Robert Caro

Robert Caro is one of our greatest nonfiction writers. For many years he’s been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Below is a sentence from Caro’s account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson (Kennedy’s vice-president) immediately became the US President. It’s a dramatic story, climaxing when Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One, the official Presidential airplane.

It’s great writing, but that’s not why I’m posting it here. There’s something else that excited me: two words that I don’t think any other writer would have bothered with.

Can you figure out what they are? 

Taking his wife, Lady Bird, by the arm to bring her along, Lyndon
Johnson walked over to the fence and started to follow the Kennedys, but
the faces remained turned, and the arms remained stretched, toward the
Kennedys, even after they had passed, and Johnson quickly moved back to
the gray convertible that had been rented for him.

Here are the two words: Lady Bird. (I don’t mind if you think I’m nuts!)

Almost anybody interested in reading Caro’s book would already know the name of Johnson’s wife. She was an amazing woman who was in the news all the time.

But Caro is an exceptional writer. You can almost hear his thoughts clicking: Lyndon died in 1973. Lady Bird died in 2007. Some readers today might not know who they were! Caro didn’t want anyone to be confused – not even for  a second.

There’s a reason I’m so excited about this. (In case you’re wondering, I lived through the Kennedy and Johnson years. Yes, I knew her name was Lady Bird!)

The New Yorker (where this chapter was published) is my favorite magazine.  But its writers have the annoying habit of mentioning a name and repeating it later – with no clue about who “Greg” or “Sam Smith” was. A brother? Childhood friend? Politician?

 I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to backtrack to figure out who’s being talked about.

Great writers think about their readers, making tiny changes that most people wouldn’t even notice. The goal? Creating a pleasurable experience for their future readers.

Do you edit your work with your audience in mind? Do you look for opportunities to make reading easier for them?

[Source: “The Day L.B. J. Took Charge” by Robert A. Caro from The New Yorker, April 2, 2012.]

Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro


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