Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Brilliant collection of Jessica Mitford’s articles along with explanatory notes about her process. This might be one of the most helpful books about writing that I’ve ever read. Her emphasis on picking a subject that you’re completely absorbed in is absolutely right—if you’re not mesmerized by what you’re learning, you’re unlikely to infect others with curiosity from your piece. Being over-prepared for interviews is of the utmost importance, especially when interviewing hostile sources. She also highly recommends dipping into the trade magazines/publications of the industry you’re muckraking—find out what they really say when they think it’s just themselves listening. (This is on obvious display in her wonderful book about the funeral industry). For interviews, you’ll tap into Friendlies and Unfriendlies, but in both cases your questions should slide from kind to cruel. Her suggestions around organization were incredibly helpful, recommending a letter writing technique to distill all the info you’re learning into interesting bits for your friends.

As for the articles themselves, there are some real gems in here—her trip through the South to find out how they’re handling integration, her road trip story that gives the life hack of making person-to-person calls and asking for yourself at the other end so that your family doesn’t have to pay or asking for Minnie S. Ota to let them know that you’re in Minnesota, the amazing takedown of the Famous Writers Correspondence Class (a Utah Congressman read her whole article into the Congressional Record as a warning to the public), her interview with George Jackson at San Quentin, her brief but fraught tenure as a sociology professor at San Jose State where she refused the loyalty oath and fingerprinting.

Her recs on texts about writing:

  • The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“The last chapter, ‘An Approach to Style,’ is particularly rewarding.”)
  • On Writing Well by Zinsser (looks like I read this 10 years ago and probably am due for a refresher)