“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”
That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”
Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.
Among my many aggravations, none is more constantly inview than bad interviewing. Not interviewing for a job, but interviewing in an information-gathering, journalistic sense. Bad examples appear every day on TV, radio and the Internet. Most of these talking heads don’t know how to conduct an interview. They make me want to holler.
In my dual roles as newspaper editor and professor of news writing, I taught and coached many inexperienced and aspiring journalists in how to conduct interviews. Not so they would become “gotcha” interviewers like Mike Wallace, but to help them come away from each interview with useful information and catchy quotes for their articles. But interviewing people is hard, and it’s a hard skill to develop. An interviewer own confidence and personality are part of it, but there are also mechanics involved.
I recently noticed many of the points I had stressed in my classes and training sessions were reiterated in a 2014 New Yorker article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who regularly contributes essays about writing to that magazine. A few of the interviewing tips we have in common (with McPhee’s words in quotes) are:
- “Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.”
- “Don’t rely on memory.” Regardless of how you’ve accumulated notes or recordings from an interview, transcribe them and flesh them out as soon as possible afterwards.
- “Make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.” In other words, don’t take notes surreptitiously, when you think no one is looking. Do it openly, and be up front about who you are and why you are asking these questions.
- “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license. While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”
- “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.”
I’ve got a few a few more suggestions about interviewing.
- An interviewer’s most valuable questions are follow-ups to the previous question that elicit further response: For example, “why?” “how?” “what did you mean?” or “could you please repeat that?”
- Keep questions short while encouraging longer responses by asking the followup questions above.
- Never suggest an answer with your question. For example, the question “How huge was that decision?” leads the responder to the prescribed answer. Questions should let the interviewee supply the descriptions, not merely agree with or refute the questioner’s.
- Make an interview as conversational as possible. Look at the interviewee. Don’t let note-taking bog it down.
- Before the interview, find out as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing.
- Have at least a short list of questions ready when you start, and always be ready with the next question. Don’t allow dead air.
- If you have questions that might irritate the interviewee, save them for last.
- Don’t ask stupid questions.
McPhee also agrees with my personal philosophy on editing quotes to enhance their conciseness and communication without altering their content or meaning. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with,” he writes. “You have to trim and strengthen them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand: you trim and straighten, but you do not make it up.”
To bring that kind of editing sense and sensibility to your own documents, you probably need a professional. Hire an editor.
One of the writers I follow and greatly admire is Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who was previously a reporter, editor and feature writer at the Post and other newspapers. In his current weekly column, always under 750 words, Weingarten epitomizes the value of economy in writing. And that’s just one of many valuable lessons that writers can get from his work.
In the introduction to a 2010 compilation of longer articles, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing (The Fiddler on the Subway), Weingarten writes that as a young reporter in Detroit he learned two truths about writing in one night while struggling with a story. “The first is that without passion, you have nothing,” he writes. “The second is that the most important words in your story are the ones you don’t write. They’re the ones you imply—the ones that cause you to pop into the reader’s mind and get her to think ‘Aha!’ That’s how you transform her from a passive observer into an ally. And that’s when you win.”
Later in that introduction, Weingarten discusses the importance of rhythm as part of that winning formula. “For a long narrative to have power, it can’t just be delivering information—it needs to create a textured experience, the way a movie does,” he explains. “A writer hasn’t the advantage of a mood-setting soundtrack, or actors who can communicate emotion with an expression or a gesture, but he has something of potentially greater impact: the descriptive power of words. Use them with care: arrange them shrewdly. Remember that sentences have cadence and meter and melody—don’t let them become a one-note lullaby. Interrupt the long with the short, the simple with the complex, and use them all to build a vivid narrative, a theater of the mind that each reader then edits and personalizes for himself. It’s a collaboration, this process. Don’t take your new ally for granted. Don’t bore her, even for an instant.”
Winning with words isn’t easy, but a skilled editor can help develop and fine-tune your game plan. Contact me for a free assessment of your own writing project.
A Seattle attorney had a traffic-camera-generated speeding ticket dismissed recently, and he didn’t deny he was speeding. He won because there were too many words on the sign warning motorists to slow down.
The sign said the posted 20 mph speed limit would be enforced “WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING OR CHILDREN ARE PRESENT” in two-inch-high capital letters. But domestic law attorney Joe Hunt found a diagram in the federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that prescribes the shorter phrase “WHEN FLASHING” for that sign. Hunt argued that with more words, the posted sign was harder to read, diminishing the driver’s ability to heed it before a mounted, automated camera enforces the 20 mph school zone. According to Washington State law, automated camera zones must comply with the federal manual.
After the ruling, the City of Seattle announced that Department of Transportation crews will replace 40 such signs before school resumes in September. The new signs will read “WHEN FLASHING.” Fewer words that are more concise, more emphatic, easier to read and comprehend.
It’s amazing what a little editing can do. “Shorter language is easier to comprehend,” spokesman Neil Gaffney of the Federal Highway Administration noted in the Seattle Times.
If you ever need an editor to condense, organize and hone your own writing, look no further.
Another pair of eyes can make a big difference.
Incidentally, attorney Hunt estimated the dismissal of his $189 ticket cost him about $578 in services, equipment and fees. Hiring an editor is much cheaper than a hiring a lawyer.
Using literary metaphors in your writing makes your writing seem smarter, as long as you use them correctly. If you muff it, however, it can have the opposite effect.
For instance, in explaining how President Obama forged a bipartisan agreement with Capitol Hill Republicans to avoid another federal government shutdown last fall, Washington Post columnist Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote, “Obama gave the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans.” Only if he were trying to cover up his nudity, actually; olive branches would have been more appropriate here.
In another instance last year, The Post reported, “The sale of football tickets and fundraising will be the keys for Maryland as it digs itself out of a financial hole.” Perhaps, but climbing out of the hole would be a better strategy. Digging would likely get Maryland further into the hole.
Let’s hope that under the ownership of Amazon.com mogul Jeff Bezos The Post will remain at the forefront of American journalism over a range of media. Hiring more copy editors would provide a good initial boost.
If you’re not Jeff Bezos, you might still need to hire an editor before you turn an olive branch into a fig leaf.
American crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit, editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.
“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”
Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.
Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post may or may not turn out to be a good thing for journalism, but there are some encouraging signs.
In an interview published in The Post, he called it “an important institution” and expressed optimism about its future. “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan,” he said. “This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation. There would be change with or without new ownership. But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”
Bezos also has demonstrated great respect for writing. He is known to be an avid reader and his wife is a novelist. This anecdote may help explain his interest in owning a venerable benchmark of the seemingly dying newspaper industry, as told by Post Company (soon to be renamed) Chairman Don Graham to columnist Ezra Klein: “When Jeff holds meetings are Amazon, he asks people not to use PowerPoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a PowerPoint together. “
Bezos understands that writing is important. Good writing is even more important, but for some it’s just hard to do. The ideas are there, but not the prose. That’s when it pays to hire an editor.