Make it new again
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.