« Surely you jest: At the guillotine | Main | Your Nunc Dimittis »

They said it couldn't be cut

Newspaper lore depends heavily on remarks barked by crusty old editors to green reporters and copy editors.

My first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, was of that genus. “I don’t buy on spec,” he’d snarl at an editor trying to push an as-yet unwritten story for the front page.


When he thought that you were engaged in some fruitless endeavor, he’d say, “You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass.” If looking up a hog’s ass is pointless, then looking up a dead hog’s ass must be doubly nugatory. He described one of our prose stylist’s efforts as “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

You get the idea. There were giants in those days.

Anyhow, The Abbeville Manual of Style quoted one of those hoary, and possibly apocryphal, crusty-old-editor statements the other day:

[A]lthough I have a few stories from the green visor gang, the best one came to me from a grizzled newspaper reporter who joined my staff at a state historical society publishing office. I don’t know if his story was apocryphal or not, but he told of writing a newspaper article as a cub reporter, then passing it to the city desk editor, a true veteran who DID wear a green visor.

“Trim it,” the old man said.

So my friend went back and cut the story.

“Trim it some more,” the editor told him on the second go-round.

He worked and worked at it this time. But he got the same response.

“I’ve trimmed this thing as much as humanly possible,” he protested.

“Son,” the editor said, looking up from his desk and pulling his specs down his nose, “I could trim the Lord’s Prayer.”

Abbeville took this as a challenge to readers to accomplish that very feat, and lo, they did. The winner, Susan Sheppard, got it down to 45 words, without sacrificing the original sense. Have a look.

Think of Susan Sheppard the next time the writer who turns in 30 columns inches for 15 inches of budgeted space whines that the text can’t possibly be cut. And imagine what Bob Johnson would have said.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 PM | | Comments (4)


That's not a trim. This is a trim:

"Hey God, you da man."

Abbeville must have removed the winning entry, its no longer there.

Abbeville has restored the link.

My husband has a great story from a small newspaper in Missouri:

Rim rat: Can this story trim?

Crusty old wire editor: Is it General Lee's farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia?

Rim rat: No.

Crusty old wire editor: Then it can trim.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected