gall and gumption

Friday, August 03, 2007

Sense and Sensibility

In case you missed it Nancy Nall dropped by and posted a very gracious comment to (Oh I don't care if you're sick of the subject) the long post on editing. Leaving out the embarrassingly kind bits I don't know what else to do but promote her comment up here because it's neat to be disagreed with so nicely. This is called "making more of an effort, however slowly" which, come to think of it, might serve as the the theme of my life. I'll try to be brief in my response.

You're right to point out Kamiya's take is definitely that of a media professional (although I'm not sure what ypu mean by "hive mind"). It certainly speaks to the kind of editing you get in newspapers and magazines -- if you're lucky. He's absolutely right that the best editors improve a piece, that they're the treasured "first reader" every writer longs for, the fresh set of eyes that can see where you've gone wrong and where you need to refocus. He doesn't really talk about how rare these folks are, how staff cutbacks and corporate nut-cutting and other constraints have rinsed most of the great editors right out of the business, and shooed the rest off to conference rooms, where they sit in meetings all day contemplating suicide.

If I were to write this again I'd say that the "hive mind" (mean metaphor, yes, I know) is not an exclusive characteristic of media professionals. I think all professions have a sort of "collective voice" that is as it were its public idiom, and to my mind it isn't the voice of any single individual. Individuals become competent in writing it, but when they write as themselves they sound more like, well, more like you, to be blunt. And I find that more interesting. I read that whole piece and I couldn't tell you what Gary K. really cares about. But I read one paragraph of yours and I feel ready to trust in your power to observe, describe, reflect. I suspect that whatever writing you do on the job also sounds like it's written by a human, even granting the constraints of the style you have to work with. Your own post shows that professionalism is not incompatible with vividness, clarity, originality of voice, actual good judgment, purity of language.

I suspect your enmity is over his dismissive remarks about bloggers, and I think you're taking offense where none is intended. We both know the majority of blogging is dreck; what he doesn't say (but certainly knows, as well) is that the same can be said of editor-approved, published prose as well.

Oh, I feel so -- busted! Condescension puts my back up fearfully, I must admit, and this doesn't seem to be abating with age. I suspect it's getting worse. And when I imagine being lectured by someone about "learning to be edited" it gives me the pip. You might say, "Well, he isn't speaking that way to me personally," and of course that's true, but I don't believe anyone wants to be spoken to in that tone of voice. I am sure he thinks it's kind; certainly everyone who has ever ventured to talk to me in that way has been kind in their intent. But somehow I always experience it as impertinence. I'm not confident he's aware of the tone of this voice.

I'll tell you this: I spent 25 years in newspapers and only rarely worked with good editors, "good" defined as "those who can improve a piece with their suggestions, changes and additions." And I do mean rare -- I could probably count them on one hand. Many fell into the category of "good enough," in the sense that they could trim or add without screwing a story up. And the trailing edge were the butchers who liked to tinker, or more often, slash, just to show they'd been there, like a dog peeing on a bush.

You are pointing at the real story here. Aside from the hardship and the conditions of uncertainty there's also the loss of institutional memory, because the best ways to learn to be a good editor are (1) to read a lot and (2) learn on the job from a good editor. Another instance of self-inflicted obsolescence in that industry?

So basically I bow to the cooler heads. However -- and I'm not saying this to be pigheaded -- I maintain that there is something wrong with the tone of that piece. You do notice the difference between his writing and yours, don't you? I mean if I wanted to explain in words why I attacked that piece, I could just point to your comment here. The difference is the reason why I read your blog every day, and it's really about bigger issues than style.

Oh, and you are the only person who has ever written interestingly about the "nut graf".


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