of California. The person who answered said, “Oh it’s six hundred. No it’s six thousand…no, wait a minute, I think it’s sixty thousand. Could you call back after lunch?” I have long since forgotten the definitive, post-lunch answer. But thereafter I relied on a thirteen-year-old friend in junior high school, who knows such things off the top of his head.


Take time to think through exactly what it is that you want to learn from the interview; I write out and number in order the questions I intend to ask. For Unfriendly Witnesses…I list the questions graduated from Kind to Cruel. Kind questions are designed to lull your quarry into a conversational mood…by the time you get to the Cruel questions […] your interlocutor will find it hard to duck and may blurt out a quotable nugget.


One technique I have found useful in the early stages of an inquiry is to write letters to friends about what I am doing. In that way I perforce start editing the material for fear my correspondent’s eyes will glaze over with boredom if I put in everything I have learned. Also, one’s style is bound to be more relaxed than it will be at the dread moment when on writes “page 1” on a manuscript for an editor.

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