Editor's Note: James J. Kilpatrick is retiring from the newspaper business. Alan McDermott was Mr. Kilpatrick's editor for many years.
I began editing Jack Kilpatrick's political commentary in 1979, after Universal Press took over his syndication. I was a young, green, mostly untrained editor of 27; he was at that time a widely syndicated columnist, with a list of more than 400 clients.
Our first skirmish, as I recall some 30 years later, came about with one of his Scrabble columns, a dateline he used when writing of the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surrounded his country home. He described a bald hilltop as “tonsored.” With some trepidation, I called him to ask meekly, “Should it not be spelled ‘tonsured'?”
There was a soft harrumph and then a pause on the other end of the line. I heard the sound of rustling pages. Then he said, “I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”
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That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And now, sadly, it must change. Kilpo has decided to end The Writer's Art. The infirmities of age have left him out of breath and energy. At 88 years old, his love of language burns as brightly as ever, but the candle grows short.
The Writer's Art began as a separate column from Jack's political commentary in 1981, as a way of spreading his gospel of good writing. It never sold as well as the commentary; it was a column often posted on newsroom bulletin boards rather than published by his clients. But those papers who did publish it found a passionate response from readers who cared about language and enjoyed reading a master wordsmith expound on the good and the bad of newspaper writing.
Jack loves a good simile and detests dangling modifiers in search of a subject. He likes active verbs and a good “cracker” to end a column. He has been a voice in the syntactical wilderness, toiling to teach writers to snuggle a misplaced “only” next to the word it modifies. Don't even get him started on foreign words used out of context or metaphors that race out of control. Beware using “it remains to be seen” — you are a pariah in Jack's community of right-thinking brethren.
If I had a dollar for every column he wrote on straightening out homophones, those tricky sound-alikes, I would be a rich man today.
In the spirit of his beloved Strunk and White, he exhorted writers to “Read your copy!” and “Less is more!” and “Know your audience!” He asked us to keep it simple, but he allowed us to write longer if we could imitate the balance and symmetry of Macaulay or Gibbon.
He loves the cadence of a sentence, the beauty of how words sound, and he often told us to end a sentence with a strong stressed syllable, not with a limp trailing away. (He would tell me to recast that one.)
We jousted during our weekly conference call. He would say, “And what picky nits do you have today?” I might smugly correct one of his quotations, or adjust his numbers (math was not his strong suit). Our titanic battles were over the AP Stylebook, which he conveniently ignored when he thought he was right. I once threatened to write an editor's note that laid out my disagreement with him; he replied in language not fit for a family newspaper.
But we always parted friends. He never scolded me when I made a mistake or failed to catch an error (his readers did it for him). When we met in person over the years, we always found things to laugh about. I salute him for the grace and wit of his writing, for his irascibility (mostly feigned) and spirit, for his love of newspapers and their writers. Our friendship will endure, but I will miss that distinctive voice, both on the phone and in his column. I know you will too.