Beware of Finishing: 4 Questions with Kevin Sullivan

Interviews
Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post. He was a Post foreign correspondent for 14 years, then served as chief foreign correspondent, deputy foreign editor, and Sunday and features editor. He has reported from more than 75 countries on six continents. Sullivan and his wife, Mary Jordan, were The Post’s co-bureau chiefs in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Mexican criminal justice system. They, with four Post photographers, were finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for stories about difficulties facing women around the world. Sullivan, reporting from Saudi Arabia, was part of a Washington Post team that was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Sullivan and Jordan also won the George Polk Award in 1998 for coverage of the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan and Jordan are co-authors of Trump on Trial in 2020 (updated and published in paperback as “Trump’s Trials” in 2021); “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015; and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Sullivan and Jordan contributed a chapter to “Nine Irish Lives” in 2018. Sullivan also contributed a chapter to “Trump Revealed,” The Post’s 2016 biography of Donald Trump.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Beware of finishing. I love to finish things, the satisfaction of accomplishment. That’s fine when you’re mowing the lawn, but it’s dangerous when you’re writing. I’m too quick to call something good. Good enough. Done. Mary Jordan, my wife and writing partner, doesn’t ever consider a piece of writing complete. She fixes and fixes, then fixes the fixes, then starts again. She’s taught me to beware of the cheap charm of the finish line.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The lifelong satisfaction of it. I stumbled into journalism because I loved to write and didn’t know what else to do with that fact. Writing has taken me and my family around the planet and into the lives of amazing people.  And they still pay me to do it.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A card dealer. I love sitting down to write with a cup of coffee, notes, thoughts, a plan. Then I start flipping cards in my head, looking for the words. Sometimes I bust. Every so often I hit a royal flush. I love the serendipity.

What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut. No matter how much you love a phrase or sentence you wrote, or how hard you worked to land some key fact, remember that the piece may be sharper and more powerful without it. Simple and true.

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