Your job may require you to write. It need not be a burden. You can relax and learn to enjoy the process. You succeed when you create lasting impact for your readers, and along the way even delight them.

If you relax enough to soar beyond button-down, dry language, you may find yourself producing something original, fresh and arresting.

One of my favorite newspaper writers, Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, used to write a column called “About New York.” In one column I’ll never forget, he described the work of three Roman Catholic nuns who labored with love to relieve hardship among society’s downtrodden. 

Dwyer concluded by writing: “Nun is a noun. These women are verbs.”

That last sentence pierced the mundane like a stiletto. In an expression that demonstrates the writer’s originality, the sentence lets us see and feel those nuns’ commitment.

And in showing us the conditions of some of those downtrodden people, Dwyer wrote about homeless men and women sleeping under bridges and in what he called “other dim elbows of the city.”

Another original and arresting phrase.

I was so curious about how he came up with it that I phoned him (we had never met) and asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I was just walking the ground, and it came to me.”

Walking the ground underpins clear thinking and writing. It can include legwork, research, conversations — and your own life experience. All of these elements you bring to the task of writing.

Another outstanding newspaperman, Pete Hamill, wrote a short book lamenting the decline of aggressive local reporting and the rise of infotainment. He launched a personal crusade, imploring news organizations to devote more money, time and energy to uncovering problems, holding responsible people accountable and helping the public participate in working toward solutions.

The title of his book: “News Is A Verb.”

No matter who deserves credit for that noun-as-verb concept — Dwyer or Hamill, or someone from a “dim elbow” of the past — the expression rivets us.

Only last Sunday, Dwyer further distinguished himself in an opinion piece about the absolute need for believability in government forecasts of hurricanes.

Think Alabama.

Long ago, when Dwyer was a student reporter, he heard a story that had been hidden from the public — about a Manhattan skyscraper so poorly built that a severe windstorm could blow it down and take 18 blocks of Midtown with it. Just imagine the heart of downtown Minneapolis smashed and crumbled and thousands of people killed or maimed.

A government forecaster who was terrified that the Manhattan building might fall finally persuaded developers to reinforce the structure and eliminate the hazard.

In retelling the story last week, Dwyer wrote this: “So much depends on the frail membranes of credibility.”

Savor that.

“Frail membranes” and “dim elbows” are metaphors — symbols that help us to see vividly what we need to know.


Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: