Lillian Ross – “leave no fingerprints”

“The act of a pro is to make it look easy. Fred Astaire doesn’t grunt when he dances to let you know how hard it is. If you’re good at it, you leave no fingerprints.”

great writers leave no fingerprints
The opening of Lillian Ross’s article “The Yellow Bus,” from The New Yorker, August 20, 1960

Even if you never read a word Lillian Ross wrote in her long career at The New Yorker, that kicker quote in her obit in The New York Times tells you all you need to know about her cool, elegant approach to her craft.

I’m not talking about the “leave no fingerprints” part—though it’s the perfect metaphor for old-fashioned journalism. If the writer appears at all, it’s at a remove. “One wonders…” rather than “I wonder.” Or “an observer remarked that…”

No, I’m talking about “the act of a pro is to make it look easy.” And so it is.

The advice I always give is to write like you’re having a conversation with someone. Unless that someone is an academic, you don’t need to burn the midnight thesaurus, looking for $10 words to prove you’re smart.

No fingerprints: “The Yellow Bus”

Check out (part of) the opening paragraph of Ms. Ross’s 1960 piece about a group of high-schoolers from Indiana on a class trip to New York.

Notice the almost photographic detail: the lettering on the bus, the ennui of the students. And after she’s done (for now) lavishing attention on the travelers, she lets us know the citizens’ reaction:

“When they arrived, hundreds of thousands of the city’s eight million inhabitants were out of town. Those who were here were apparently minding their own business; certainly they were not handing out any big hellos to the visitors.”

It’s a perfectly New York reaction, captured by a perfectly New Yorker writer. Who made it look easy, and left no fingerprints.

Rest in Peace, Ms. Ross.


Have you ever wanted to understand the choices a great writer makes? That’s why I created The Weekly What. It’s a yearlong series of writing prompts, and every other week I analyze a great piece of writing for you—a speech, a magazine article, a podcast, an essay. Learn to write by learning from the best. Program starts October 10th.

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