A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Red Smith’s biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ira Berkow. He told me:
Walter Matthau once told me that his idea of good writing is that you have to come in on a slant. You want the reader to pause for a moment before it hits them. It’s telling a good joke.
I’ll give you an example. Matthau’s wife was good friends with Oona O’Neill who was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. When Chaplin finally came back to America Mathau and his wife gave them at a party at Matthau’s Palisades house in New Jersey. Matthau went out onto the lawn with Chaplin and they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean which was dotted with sail boats. Chaplin looked out over the ocean from Matthau’s backyard and said, “Must have cost you a fortune.”
Matthau told his wife the line and weeks later they’re driving on a hill near their home and they see the same scene–gorgeous view of the ocean. His wife said something like, “After you bought all those boats it must have cost you a lot of money.” And Matthau said to her, “That’s not good writing. You have to come in on the slant.”
Red did that kind of thing.