Archive for January 2013
This is the fourth in a series of posts covering some lessons I’ve learned as an editor. You can read the first entry here, the second entry here, the third entry here, and a list of all the posts in the series here.
Question Jimmy gets asked regularly after he explains to people what he does for a living: So that means you do editorial strategy?
Answer: No. I don’t work on editorial strategy so much as I work on editorial as strategy.
Follow-up question: What?
And then a conversation begins. The difference in wording is subtle, but I think the difference in approach is a big deal. Here’s an attempt at a longer (but still brief) answer to the “what do you do for a living” question.
When you’re developing and executing an editorial strategy, your job is to solve problems. Maybe it’s a media or publishing company and the projects you’re working on are core to the business. Maybe it’s not and your focus is on some internal or external communication effort that supports the core business. Either way, your day-to-day work is centered around short-term questions: Are the topics I’m covering relevant? Am I presenting them in a way that my audience can understand and act on? Do the author/presenter and audience have conflicting needs? Is what I’m publishing or presenting helping my audience get great at something they need to be great at? On good days, you come up with good answers to those questions. But they’re short-term answers that change as conditions change.
When you think of editorial as strategy, you’re considering a company’s business through an editorial lens. That means using tools commonly associated with the editorial process to build a more coherent and precise strategy and make better decisions to support it. It means, for example, being brutal to every idea, while being kind to the people expressing those ideas. It means creating a series of rules that an organization will live by no matter what, while marking off the areas in which it’s good to get weird. Style guides don’t say to use a serial comma unless it’s difficult to use one; they say to use a serial comma. Similarly, while there are areas in which businesses can and should improvise, explore, and experiment, there are also areas in which there must be agreement to move forward. It’s much easier to advise people to stick to the plan if there’s a well-vetted plan. I suppose it’s similar what Clay Christensen said in a different context in How to Measure Your Life: it’s easier to stick to well-thought-out rules 100% of the time than it is 98% of the time. And it’s especially easy to do so if you’re clear on where you have to drive straight and where it might be fun to swerve and see what happens. By viewing a business’s strategy through an editorial lens, with all the editorial tools for structure and iteration at your disposal, you can see things that both traditional strategy consultants and meme-of-the-moment consultants miss.
Editorial strategy is, of course, part of editorial as strategy, and I don’t want to suggest that getting a corporation’s editorial strategy together is anything but a good thing. But if all you’re offering is what you’re packaging as “editorial strategy,” chances are that your work is tactical and will have only a limited impact on the organization you’re trying to influence. You can best help a client think big by thinking big yourself.
I tend not to trust ideas when they come too easily. While I sort-of buy the Allen Ginsberg notion of “first thought best thought,” I believe that getting where you want creatively takes practice. John Coltrane’s off-the-top-of-his-head improvisations were masterly precisely because he’d been testing such ideas for years. His “first thought” in a solo was built on millions of thoughts before it. (This was the way Ginsberg created, too, if you get past his famed aphorism.) But one offhand term I blurted out at a meeting last summer has turned out to help some of my clients develop their editorial and strategy, so I’m sharing it here.
I get nervous when nonwriters talk about “voice” and “tone,” in part because it turns out oftentimes that they mean something different from what my editorial colleagues mean when they use those words. But there I was, in a meeting with people who hadn’t taken an English course since they got freshman comp out of the way (yes, I checked), talking about the best way to describe something to the employees of a large firm.
The existing document and presentation described a coming change in a manner that was off-putting, because it was stuffy, and I said so. I went from “stuffy” to saying “you sound like a stuffy butler in a tight tuxedo” to “what you need to do is communicate this in a way that’s less stuffed shirt and more business casual.” I hadn’t intended to use the term “business casual” before I opened my mouth, but the people around the table acted as if I was dispensing some well-worn wisdom so I decided not to challenge that reaction. I’ve thought more about applying the term “business casual” to editorial and strategy and I’ve heard clients start using the term, so I’ve accepted, reluctantly, that there’s something there and I’ve developed the idea far beyond what I can convey in a brief blog post. But here are some quick notes about viewing editorial and strategy through a “business casual” lens.
The notion of business casual in the American workplace annoys me. It merely replaces one uniform with another, identical suits replaces by identical khakis, and I’ve worked or consulted at places where a “business casual” or “casual Friday” policy was enforced pitilessly.
Yet the metaphor works. Everyone knows what business casual means, which is a key to quick understanding. A business casual voice is serious but light, focused on ease, deliberately avoiding the stuffy. Business casual is more interested in what it is doing for the audience than the writer or performer. Business casual is about communication, not obfuscation. Some may find this approach as limiting as being forced to wear well-pressed jeans on Friday, but it’s the sort of limitation that will result in more effective communicating. I’ll leave it to you whether you want a business casual clothing policy at your business, but I’ve seen that a business casual editorial approach can reshape the way people in many different kinds of businesses tell true stories with impact. When it comes to communicating, khakis are the way to go.
Much of the consulting work I did over the past year was more about strategy than pure editorial, helping companies with processes as well as product. But I was able to do a lot of editing in 2012, nearly all of it with people whose job was never to be a writer or journalist. I had the opportunity to help nonwriters get better at the writing craft, with the understanding that I was there to help them create effective documents and presentations that satisfied their current business demands, not to help them get their petrarchans into The Paris Review.
Since I was dealing with people who were more familiar with Samuelson than Strunk and White, I expected different issues would come up while I was helping them find and tell their stories. I was wrong. It turns out that editing these people is not all that different from helping fellow pros or aspiring pros improve their work. Here are three guidelines I’m trying to follow. They may help you manage the needs of nonprofessional writers — or nonprofessionals in any areas when you are the only pro in the room.
Meet them where they are. Terms like “lede,” “nut graf,” and “TK” don’t mean much to people outside the editorial world. Just as jargon is bad in the documents and presentations you’re helping people present, it’s bad in your interactions with these people. Talk their language; help them understand the tips you’re giving them in the language most familiar to them.
Focus on audience. I once attended a launch party for a magazine, back when there used to be launch parties for magazines. I remember the founding editor at the microphone telling the publication’s origin story. “I woke up one morning,” he said, “and I realized there wasn’t a magzine for me.” Of course that magazine didn’t last; it was an overfunded vanity publication. Any editor or writer needs to have a firm idea of who she is publishing for. Asking nonpro writers who a document or presentation is for makes it much easier to tell the story that matters the most to that audience. The work is for the audience, not the author.
Focus on focus. In business, documents and presentations are designed to have impact. They’re supposed to lead to better decisions and outcomes. The best way to do that is to tell the most relevant story for a particular as clearly and concisely as possible. The job is to persuade, but that doesn’t mean making things up. There’s nothing more messy than the truth, but there’s also nothing more persuasive than the truth. One of the great pleasures of this work is helping someone develop an idea until it’s bulletproof and than help someone present that idea in a way that the audience can’t help but nod along to. Keep the focus on what you want your document or presentation to accomplish; anything that doesn’t serve that goal directly should get cut.
This is, with few significant alterations, the same advice you’d give “real” writers. The incentives are different, but the goal is the same: clear, precise, authoritative communication. So, editors, don’t treat your nonwriters differently. Why shouldn’t an editor’s nonprofessional writing clients get the same quality of advice we give self-identified writers and journalists?
Last year I worked to become a better editor; the next several posts here will share some of what I learned. I’ll use personal stories to tell most of the lessons, but most of this one comes from some books I read last year.
Editors frequently hear from writers that an assigned topic isn’t a good one because it’s been done already. On a surface level, that might make some sense. No one wants to read another article about Taylor Swift’s love life or the death of print or the popularity of the baby name “Nevaeh.”
Or do they? The problem isn’t that Swift’s amorous adventures, a dynastic shift in media, and that damn name are played-out; it’s that they are uninteresting topics. Chances are the first story about them wasn’t particularly interesting, either.
Yet some writers (you know who you are, or, to be more accurate, I know who you are) claim that we should declare a moratorium even on topics of considerable weight. Over the past year I’ve heard people complain that everything from global warming to the failure of U.S. financial regulators to do their jobs for 30 years or so was “over” or “done to death” and please would I not make them write about it.
What they meant, I have come to realize, is not that the topics had gone dry. It’s that their imaginations had. If the topic is worthy, it might also be worthy of another angle.
Here’s an example, drawn from what turned out to be the two books I read in 2012 that satisfied me the most: Stephen King’s 11-22-63 and Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. The central event in King’s novel and Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson is the same: the assassination of President Kennedy. Over the past 50 years, there may have been no single event in American history argued about or covered more than the JFK murder. As we move toward the 50th anniversary later this year, I suspect we’ll be confronted with more evidence that the story is far from over and far from settled.
There has been plenty of crap written about the assassination, yet half a century on King and Caro had plenty new to say about it. Why? Because they looked at it in ways their predecessors hadn’t thought to. King’s 11-22-63 follows a time traveler as he seeks to prevent Oswald from pulling the trigger (the time traveler also discovers that messing with the space-time continuum is a very bad idea). Caro’s The Passage of Power (you can read a relevant except here) considers the day, in unprecedented detail, from the point of view of Vice President Johnson, pinned under a Secret Service agent on the floor of his car while the bullets flew, gathering himself in a hospital cubicle and on a grounded Air Force One. We see a fuller picture now, because we see it from someplace we never stood before.
Many (most?) of us think we know what happened that day in Dallas, but both King and Caro make us consider 11-22-63 in different ways. They take perhaps one of the most-overcovered topics in our nation’s history, look at it differently from all before them, and make it new again. If the topic is interesting, chances are there’s a new way to look at it. There’s also an excellent chance that whatever topic you’re wrestling with hasn’t been covered as much as JFK’s death. Keep moving until you find the new vantage point. It’s a sure way to deliver something people feel they have to read, no matter how much about the topic they’ve read before.
I’ve spent much of the past year learning about editing and trying some new approaches in my editing work. Over the past month, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. Here’s what you’ll find this month on the revived blog:
January 4, Make it new again
January 14, Business casual: an editorial manifesto
Happy new year.