“Happy Landings”

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Today it lives amongst the marriage license, birth certificates and passports in a special container.

The Plant City Courier envelope is addressed “Happy Landings” to me. Inside is a three-page typed letter on thin, yellowed paper, dated September 6, 1977. It was my going away gift from my first boss and editor, Kathryn Cooke, as I left to study journalism at the University of Florida.

Kathryn Cooke was a legendary columnist and Florida writer from the 1930s until her death in 1985. Her newspaperman husband, A.P. Cooke, purchased the paper during World War II.  He ran the Courier until his death and then Kathryn kept it going.

She sat across from me in the Courier’s one-room newsroom, chain smoking, pounding away on her old manual typewriter and frequently reapplying her bright lipstick. Although she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds, she dominated political and social life in town for years with her barbed weekly columns, great laugh and her preference for gold lame.

She hired me to work at the paper in the afternoons after school and then full-time during the summer writing the obligatory wedding announcements, obituaries and eventually some news and feature stories.

On my last day, she called me over to her desk, handed me the letter and left for her daily lunch ritual. It remains one of the best gifts—and best advice on writing—I have ever received.

Here is the letter:

Dear Becky,

I’ve been trying to find a little ‘going away’ gift for you. And finally I found one I could afford—a bit of advice that might help you in your writing career.

You will hear a lot of high-falluting talk from journalism profs about how to write. Take it with a grain of salt because half of them have never been within smelling distance of a sure-enough newspaper office.

The only way to learn to write well is by writing and re-writing, and writing some more. Aim for perfection. Get your facts and present them in a way that readers will understand—even those readers who haven’t gone beyond the ninth grade.

Write leanly. After you’ve done a news story, read it over, cut out unnecessary words. Say what you have to say—and get off the soap box.

You must learn to use words as an organist does with the keys of his mighty instrument. If it’s a funny tale, use light, airy phrases. If it’s a tragedy, set the mood with grim, tear-jerking phrases.

Make your readers SEE what you’re writing about. Don’t say “He walked down the street.” Describe exactly how he walked with action verbs—“He scurried” or “He ambled” or “He dashed.” Go easy on the adjectives, such as “lovely”, “pretty”, “ugly.” Use verbs instead to make your story come alive.

You will be required to write a variety of stories—straight, news, features, maybe even a column.

When writing a news story, put your lead on the most important fact. Sift your facts carefully; present them succinctly in the order of their importance. Beat your rival newspaper by finding a new twist to a situation.

In a news story, you can jump into the “meat” of the story immediately. Don’t beat around the bush. A feature story permits more lee-way. First, whet the appetite of your readers with a picturesque lead or a provocative lead.

You can back into a feature story; but a news story you should dive in head first.

Try and cover every conceivable question your readers may ask. Be curious; ask a lot of questions when interviewing. Be thorough.

Example: that feature you did on J.Y. Blake retiring. Several questions were left unanswered. For instance, what happens to his drug store? Is he closing or selling? If selling, to whom?

In writing news or featured, remember to keep yourself out. Do not interject your feelings or opinions. Write straight down the middle without bias.

Only in a personal column are you permitted to express your views.

You have chosen one of the most demanding, the most frustrating, the most exasperating careers of all. None of us newspaper people ever get wealthy, if you count wealth by money.

But the true rewards are many—newspapering is fun, satisfying, challenging. There’s something new every day—nothing ho-hum or routine about it.

Perhaps the most interesting facet is the people you will meet—people from all walks of life. You’ll learn to spot the phonies, but don’t ever become bitter. Above all, keep your sense of humor. It will show through your writing and become a delight to your readers.

Finally, keep writing a little each day. Writing is like tennis—it takes practice to keep in shape. Even if you marry and give up a career, keep a diary. Who knows? It may become a best seller?

I’ve really enjoyed working with you this summer, Becky. You’re a great gal and will make a doggone good newspaperwoman. My best wishes go with you in your future and if I can ever be of help, let me know.

Sincerely,
Kathryn Cooke

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3 thoughts on ““Happy Landings”

  1. This IS priceless. I would have it in with my precious documents too. “Say what you have to say and get off the soapbox.” I love that! So many modern authors of fiction drive me to distraction with over-explaining things to the point I want to hurl the book across the room. Unless it’s on my Kindle, of course. Thanks a bunch for sharing these invaluable tips with us. Kathryn sounds like what we used to call a great old “broad.” Chain-smoking, lipstick, and gold lame. I love it.

  2. Thank you! Kathryn was a character. Very much the Dorothy Parker of our little town. That honesty and humor is something that I am really missing these days in journalism. And who doesn’t need a little bling too?

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