Don’t think with your fingers

Biographer Robert Caro’s books are marathon-long, though very much worth the time it takes to read them. His laceration of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” is almost 1300 pages. In a wonderful interview published in The New York Review of Books, Caro notes:

The finished version I gave to my editor […] was about 1,050,000 words. That was a polished finished version, not a draft. The book you read is roughly 700,000 words […] the maximum that [my publisher] Knopf’s production people felt they could get into a trade book.

At the time, I asked, “Can’t we do it in two volumes?” Bob Gottlieb [my editor] answered, “I might get people interested in Robert Moses once. I could never get them interested in him twice.”

The amount of research – reporting, reading, interviewing, digging, and corroborating – that goes into Caro’s books is gargantuan. I literally cannot imagine how a person can get such work all done with such intelligence. Surely, then, he must *write* with unbelievable speed. No.

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down.

I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

More on editing

In an early NoContest.CA post on editing, I described “the 9 C’s” I use when evaluating another writer’s work:

  1. completeness
  2. conciseness
  3. clarity
  4. convincingness
  5. currency
  6. correctness
  7. consistency
  8. congruency
  9. courtesy

I added:

Almost all writers need a second set of eyes to assess and improve the first four qualities in a document they compose, because they typically already believe they’ve been concise, complete, clear, and convincing enough. To assess and improve the rest often requires that second set of eyes, too.

My mentor Diane Middlebrook once told me, “You cannot edit yourself any more than you can tickle yourself, and for the same reasons.” I thought of Diane the other day when reading an excellent post by Hootsuite Content Editor Curtis Foreman called “12 Quick Editing Tips for Social Media Managers.” Tip #4: “Have Somebody Else Edit Your Work.”

Even if you’re a solo practitioner, there’s probably someone in your life with a decent sense of style and taste who wouldn’t mind glancing over your tweets before you release them into the wild. And if you’re at an agency or brand, you’ve likely got a team member (or an entire team) who will be more than happy to point out that you really should stop using commas to join independent clauses already.

You should read the whole post; it’s excellent. I have to take issue with that first sentence, though. I doubt even the most charming “solo practitioner” would be able to persuade another person to glance over his or her tweets prior to their publication. When we are outside of the workplace or academic setting, we almost always need to fly solo, using solid if less exacting methods of revision: reading the post or tweet aloud, double-checking for facts, or the always smart “sleeping on it” before publishing it.

– photo by Robert Basil

– installation view of Robert Therrien’s No title (folding table and chairs, beige) at Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY