Looking for some writing inspiration?
Start with The New Yorker, the nation’s best-edited publication. Add Jeffrey Toobin, one of the most talented legal journalists. Now mix in the unsolved murder of a Seattle federal prosecutor, a story Toobin told in a recent issue.
Here are ten great techniques at work in Toobin’s tale:
1. Start sentences with light openers.
The notion that McKay was fired for failing to prosecute Democrats is plausible. But the passion that McKay brought to the Wales case may have played a part, too.
2. Link the first sentence of a paragraph to the last sentence of the one before.
Wales’s work on gun control also failed to produce suspects.
3. Begin a paragraph with a short sentence.
4. Follow a long, complex sentence with a short, punchy one.
The firm, called Intrex Helicopters, which was based at Powell’s home, was renovating a single helicopter for civilian use. Still, the stakes were substantial.
5. Use a signpost to link your sentence to the previous one.
6. Convey chronology through transition phrases rather than dates and times.
- In July, three months before his death, Wales had been involved in an altercation at a parking garage near his office.
- About fifteen minutes later, someone shot him three or four times through the window from the back yard.
- Two weeks after the murder, the Senate confirmed a new U.S. Attorney for western Washington, John McKay.
- A month after [Wales] was killed, the group held a benefit in his honor, which was attended by more than five hundred people, including many prominent Democratic politicians in the state, and raised five hundred thousand dollars.
- Meanwhile, Wales’s friends began to talk about creating a memorial.
- Not long after the meeting, John Ashcroft visited Seattle to give a speech at a Coast Guard base, but he didn’t meet with McKay’s staff or mention the Wales case.
7. Use semicolons for parallel constructions.
8. Hyphenate phrasal adjectives for clarity and elegance.
- cell-phone towers
- gun-control initiative
- death-penalty case
- law-enforcement official
- information-sharing system
- high-school students
- highest-ranking official
- organized-crime unit
- forty-year-old pilot
9. Set off explanatory phrases with dashes.
The F.B.I gave the investigation the code name SEPROM—short for “Seattle prosecution murder”—but the bureau set the reward for tips leading to a prosecution in the case at twenty-five thousand dollars, which was widely regarded in Seattle as an insultingly small amount, and did not offer local investigators assistance from Washington, D.C.
10. Use a colon to set off an explanation that could stand as a complete sentence.
Original Article: Jeffrey Toobin, “An Unsolved Killing” (August 6, 2007)