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Rene 'Jack' Cappon, author of influential book on writing

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Associated Press / December 12, 2007

NEW YORK - Rene J. Cappon, longtime editor for the Associated Press and the word master behind some of its best writers, died Sunday. He was 83.

The Viennese-born Mr. Cappon, known to colleagues as Jack, died Sunday in a nursing home in Port Washington, N.Y., said his wife, Susan. He died of what was believed to be natural causes.

Over a half-century at the Associated Press, Mr. Cappon held a variety of jobs: editor and reporter in Baltimore and Kansas City, Mo.; editor of AP NewsFeatures; writing coach; and general news editor when that was the top editorial position for the news cooperative. He retired in 2002.

At AP NewsFeatures, he presided over a group of writers that came to be known as the Poets' Corner, including Pulitzer Prize winners Saul Pett and Hal Boyle, and Jules Loh, Sid Moody, Hugh Mulligan, and others.

"We had a wonderful group, and they deserved that name," he said in a 2006 Associated Press oral history interview.

Mr. Cappon put his wisdom on writing in book form in "The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing" in 1982.

The book is a staple, along with William Strunk's and E.B. White's "Elements of Style," in newsrooms across the country.

"What matters more to me," Mr. Cappon wrote in his 1982 introduction, "is the hope that this work might stir some writers, new and old, to think more about the process of writing, to remember that the first duty of language is to communicate, and that words can be the best of friends or the worst of enemies."

In 1989, he stepped down as NewsFeatures editor to conduct a companywide campaign on writing and editing for the AP news staff. He also held coaching sessions for many newspapers. In his classes, as in his book, he stressed the use of concrete facts rather than flowery adjectives.

"Why inform readers that something is dramatic or tragic? Give them the particulars, and they will supply their own adjectives," he wrote.

"For color, reporters cannot rely on phrases and fancy - or ready made - figures of speech. They rely on hard particulars. They must train themselves to spot those small, specific details that give intimate glimpses into the nature of the subject."

As an example of how not to write, he cited a lead "phrased in a way no human being ever talks. Writing is not transcribed conversation, but good writing is never that remote from spoken idiom."

He was born Rene Jacques Cappon in Vienna and grew up speaking German and Hungarian. He studied English, Greek, and Latin as a Viennese schoolboy and later as a high school student in New York.

"Of all those languages, English was the one that seduced him," Loh, a now-retired AP special correspondent, wrote in an introduction to "The Word." "He often muses aloud about the mystery of the language, the magic that makes certain combinations of words fit together like notes in a musical score, while the same words in other combinations jar."

Mr. Cappon leaves his wife, to whom he had been married for 48 years; a son, Jack, of Denver; a daughter, Elizabeth, of Folsom, Calif; and three grandchildren.

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