|Posted on August 9, 2012 at 5:50 PM|
As a general rule, I think most everything that I write is brilliant. (There. I said it.)
Yes, of course, when I think about it rationally and logically I realize that that certainly isn’t the case, and that much of what I put out – while hopefully entertaining and at least with moderately correct punctuation and grammar usage – is merely just fair or decent and only occasionally rising to the blandest-of-bland adjective levels, good.
Generally my posts are too long-winded and meandering for their own good, but since none of you people are paying me for any of this, you gets what you gets.
But regardless of the topic – beer review, Survivor recap, industry critique – I try and write everything I do to the best of my ability, tweaking a word here, a phrase there, until it is exactly the way I feel it should be when I turn it in or post it up. And it is a RARE thing where I have anyone read over something that I’ve written.
In the real-world of writing – outside the cozy, vacuum-safe confines of the Sciacca blog – things always go to an editor who takes a more critical eye to the prose before they are disseminated for public consumption.
I vividly recall my first brush with a Sound & Vision edit back in the early 2000’s. I wrote a piece on housewide audio and when I got it back, it was so *completely* and massively re-worked that I remember flipping through the pages and then turning to Dana and saying, “I’m not sure I even want my name to go on this thing.” And not just reworked, mind you, but reworked in a manner that I felt made it read a good bit worse and more confusing than what I had turned in. (Over the next few issues I learned what S&V expected from an introduction and transition and came to deliver writing that was far more to their style.)
Also, in the early days of S&V, it wasn’t unusual for a story to travel through the hands and minds and busy-busy red pens of like SIX different editors; each adding comments and footnotes and reworks, and cuts until it would often come back to you with comments from the sixth reader asking what the hell you were talking about because reader number 3 had cut out some crucial point. I’m talking about footnotes of footnotes getting their own footnotes. I received one review back that had – I kid you not – over FIFTY footnote comments for me to address.
Suffice to say, I am generally not a big fan of the edit process because I feel that it often takes something that was – dare I say it? – perfect to begin with and makes it something that is different and therefore, less-than-perfect.
But the truth is, when you find a good editor to work with, one who understands you, your style, your voice and the topics about which you’re writing, it can be a beautiful thing. I'm guessing the way that a great conductor can help a musician to rise to the next level and produce even better work.
Dana was my own personal, live-in editor for years. She’d read all of my stuff before I turned it in. And she was great at catching the random incorrect usage of their/there/they’re or if I didn’t de-mystify a certain technology enough or just finding a clumsy phrase or word choice. As my writing increased from occasional to regular to frequent and the topics became more techie in nature, Dana mostly retired from her editing duties. (Though I'll still throw something to her if I think it is especially good or if I'm concerned that maybe I've gone a bit too far.)
My principal editor at Sound + Vision for some time now has been Al Griffin. Al reads all of my columns, reviews and any of the feature-type stories that I’m assigned. Al has a great ability to nip and tweak and focus my work to make it read even better. And when he follows up with a question or comment about something, it’s generally because I didn’t adequately explain it. This allows the magazine to have a consistent reading style while still letting each writer maintain their unique voice and perspective. My writing at S+V is definitely better for Al’s keen guardianship.
I recently filed a pretty massive story for me; one that is for a publication that has a subscription base of ONE MILLION people. (It has “Consumer” in the title...) That’s a pretty daunting thing, actually. Knowing that what you are writing will be read by (pinky to corner of mouth, please) ONE MILLION people. You definitely want to come across as interesting and sounding like you know what the hell you’re talking about. And, obviously, I want it to be brilliant.
But it was a totally new magazine for me, a totally new editor and a totally new reader that I’m not familiar with. So, when I finished the first draft of the story I…wasn’t even really sure how I felt about it.
I had read over it so many times, trimming and trimming to get down to the 1000 word count they had assigned that I had lost grasp of the story. Also I had talked about the topic previously so many different times and in so many different ways that I couldn’t decide if what I had written for this piece was good or bad; not a comfortable place to be as a writer.
Kirsten has been a long-time reader of the Sciacca blog and appreciates my writing far more than it deserves (she might have called me “writer hero” at one point). She also knows my style and my voice very well and knew about this big assignement, and I felt that she could offer a disinterested third-party opinion and tell me -- honestly -- if what I had written was any good.
I emailed it to her while she was on the line and then said, “You got it? OK, I’ll wait.”
“You want me to read it now? Like *right now*? Like while you just sit on the phone and listen to me breathing?”
Yes. Of course. That IS what I wanted. But sensing her discomfort at the idea – I might have told her that I would interpret any deep breaths as the preparation for her screaming, “OH, MY! THIS IS SO WONDERFUL!” – I told her she could hang up, read in the coffee-less confines of her office and then call me back.
Minutes pass and she does. And when she starts off with, “Well…” I knew that I wasn't in for the glowing praise I was hoping for. But, I wanted truth, not shallow fawning praise – OK, I would have taking some – and Kirsten’s trained editor eye saw through to the heart of what was lacking in my story.
“I like the opening – a lot – and then I like this part, and then this part is good, and I like the last paragraph."
"I’ve marked some things in italics that I think you could cut, but, I don’t think you’re gonna want to see how much.”
(Nervous laughter) “Umm, from the part after ‘macro’ to the last paragraph...” (more nervous laughter. Then awkward silence.) “Umm, yeah. Those parts.”
“That’s like 500 words. Out of my 1000 word story.”
“Yeah...I told you that you weren’t gonna like it…”
So we chatted for a bit more, and she gave me what I needed; the focus to cut, rearrange, rework, and focus on the best parts of the story and then flesh them out. To take away the dry, white-papery explanations and replace them with my industry insight and voice and style that (presumably) they liked enough to offer me the assignment in the first place.
When I got home, I whipped out the laptop and saw the middle bits that Glasses thought needed adios-ing. (Her actual suggestion was, “Take all of that and turn it into a sidebar. The editor will love it. He’ll say, ‘Ew! Look! He did extra work for me! He already prepared me a sidebar! What initiative! Isn’t that great?!") So, with that hunk removed, my word budget was opened up and I was free to write about the things that Glasses and I decided were missing from the piece.
What resulted was a story that was WAY better than the original, full of more information and forward-looking analysis and what (I believe) is what the editor was looking for. (I’m still waiting to hear whether or not that is the case. His only comments so far have been, “OK. Yep. I got it. Uh-huh.” I told Dana that after talking to him I knew even less about how he felt about the story...)
I sent it to Kirsten for a read -- telling her it's not often that you get to be the first in a million to read and even CHANGE a story -- and she agreed that draft #2 read far better.
Regardless, I say, "Thank you, Glasses!" You did exactly what an editor should do; you left my writing and my voice intact and you helped me to focus on the good bits and cut out the bad and to make my work even better. What more could a writer ask for?