How did you become a writer?
I won so many speech contests that the old County News in Aptos, Calif., a weekly, asked me to write a column about my high school. After a few columns they had me write a feature -- 400 words that took me six hours for which I got 20-cents an inch ($1.50 in today's money). Then they asked me to cover the school board, followed by the Santa Cruz city council and the county supervisors. At 18, the San Jose Mercury recruited me. I was hired for the next staff writer opening, when I was 19. Within a few weeks my byline was on The Mercury front page.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Boyd Haight, John Howe and Fred Westphal, Mercury editors, taught me to not speak about a story until I had written the lede so the insight was not lost, to use active verbs, that clarity matters most and when you have time use it to polish, polish and polish.
Thomas E. Wark of The New York Times, whom I wrote for starting at age 22 as a stringer, taught me to be both lean and fact rich by insisting a piece come in at a precise length, say 282 words.
Ladd Neumann of the Detroit Free Press taught me structure, the hardest skill to learn.
Jonathan Miller, an airline magazine editor, taught me to loosen up and think about imagery.
Norman Mailer, who wrote about me in The Executioner's Song, taught me that accuracy does not equal truth, which must be distilled from the specific facts, though in investigative reporting strict fidelity to facts is required.
They and many others, all now long gone. to whom I am indebted all taught me to focus on doing my best — including doing better on each new tomorrow. That they are all men illustrates newsroom hiring bias.
And my many students — when I taught news writing at the University of Southern California and magazine writing at UCLA Extension in the 80s — forced me to learn how to articulate the reasons underlying edits.
When and where do you write?
Mostly I write in my home office with a view of my gardens or, when the weather allows, at a table in my garden. But I can write anywhere if I must.
Between ages 27 to 35, when I did many long L.A. Times pieces (up to 7,000 words) I first wrote long hand on a legal pad, then on a keyboard, after which I would print out the draft, reading it over and over and over until the words became nonsense. Eventually clarity and sharp focus would reveal burrs — the wrong verb, a misplaced dependent clause, too many words separating two concepts.
What are you working on now?
I have several long magazine investigative assignments, but I am also finishing my book proposing a whole new federal tax system for the 21st Century economy while building files for three other planned books.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Only when I took a project because of the money rather than a desire to tell the story. With two exceptions I never finished any project I took on just for the money.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Tell readers what they don't know that matters and do the work to make the unknown and complex clear and easy for readers to understand.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read relentlessly to learn how to write.
Learn bylines (books, magazines, newspapers) so you don't waste your time on bad writers.
When a writer transports you from one place or idea to another, review how the writer made that seamless transition — and the reasons the transition made sense — so you can do the same.
Write with verbs and nouns. Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly.
Listen to what people tell you, not what you want to hear. Always ask, “is there anything you wish I had asked you?” and then sit silently.
Be generous with people’s spoken comments. Writers get to polish our words so be kind, fair — and fearless.
Remember that numbers acquire meaning only in relation to other numbers. Overcome innumeracy.
Long stories need an arc. The end should loop back to the start.
Get a compact Oxford English Dictionary (and buy dictionaries of all kinds all your life) to study the changing meaning of words.
Learn to take editing. Your best friends are editors who make you look better than you deserve. Seek them out and honor them always. Avoid bad editors like death itself.
Learn the rules of writing (Strunk & White, etc.) until you have mastered them. Then you can then violate those rules and maybe even forge new ones.
And study the movie Finding Forrester, watching it repeatedly until you appreciate every subtlety, especially about “soup questions,” conjunctions, the unobservant and the quiet nobility of the human spirit.
David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of seven books, four of them New York Times bestsellers. In 1968, at age 19, became the youngest staff writer at the San Jose Mercury, going on to report for the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, which he left in 2008.
Johnston is a former president of Investigative Reporters & Editors, has lectured on journalistic techniques, ethics and tax policy on every continent except Antarctica and for eight years taught the law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law. He earned enough college credits for one, and perhaps two, masters degrees, but does not hold any degree because he skipped most lower division requirements.
Johnston is the father of eight grown children. He lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife Jennifer Leonard, the CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation.