It is hard to edit one’s own work into its final version; you always need a second pair of eyes.
One can, though, review and recast one’s work using intelligent techniques. My former mentor NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen mentions two such techniques in a piece called “We temporarily lost our minds.” Some thoughts on SB Nation’s Daniel Holtzclaw debacle. (Holtzclaw is the “now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect.”)
The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.
There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.
Jay’s entire piece is well worth reading. It begins:
On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.
For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”
A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did: “The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; ‘Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?’ told the story of how they destroyed his.”
Photo by Robert Basil