Rewrite Man

by Randy Murray on January 3, 2012

John McNulty is a writer who is largely forgotten today, unknown even by the fairly well-read. His pieces in the New Yorker were jewels, slices of New York life. They were simply perfection. If you love Damon Runyon (and I do), you’ll likely find John McNulty even better, with a more natural command of the language and a way of writing about people that didn’t make them into characters or artificially comic.

McNulty’s stories came late in his life. For most of his writing career he was known as one of the best newspaper writers in the business, but not as a reporter. John McNulty was the king of the rewrite men.

If you’ve watched a lot of classic movies you can probably put this picture together in your mind: imagine a busy New York City newsroom in the 1920′s. A man sits at a desk typing on a manual typewriter. It sounds like a machine gun. He wears a three-piece suit, but has hung his coat over the back of his chair and has pushed his Fedora back on his head. He only pauses to slap the carriage back and start a new line, or to take a drag on his cigarette. Then he stops, lifts the top of the page, reads it, nods, then pulls it free with a zipping sound. As he holds it aloft he shouts, “Copy!” A young man runs past, grabs the page, and sprints off to typesetting.

The prototypical man at that desk is John McNulty.

A reporter in the field could be someone gathering the story, picking up facts. The rewrite man was the person who wove them into a news story, something worth reading. McNulty was one of the best, so good, in fact, that he was almost always in demand, even when his alcoholism ran him out of yet another job. And he worked his way out of every job, from every newspaper in 1920s New York City, and then from his paper-of-exile in Columbus, Ohio. There was always another paper that would put up with the drinking, at least for a while. When he managed to pull his life together and find his way back to New York City, his friend, James Thurber, found him a place at The New Yorker.

Writing, good writing, isn’t always about originality, original thoughts, or your specific story. Really good writers can hone their skills by writing for others, rewriting, and taking information and ideas from others and turning it into readable crisp copy.

I myself earn a living by writing for others. I take their raw facts and ideas and I write and rewrite their material to make it work. I turn their “stuff” into stories. I make my keyboard sound like a machine gun. And although I work in my quiet home office, I sometimes push my Fedora back on my head, take another sip from my cooling coffee, and shout, “Copy!” when I’ve finished a new piece.

If you want to master your art and to learn to write, don’t wait around for ideas and inspiration, take the writing assignments you’re given and write.

And if you’d like to get to know John McNulty, I highly recommend his book, This Place On Third Avenue.


The Rewrite Man by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brian January 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I’ve read it – it’s excellent!


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