‘I want to write with more authority’

Six strategies to put a higher proportion of your reporting into your stories

The best way to write with authority is to make an extra phone call every hour. Authority is not a matter of style, it’s not even primarily a matter of writing. It’s a matter of reporting, of sweat. But once you live up to that obligation, there are a number of tricks you can use to give your copy a greater sense of command and perspective–to make it live up to the quality of your reporting.

'I want to write with more authority'

'I want to write with more authority'

The half-dozen suggestions that follow are arbitrary and incomplete, but they create a baseline for you to work from. You could, if you had time, do a separate self-edit on each of these qualities. So just pick a couple and start with those. After a while you should feel yourself being able to integrate all six of these standards simultaneously. That, in turn, will help you look for and invent others.


Cut as savagely as you can to create a quicker read. Watch how well-placed trims make the top of this feature, a profile of the image-conscious L.A. head of the Nation of Islam, go faster and put you in the groove more quickly.

It first read like this:

The place was swarming with cops. Judges, attorneys, police commissioners turned out, too, in a tribute to Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and his 37 years of service earlier this month at the Sunset Room in Hollywood.

Among this particular power elite, one man stood out as a puzzle: Tony Muhammad, Western regional minister of the Nation of Islam, was here to praise a police chief.

Yes, that Nation, those hard-talking advocates of Islam and black nationalism notorious for four decades of bad blood with law enforcement-a bitter history of raids and recriminations, shootouts and street battles. These are the guys who took on 75 LAPD officers in a 1962 shootout that left one dead and 22 injured. They hang a portrait in the lobby of their Vermont Avenue mosque not of Nation leader Louis Farrakhan, but of Oliver X. Beasley, a brother killed by sheriff’s deputies in 1990.

Yet as Muhammad stood at the podium, he praised Parks for helping him see the world beyond race. He thanked the chief for building bridges with his members. He hailed a new era.

”For the first time in history, there has been healing between the Nation of Islam and the Los Angeles police department,” Muhammad declared to the audience. ”We have been misunderstood in many circles, but now it is time for this city to begin to heal.”

Healing is not a word usually associated with the Nation of Islam…

Then top was cut by nearly 30%, from 241 words to 169 words, so that it read like this:

Among the judges, attorneys and police department brass who recently gathered to honor Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, one man stood out as a puzzle: Tony Muhammad, Western Regional director of the Nation of Islam.

Yes, that Nation, those hard-talking advocates of Islam and black nationalism notorious for four decades of bad blood with law enforcement. These are the guys who took on 75 LAPD officers in a 1962 shootout that left one Muslim dead and 22 injured. A portrait hangs in the lobby of their Vermont Avenue mosque of Oliver X. Beasley, a member killed by sheriff’s deputies in another shootout in 1990.

Yet Muhammad came to the party this month celebrating Park’s 37 years of service as a welcome guest. He thanked Parks for building bridges with his members. ”For the first time in history, there has been healing between the Nation of Islam and the Los Angeles police department,” Muhammad declared to the audience.

Healing is not a word usually associated with the Nation of Islam…


A. The use of a question allows the writer to supply the punchy answer in the second graf in this off-the-news follow:

This month’s flap over whether Korans containing anti-Jewish commentary should be pulled from public schools underscores a question of growing prominence in today’s pluralistic times: How do you make sure ancient scriptures mesh with modern-day sensibilities?

The prevailing answer among scholars: You can’t. No scripture is politically correct–nor, many scholars argue, should anyone expect them to be.

New religious movements emerge precisely because the prevailing faiths are deemed flawed in some major way, says Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. So if their scriptures rail against others as arrogant sinners, unbelievers, idol-worshippers and the like-well, that’s their job, Firestone says.

B. The writer hits you in the face with wedding dates in the first graf, then uses the second graf to summarize a little-noticed consequence of Sept. 11.

Oct. 26. Jan. 30. Sept. 28, 2002. Those are some of the days that would have flowered into weddings had it not been for Sept. 11. Instead, the terrorist attack left white gowns hanging in closets, awaiting a first fitting. It left homes where, each month, a copy of Bride’s magazine arrives to find no bride.

And it left fiances and fiancees facing a drastically revised future, with little of the legal protection for claiming benefits, estate money or any federal awards that widows or widowers have.

See how much more powerful that statement–the writer’s own definition of the story–is, compared to a simple anecdote?

Those who were betrothed are also left to navigate their loss in fragile solidarity with families that may have been prepared to welcome them, but that they had not yet joined. That tandem grief has been strained, for some by simple awkwardness, for others by battles over what was left behind.

Only now does an anecdote fit:

For Rachel Uchitel and the family of her fiance, who worked at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, the tension has fallen somewhere in between. “They lost their child,” Ms. Uchitel said. But, she argued, “My everyday life has changed. I don’t come home to the same person. I don’t even come home to the same home.” She insisted it would be no easier for a fiance or fiancee to move on than it would for any family member.

There is no count of how many engagements were broken by Sept. 11, but at Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost more than 600 employees, 44 fiances and fiancees have registered with the company’s relief fund. One of them is Susann Brady, a registered nurse who lives in Montclair, N.J. She was set to wed Gavin Cushny last Oct. 26, in a 12th-century church in Scotland where his late father had served as a minister.

C. Got obscurity problems? Writing about something your audience doesn’t think it cares about? Identify the heart of the story–the part that creates a common denominator–with a punch line, the same way you’d tell it to a friend.

CAIRO — When does an emir get to become a king? When he says so.

That may sound like some obscure monarchy joke, but it was in fact a historic moment Thursday in the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain, where, with a stroke of his pen, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa anointed himself king.

Of course, a king can’t be king without a kingdom, so map makers will have to get busy and rename the sliver of oil-producing sand “the Kingdom of Bahrain”–just like its big cousin next door, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But unlike Saudi Arabia, where the royal family rules with a heavy hand, this kingdom will incorporate elements of democracy, making it a standout in a region where, generally, rulers rule as they like.

In announcing his promotion, the fledgling king also approved plans to create a constitutional monarchy.

He called for the first parliamentary elections in more than two decades to be held in October and municipal elections in May.

“We are keen to resume democratic life as soon as possible for the glory of Bahrain, its prosperity and development,” his royal highness said in a nationally televised address Thursday. “Men and women will be allowed to vote and run for office.”

A few years ago, this country of just 650,000 people was in the grip of a violent uprising. Bombs rocked the capital, Manama, destroying banks, offices and hotels, and the jails were filled with political prisoners.

In 1974, the new king’s father, Sheik Isa ibn Salman Khalifa, had imposed an emergency law under which anyone could be arrested and held for up to three years without being charged. Over the years, thousands of people were arrested, locked up or exiled. He also suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.

In 1999, the emir died and his son took over.

Hamed shook the nation to the core. He opened the jails and released….

D. Got an ongoing story? Exploit the fact that the reader has context. In the example below, the writer used a sweeping first line to create a sense of drama:

THE HAGUE–Slobodan Milosevic finally got his day in court Thursday, and he made the most of it.

Representing himself in his war crimes trial at the international court here, the former Yugoslav president unloaded an opening salvo portraying himself as the victim of a hypocritical Western conspiracy.

Milosevic denied the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, claiming that the thousands slain and hundreds of thousands driven out of Serbia’s Kosovo province three years ago were mostly victim of a civil war between Serbs and ethnic Albanian terrorists–and, later, NATO airstrikes.

Milosevic’s opening statement was an aggressive, essentially political attempt to turn the proceedings into a trial of the Western nations that he accuses of committing war crimes themselves during the 11-week bombing campaign and then “crucifying” him.

3. AVOID A CONTRADICTORY FLOW. This is a constant problem in more complex stories, and writers often blunder by forgetting that your story can be about only one thing. Many interesting, noble stories die when the writer lets a secondary point rob the story of momentum and purposefulness. The reader quits in frustration, asking himself: What’s this story about?

A. The story changes direction twice in five grafs. In the second graf (underlined) we see a despair turn to hope. Then in the fifth graf (underlined) we see hope turn back into despair. Which way are we going? The fifth and sixth grafs’ contradictory flow not only sends us in a different direction but does so with overly long sentences. Would you keep reading this story?

MILWAUKEE–Late for school, the 7-year-old girl was hurrying along South 18th Street, going as quickly as she could in her puffy snowsuit. The man appeared suddenly, wrapped his hand around her right wrist and pulled her behind a house. He raped her. Then he disappeared.

Six years later, at midnight on Dec. 2, the unknown rapist would have been forever free from punishment, saved by Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for sexual assault. Instead, he has been charged with rape and kidnapping.

His identity, such as it is, was revealed for the first time in the November arrest warrant: “John Doe, unknown male, with matching deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] at genetic locations D2S44, D4S139, D5S110, D10S28, D1S7 and D17S79.”

In a novel effort to beat the statute of limitations on a pile of unsolved sexual assaults, an enterprising team of investigators and prosecutors here is testing the legal boundaries of DNA evidence. Instead of listing the traditional name or physical description used in a John Doe warrant, they are detailing the suspect’s most basic genetic makeup.

But the tale of one young victim’s second chance for justice also is a sobering story of the nation’s state-run DNA databanks–and, in turn, the FBI system designed to link them. Hobbled by a lack of funding, a mammoth backlog of samples and fundamental differences between systems, the promise of DNA databanks–perhaps law enforcement’s most promising tool since the FBI’s fingerprint catalog–is far from being realized.

Wisconsin is ahead of most states, and yet the semen from the girl’s rapist sat untested in a police property room for nearly six years. Now that the sample has been cataloged, Wisconsin still can search for the rapist in only 22 other states, since the rest don’t yet have the funding to tie into the FBI’s year-old Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

In the end, the girl, now 13, was the beneficiary of investigators with a heart-wrenching task: Go back to cases on the verge of expiring and decide which might be salvaged by an untested legal tactic, and which to write off for certain.

“We had to pick the ones where we had good evidence and the victim was still available,” said Det. Lori Gaglione, a soft-spoken, hard-boiled veteran of the city’s Sensitive Crimes Unit. “We had to choose.”

The girl didn’t know the man, or even where he came from. She knew that he was wearing jogging pants and that they were still pulled down when he told her she could go.

A detective took the semen sample from a sidewalk behind the house on South 18th and sent it across town to the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory. There it would sit, untested except to verify that it was semen, for about 1,934 days–a length of time not at all extraordinary in the United States for cases without a suspect.

This is a difficult story to tell. The essence turns out to be the disparity between technology’s promise and practice. It would have been better to jettison the anecdotal lead to focus more directly on what the story’s really about.

B: Same problem: The story reverses itself twice–in the fourth and sixth grafs (underlined). The sixth graf makes you unsure whether the story is going. That second “but” should have been replaced by the nut graf:

It’s just after 8 a.m. as Mike Scanlan paces into Terminal 8 at Los Angeles International Airport, a rolled-up stack of flight schedules clutched in his fist, his eyes scanning like search beams. Thick-chested and spike-haired, with the wide stance of a policeman, Scanlan became United Airlines’ general manager in Los Angeles three years ago.

The station was in full flower then, a budding hub painstakingly nurtured to seize the biggest share of LAX’s departure board. For Scanlan, the post was the culmination of 30-plus years with United–the best gig imaginable for a self-described “airport rat.”

Back then, Scanlan’s morning patrol was guaranteed to provide a certain satisfaction, even on days scuttled by weather or human foul-ups. Signs of United’s ascendance were everywhere.

But on this Tuesday in mid-December, Scanlan turns onto the concourse and deflates. In what should be the heart of the morning rush, the gleaming expanse is utterly deserted.

“Look at this, it’s just awful,” he said. “We invested a lot of money here.”

But he has to move on, to shake off the sting, to complete the circuit every day, just as he must believe United will rebound from autumn’s wreckage.

In the months since Sept. 11, United has gone from an expansive behemoth to a company “struggling for its life,” in the words of its recently departed chief executive. The new era has chiseled out a smaller, humbler, more anxious community at LAX, where United once generated $1 in every $6 of its revenue.

United made deeper service cuts at LAX than at any other hub, slashing departures by more than one-third and scrapping its Western shuttle service.

C. Too long a windup robs your story of the very authority your reporting possesses. Here, the contradictory flow (underlined) make it difficult to determine what this well-intentioned and interesting story is actually about. It will eventually break into a narrative structure, but only after far too complex a windup:

In the beginning, just after the attacks, the leaders of the National Association of Home Builders, an industry group with 205,000 members, wanted simply to write a big check. Better to let an established charity dispense their millions to the victims, they said. What did they know about disaster relief?

But then came the stories about Red Cross foul-ups and United Way donations gathering dust. And so the home builders resolved to go it alone and distribute their millions directly to Sept. 11 victims through their own fund. They would use common sense, they told each other. Surely they could do it faster, with less red tape.

Alas, they had no idea how hard it would be to give away $10 million.

Today, after all their heated debates and feuding over whom to help, how to define need and how to guard against freeloaders, very little has turned out as planned. Their deadlines for delivering aid have been blown, and most of their money remains unspent. Their method for distributing relief checks is a convoluted bureaucracy in which a widow from New Jersey, for example, is expected to apply for help through a builders’ group in Staten Island.

Yet for all the missteps and amateurism, theirs is also a story of grit and perseverance, and in the end they brought a modest measure of financial relief to hundreds of families. If the home builders failed to coordinate their plans with other charities, they nonetheless agreed to direct much of their money toward a group of people–laid-off hotel and restaurant workers–who have been relatively overlooked. And if some money is going to those with no pressing financial needs, far more has made it to those facing foreclosure or fending off bill collectors.

The transformation of the home builders association from check-writers to social workers is hardly unique in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Dozens of charities have sprung from nowhere, raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

In this way, the example of the home builders is also a window into the strengths and weaknesses of a sprawling relief effort that is still struggling to distribute nearly $2 billion in donations, often through charities that are rookies to disaster relief. It is a messy, uneven effort. And yet there is so much money, so much good will that, amazingly, few legitimate victims appear to have slipped through the cracks.

As a reader, I was simultaneously drawn to the story at this point and frustrated. It engaged in so much foreshadowing that it was robbing itself of a forward momentum–almost shifting too much side to side, like a running back who is doing too much feinting when he ought to be moving up the field.

Today, the home builders acknowledge that they were unprepared emotionally and administratively for the outpouring of human misery unleashed by their efforts. Their fax machines were overwhelmed with….


A. Take advantage of that extra reporting by injecting more perspective grafs into your copy. The following example does it with an introductory phrase (a functional dependent clause, not a frivolous or overly long one), a clause in the forth graf and a seven-graf background sequence that unfolds in the middle of the story:

JERUSALEM–In a sign that Israeli military and diplomatic pressure is opening fissures in the Palestinian leadership, Yasser Arafat reportedly denounced his West Bank security chief, Col. Jibril Rajoub, during a violent argument Tuesday.

Palestinian sources described what appeared to be a serious rupture in relations between Arafat and one of his top officials. The Israeli military claims that the Palestinian Authority president’s ability to control militias and even his own security forces is weakening.

Arafat lashed out at Rajoub after the colonel’s officers did nothing to stop a mob in Hebron that freed 17 prisoners from the West Bank city’s jail Monday night, sources close to Rajoub said. The mob broke down the jailhouse doors and helped inmates escape after Israel launched airstrikes on a Gaza City security compound.

The Hebron breakout, captured on video by television news crews, embarrassed Arafat, who has been trying to convince the Bush administration and the European Union that he is cracking down on gunmen, said the sources, who requested anonymity.

Relations between Arafat and Rajoub have been strained recently by policy disagreements and by comments from some Israeli officials that they would like to see Rajoub replace Arafat.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has declared Arafat “irrelevant” and refuses to deal with him. Israeli tanks have confined the Palestinian leader to Ramallah in the West Bank for more than two months as Israel has chipped away at the infrastructure of his regime.

The perspective segment begins here

As it has sought to weaken Arafat’s grip on power, Israel has increasingly targeted the many security forces that underpin his government. Israeli airplanes and attack helicopters have destroyed Palestinian police headquarters, jails and other security structures. Dozens of Palestinian police and security officers have died in the air raids, and more have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

Israel says it has struck Palestinian security forces when they have been involved in attacks on Israelis or have failed to prevent attacks. It also holds Arafat responsible for the attacks, even when they are carried out by groups opposed to the Palestinian Authority, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel says it will continue to hit Arafat’s security buildings until he takes strong measures against militants.

The pressure on Palestinian security forces has had the side effect of eroding the rule of law in Palestinian-controlled territories, where citizens say they can no longer count on the police to investigate crimes or capture criminals.

“The police spend most of their time trying to protect themselves these days,” said Said Zeedani, director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, a human rights group based in Ramallah.

From his office window, Zeedani can see Palestinian policemen sitting under the olive trees outside their offices in a converted apartment building they moved to after Israel destroyed their station. The officers are too frightened to work in the building, which they expect will eventually be targeted by the Israelis, he said. So they park their cars far away and sit on chairs under the trees.

Similar scenes can be found throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Security officers balance case files on their laps while sitting outside buildings they fear might be hit.

As a result, even egregious violations of public order are going unchecked by security services in the Palestinian-controlled territories, Zeedani said.

Most recently, a mob of about 200 from the Kalandiyeh refugee camp rioted…

B. Edit and re-edit to strike the proper balance between news and perspective. Watch how this story went through the wringer.

First version of lead: Good perspective in the first graf, but the facts come in the second graf:

Global Crossing Ltd.’s John Legere appears to have broken new ground in the ability of chief executives to pocket generous compensation packages even when their company is sliding into financial ruin.

Legere is drawing $1.1 million in salary as chief executive of the troubled Bermuda-based telecommunications giant and collecting as much as $3 million in severance pay after being promoted from its biggest subsidiary, Asia Global Crossing.

The 43-year-old Legere became the top officer at the fiber-optic network company four months before it filed the fifth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. The company has been criticized for the lucrative pay packages it has granted to senior executives in recent years, even as its underlying business crumbled amid in the telecommunications meltdown.

Second version: The facts come up, but the perspective is demoted to the fourth graf:

Global Crossing Ltd. Chief Executive John Legere collected as much as $3 million in severance pay after being promoted from the troubled telecommunication company’s biggest subsidiary.

The terms of the payout, outlined in regulatory filings, come on top of a $3.5-million signing bonus given to Legere for joining Global Crossing four months before it filed the fifth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

As part of his new pay package, the 43-year-old Legere also had his salary doubled, to $1.1 million, and the $10 million balance of a $15 million loan from the subsidiary, Asia Global Crossing, erased.

The giant fiber-optic network company has been criticized for the lucrative pay packages it has granted to senior executives in re cent years, even as its underlying business crumbled amid the telecommunications meltdown.

Third version: By using a two-sentence first paragraph, balance between news and perspective is achieved:

Even as his company was sliding into financial ruin, Global Crossing Ltd. Chief Executive John Legere collected as much as $3 million in severance pay after being promoted from the telecommunication company’s biggest subsidiary. The payout is highly unusual and likely to fuel more controversy over the compensation that Global Crossing granted executives in the months before its downfall.

Legere’s severance package, outlined in regulatory filings, came on top of a $3.5-million signing bonus he received for joining Global Crossing four months before it filed the fifth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The 43-year-old Legere also had his salary doubled, to $1.1 million, and the $10-million balance of a $15-million loan from the subsidiary, Asia Global Crossing, erased.


A. Suppose you decided to limit your anecdotal leads to two grafs–or to find another approach if the anecdote required more detail. You might create a tone of authority like this story, in which the first two grafs show us a contrast, and the third graf proclaims it:

WASHINGTON–Here was the U.S. military in Afghanistan: a bearded soldier riding horseback in a storm of desert sand, looking like something out of ”Lawrence of Arabia.” But instead of a dagger, he carried a global positioning system, a sophisticated radio transmitter and a laser for marking targets.

Flying 35,000 feet above him was a Vietnam-era bomber that had seemed headed for the scrap heap-until the Pentagon loaded it with smart bombs and linked its pilot with the guy on horseback.

Since Sept. 11, the United States has harnessed the most outlandishly modern of its capabilities to the seemingly obsolete, creating a new kind of fighting force capable of finding and demolishing a new kind of enemy.

Its success at combining old and new has been a transforming lesson for America’s military. For years, believers in the ultimate power of high-tech have wrestled for defense dollars with traditionalists who say you can’t win a war without boots on the ground. The Pentagon has learned from Afghanistan that it needs both-although Congress now must decide whether the country can afford both.

”We had these guys on horseback, literally, making the difference in these airstrikes. We had, in some cases, 50-year- old bombers flying above them,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said in an interview. ”But we took a 50- year-old bomber and combined it with horse cavalry and turned it into a 21st century” fighting force.

From training academies to military bases, from laboratories to shipyards, a new doctrine is emerging. It says that in a world where threats can come from anywhere, America’s military must train and equip itself to be nimble and mighty at the same time–and…

B. Here’s what happens when you don’t push yourself hard enough: Six grafs of anecdote lead us to an apparent nut graf which is merely a foreshadowing of the real nut graf, which also suffers from its failure to tell us what we’ve been watching. Only in the ninth graf do we learn the name of what we have been watching. What followed did a nice job of trying to tell the story through scenes–action–but the structure of the story almost certainly convinced many readers to give up before it fell into synch.

Standing on stage, Stan Winston braced himself to defend his latest creation–the fuzzy, dancing robotic teddy bear that starred last year in the film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”

Hundreds of his rivals and fellow members of the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences sat before him. Their job on this night was to pick the three films that would be considered for an Academy Award.

Winston, the man behind the Terminator in “The Terminator” and the aliens in “Aliens,” had been here before. To win an Oscar, he first must win the crowd at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and prove that no computer-generated demon or crashing Black Hawk helicopter holds a candle to Teddy.

“There are far more points of motion in Teddy than any dinosaur,” Winston bragged.

Out in the audience, Oscar competitor Dan Taylor–the animation supervisor who helped build the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park III”–ground his teeth. Minutes later, when it was his turn to stand beneath the 20-foot Oscar statue, Taylor was as catty as any Hollywood starlet.

“Our dinosaur could devour a teddy bear in one gulp,” he shot back. “Our spinosaurus kicks Teddy any day.”

Far from the red-carpet glamour and sequined sparkles of Oscar night in March is a down-and-dirty fight where the technicians behind the big screen’s illusions wage an increasingly high-stakes war. Their Oscar rules over robotics, miniatures, computer-generated visuals and wildly destructive explosions, which increasingly are the key to a film’s success. Their academy category, once an occasional honor, now sits on par with best actor and best picture.

The path to glory started last week at an annual ritual that, in un-Oscar-like fashion, is called the Bake-Off. It’s a rare process for the academy, whose top-tier categories such as best picture are nominated by voters from the comfort of home.

Unlike actors, directors and composers, whose work usually speaks for itself in a film, visual effects require hours of explanation about the grand illusions that, if successful, are invisible and spectacular at the same time.

Out of 248 films released in the United States last year, only eight of the flashiest are chosen to be here by an executive panel of academy voters who work in the visual effects industry. The nominees will have this one chance to explain their art, defend their science and proclaim their methodology better, quicker, faster than all those other cheap gimmicks on-screen.

The dress is always casual–most academy voters opt for rumpled khakis and Gap shirts–but the competition can be over the top. Although it’s fine to wear last season’s fashion, woe be it to anyone who dares to present last year’s technology.

This year’s Bake-Off–held in the packed 1,000-seat Goldwyn theater–drew hundreds of fans, who scrambled to grab a chair and cheer for their favorite computer scientists.

Before the debate began, one organizer picked up a microphone and made a plea to the crowd: “There are not enough seats for the people who have to actually do something tonight. Your wives…

C. A good one: This profile uses a one-graf image, a one-graf confirmation from the subject and a third graf that puts the anecdote in a larger context.

Peter Olson, the chairman of the Random House division of the media company Bertelsmann, once accepted a challenge to a shot-drinking contest from a young executive new to Bertelsmann. Colleagues discreetly filled Mr. Olson’s glasses with water, and he drank the young man under the table.

Asked about the story last week, Mr. Olson responded, “I do like to win.”

Mr. Olson’s competitive instincts have become the subject of much speculation in the book industry as Random House, the largest consumer publisher, has carried out a round of cost cuts, including scores of layoffs among editorial, marketing, sales and administrative staff. (Random House has not disclosed the exact number.)

Although last year was by all accounts a poor one for book sales, no other major publisher has cut back so pervasively. Mr. Olson has maintained that Random House is simply planning prudently for a long spell of dark days ahead, and he is just speaking frankly about it. But speculation about his motives among rival publishers, agents, authors and others in the industry has centered on Random House’s parent company, Bertelsmann, its bottom-line approach to compensating division heads like Mr. Olson, and its plans for an initial public offering some time in the next few years.

Mr. Olson’s gloomy forecasts have seemed increasingly anomalous in the last few weeks…

6. KEEP AS NARROW A FOCUS AS YOU CAN. Read the first eight grafs of two versions of the same story: The Feb. 15 piece about the cloning of a cat.

First, the Los Angeles Times version:

WASHINGTON–Researchers in Texas said Thursday that they had produced the first cat through cloning, a button-cute, domestic short-haired kitten named CC for “carbon copy.”

Where every other cat in history has had two parents, CC’s genetic material comes from a single adult cat, named Rainbow. She was born through Caesarean section Dec. 22 in a laboratory at Texas A&M University.

As a scientific matter, CC’s birth confirms that cloning is a durable technology that can be applied to many species, and perhaps one day to humans. But the bigger effect may come from the fact that CC is the first companion animal to be created through cloning, paving the way for pet cloning to become a commercial service.

“We’ve cloned agricultural animals–cattle and sheep and goats. But this really brings it into daily human life,” said Philip Damiani, a cloning expert at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, which is also trying to clone cats.

A private company, Texas-based Genetic Savings & Clone, has the right to license the Texas A&M cloning technique. The company said Thursday that it would take at least a year to perfect the service. “We hope to keep it at about $20,000 to begin with . . . but the cost could be double that,” said General Manager Charles Long.

Hundreds of pet owners have already paid fees of $800 or more merely to save cells from their pets for cloning, suggesting there is a strong demand for the service.

“I think this is spiffy,” said Phyllis Sherman Raschke, of San Fernando, who has preserved cells from her late Cornish Rex, Sammy. “When you think of all the terrible things in the world, it’s kind of dingy to think of reviving a cat. But this is wonderful news.”

It is not to everyone. CC’s birth comes amid an emotional debate in Congress over whether to outlaw human cloning. Some scientists say any ban should be narrowly written so that cloning remains a legal tool in medical research. But CC could add to the sense that scientists, if not strictly regulated, will inevitably produce a human clone.

Now, the New York Times version, which is arguably better because it makes a firm judgment that the commercial consequences of cat cloning are what really matter. Its lead hits that fact harder (the LAT, by contrast, doesn’t deal with the $$ issue until the third graf). The NYT piece also deals with the ethical criticism sooner, in the sixth graf, compared to the eighth for the LAT. What the NYT sacrificed were some basic medical details. (The NYT notes in its fourth graf that some experts had long expected this advance.) Because the NYT had a stronger sense of purpose, it wins. Read for yourself and see what you think:

Scientists in Texas have cloned a cat, opening the door to what some experts say will be the first large- scale commercial use of cloning – to reproduce beloved pets.

The effort was supported by a company, Genetic Savings and Clone, of College Station, Tex., and Sausalito, Calif., which wants to offer cloning to dog and cat owners. It is investing $3.7 million in the project.

The study will be published in the Feb. 21 issue of Nature, a British science journal, but Nature released the paper yesterday because the result, although not the details of the study, had become public. News of the company’s success was first reported yesterday in The Wall Street Journal.

It was, some said, long expected.

“The commercial future of cloning is absolutely in animals,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “To put it bluntly, human cloning will turn out to be of interest only to the vain or the desperate, and companies know this. There is no commercial company that I’m aware of that is really interested in human cloning. But on the animal side, there is tremendous interest.”

Yet there also is opposition and there are ethical questions.

The Humane Society of the United States issued a statement yesterday objecting to the cloning of pets, saying “it serves no compelling social purpose and it threatens to add to the pet overpopulation problem.”

Dr. Caplan said he had two concerns. “Are you preying on grief and desperation that pet owners often have when they lose a pet to promise them something more than cloning can deliver?” he asked.

RECOMMENDED READING: Sportswriter and novelist Dan Jenkins, in a Q-and-A from Golf Digest last year. (The entire article, including Dan’s biography, is at http://www.golfdigest.com/features/index.ssf?/features/his_owns_kkb4h9mc.html. Here’re my favorite parts:

Is there a secret to writing well?

Are you accusing me of writing well? I guess I’ve written successfully. I’m pretty sure that writing for publication is one of the most arrogant things a human can do. Your name is on it and you’re telling everybody how it is. It requires arrogance, confidence, ego, all that. It also requires self-assurance. Take writing golf. I believe that the longer you’ve been at it, and the more knowledgeable you’ve become, the more you can be definitive and opinionated. Your first obligation to the reader is to be accurate. Then if you can inform and entertain the reader at the same time–without straining a muscle–all the better.

I’ve been accused of drawing blood on occasion, and I’m sure I have, but, on the other hand, maybe they deserved it. All I’ve ever done is try to get at the truth of the matter. In any event–golf, football, baseball, whatever–there’s always a defining moment. The best writers are those who know how to recognize that defining moment and hammer it in their stories. I might add that the best writers know what to leave out.

Which means…

If it doesn’t fit the theme, save it for later or kill it.

Have you ever suffered writer’s block?

I had three kids in private schools in Manhattan at the same time, and then I had them all in college at the same time. I didn’t have time for writer’s block. I worked 12 years on daily newspapers before I was a magazine writer. That helped. You don’t have time to fiddle around and procrastinate on newspapers. You keep typing and tell yourself you’ll go for the Pulitzer next time. It was somebody wiser than me who once said the truest thing of all–that the two greatest motivations for a writer are poverty and deadlines.

You seem to have a knack for making it look easy.

It’s never easy. It’s hard work, it’s a craft. But it’s fun and it’s rewarding. I do write fast. I don’t try to be fast, it’s just my temperament. Deadlines did it, I guess. But I rewrite on books. Some chapters I’ll rewrite maybe 10 times. Others I may never touch after the first draft. Somehow I happened to get that one right–in my judgment. On a novel, I try to keep grinding to the end, then I’ll go back and stomp on it.

So what keeps you going these days?

I love what I do. The journalism, the deadlines, the books. The travel. The people. The conversation. I don’t believe in retirement. I believe when you retire, you die in many ways. I hope I’ll be slumped over my laptop or my desktop when they carry me out.

What would you like written on your headstone?

“Sorry if you couldn’t take a joke.” That would be the first line. Then I’d steal from my daughter and add, “Hey, it was only a sports event–it wasn’t child-birth.”

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