While most people in Grays Harbor probably know John Hughes as the former longtime editor and publisher of The Daily World, after leaving the newspaper in 2008, Hughes embarked on another standout career. The Hoquiam resident still works–at 78–as the chief historian for the Office of Secretary of State in Olympia. In that role, he’s written more than a dozen books on Northwest history. This July he was honored with the placement of a star on the sidewalk in front of the Old World Building, in downtown Aberdeen.

During the dedication of his star, Hughes and his wife, Patsy, were joined by former Daily World staff members and other friends from the community. Hughes recalled his days working in the handsome brick building, first as a newspaper carrier and later as a reporter. (The Daily World moved to its current location at State and Michigan streets in 1973.) Then Hughes, a longtime trustee of the Washington State Historical Society, gave a section-by-section history of Aberdeen from memory.

Hughes’ passion for accurate reporting and lively, precise writing garnered him a reputation within the newspaper profession as an excellent writing coach. In fact, journalism instructors around the region often guided their graduates to The Daily World to hone their craft with the master editor. And, in 2004 he received the highest award of the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “distinguished service” to the profession.

Photo By Rick Moyer

So, we asked Hughes to take a moment out of his still-busy writing schedule to share his wisdom and tips on becoming a better writer, as well as to learn a bit more about him.

Q. After 56 years as a writer and editor, what advice do you have for beginners or anyone who wants to be a better writer?

A . Buy Stephen King’s amazing book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. “It’s a short book,” the bestselling author notes in a foreword, “because most books about writing are filled with bull****.” I couldn’t agree more. There’s no BS in King’s bare-knuckled book, which Time magazine calls one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. King’s fundamental advice is that if you want to be a writer, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

My mother, a former teacher who studied literature at UC Berkeley, had me hooked on reading and writing before kindergarten. Then, as a 14th birthday present, she gave me a subscription to The New Yorker, the world’s greatest magazine. I was mesmerized by the writing—still am, 65 years later—and the breadth of subjects covered in each issue, from presidential politics to the mating habits of meerkats. The great cartoons are like the croutons in a Caesar salad.

Q. What’s your favorite book?

A . Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, a masterpiece that took him years to write because he revised it so painstakingly. My favorite nonfiction book is Murray Morgan’s Skid Road. Anything by Robert Caro or Tim Egan is also a master class in storytelling.

Q. For you, how much writing is “a lot”?

A . At least a thousand words a day, five days a week, with journal entries on weekends. That doesn’t mean all of those words are always worth keeping. Stephen King says you have to be willing to “kill your darlings”—stuff you really like that, in the final brutal analysis, fails to propel the narrative. One of my typical 5,000-word oral history profiles goes through at least eight revisions. A teammate calls it “sanding.” That’s a good analogy.

By Rick Moyer

My major project this year was a final edit of former governor Dan Evans’ long-awaited autobiography. Together, we trimmed it by more than a third—100,000 words. It wasn’t without pain.

Q. What’s the best writing assignment you’ve ever had?

A . Being a restaurant reviewer for the Northwest Best Places guidebook in the 1990s. I helped travelers discover that Aberdeen boasted a superb Northern Italian restaurant: Pierre Gabelli’s hole-in-the wall Parma, where the boar rigatoni was sublime. In Montesano, Candi Bachtell’s Savory Faire elevated a turkey pesto sandwich to greatness. And the Ocean Crest at Moclips, happily still with us after all these years, has a menu to match the view.

Though I no longer get paid to eat, I still share restaurant reviews online. I’ve spent the past half-century in search of the best Neapolitan pizza in the Northwest. I found it a few weeks ago in an old coal town called Wilkeson in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Ask YouTube about “The Carlson Block,” salivate and get ready for a weekend road trip. That said, you can get still a great, gooey American-style pizza at Casa Mia in Hoquiam. I’m in a photo on the wall from 1960.

Q. You’ve lived on the Harbor all your life. Did you ever consider leaving?

A . I had several offers over the years, notably from The Seattle Times. I jumped at the chance to become chief historian for the Office of the Secretary of State 14 years ago in part because I could just commute. There’s something about this place—warts and all—that has kept me here.

The sad grittiness that’s so off-putting to visitors when they drive through threadbare downtown Aberdeen is offset by the area’s natural beauty and affordability. I live not far from Bowerman Basin in a house I couldn’t afford in Olympia, let alone Seattle. I like the people here too—for their resilience and honesty—though it worries me that I see so many signs, literally and figuratively, of bitter, feckless discontent.

My biography of former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton is a highlight of my career. I believe it paints a vivid picture of a brilliant, complicated, controversial man unafraid to challenge leaders of his own party. Gorton was one of the first major office-holders in America to call for Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate coverup. Forty-six years later—appalled by Donald Trump’s attempt to “shake down” Ukraine’s president—Gorton said too many Republicans were betraying their country and the Constitution by refusing to confront the fact that the president should be impeached. Gorton’s deathbed request to his pastor during the 2020 presidential campaign speaks volumes about his patriotism. “What shall we pray about today?” the minister asked. “I’d like to pray for my country,” Slade said.

Q. You were famous in The Daily World newsroom for offering a Bob Dylan quote for practically any situation. Are you doing the same thing now at the State Library?

A . Absolutely. I saw Dylan at Carnegie Hall in 1963 when he could really sing. He now sounds like a frog with strep throat, but his poetry is still mesmerizingly topical. Consider this:

While preachers preach of evil fates

Teachers teach that knowledge waits

Can lead to hundred-dollar plates

Goodness hides behind its gates

But even the president of the United States

Sometimes must have to stand naked

Q. Of all the people you’ve interviewed over the years, who is the most memorable?

Courtesy of John Hughes

A . Arnold Samuels of Ocean Shores, whose family narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. After high school in Brooklyn, Arnold returned to Europe as an American GI, working undercover behind enemy lines. He helped liberate the horrific concentration camp at Dachau. And at war’s end, served in the Counter Intelligence Corps with another 22-year-old sergeant, Henry Kissinger. While researching Arnold’s life story, we discovered that he and Billy Joel had the same uncle!

Q. Any regrets?

A . I wish I could solve who killed Laura Law, the young labor activist brutally murdered in Aberdeen in 1940. That story has haunted me since childhood when I first heard it from my uncle. He was a business agent with the International Woodworkers of America during that polarizing era.

I also wish I had the proverbial nickel for every time some one tells me how great The Daily World was back in my day. Often, they’re the same people who used to tell me it was “the daily disappointment,” never mind that our 20-person news staff won a slew of awards every year.

The decline of community journalism is an American tragedy. I retired from journalism because chain ownership’s insistence on extracting unconscionably high profits meant more and more layoffs. Advertisers and readers, meantime, bought into the notion that quality news ought to be available for free. Now, practically no one is watching the store at city hall or the courthouse. And social media is rampant with rumors, lies, fear and loathing. With no robust media to analyze political candidates’ true views, the toxic Kool-Aid of deception is on tap by the gallon. I’m praying for my country.

Q. What have you learned in your 78 years?

A . Have a regular colonoscopy, take care of your back and keep your I-love-yous up to date.

Written By: Gail Greenwood Ayres