Posted tagged ‘editing’

My sympathies to Mr. Jefferson

June 27, 2014

Th. Jefferson has been on my mind lately. My book club’s June selection was Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, which weighs in at 759 pages including index and notes but not including prologue. And July 4 is a week off, which always brings to mind my favorite musical, 1776.

Having grown up with the Broadway cast album and the script in paperback, I’d all but memorized 1776 before the family drove to Boston to retrace the Bicentennial trail. My sister and I sang the entire score and recited dialogue from memory in the back seat. I wonder now about the proportions in which this impressed, pleased, and aggravated our parents—whom I don’t recall saying much of anything except the occasional “volume, please.”

1776 brings America’s origins to life. The Founding Fathers are fully formed, real warts-and-all humans. The show is astoundingly funny—all the more given how little many of the lines are changed from letters and other things these folks actually wrote. And much of the “plot” is essentially as it happened. Sure, Martha Jefferson didn’t go to Philadelphia, and John Adams is a composite of himself and his cousin Sam, and a bunch of congressmen are left out, but again, a lot of the lines are paraphrased from what they or contemporaries really said, and overall, it’s a gripping history lesson. Not to mention it has William Daniels and Howard Da Silva and two of the most chilling, tearjerking songs ever and ….

But I digress from showing how I came to cringe along with Mr. Jefferson as he suffers an agonizing public editing by two dozen friends and foes. A writer, editor, or both today can observe the following:

–how he’s flattered, then bullied into drafting the Declaration[1]

–how his “editor” gripes about his procrastination[2]

–how he drags his feet until deadline[3]

–how others nitpick his wording choices[4]

–how others question why he included this and left out that[5]

–how others threaten to withhold support unless crucial sections are cut[6]

–how he feels beaten down by all these … revisions[7]

–and how, occasionally, the author wins the day[8]

Sound familiar?

A decade before becoming a writer and editor, at least professionally, I felt—through the words, music, and Ken Howard’s award-winning portrayal—the pain of having his carefully constructed work shredded hour by hour.

Yet, as Meacham points out in the book, “For all his momentary discomfort, Jefferson exercised an extraordinary measure of power by taking on drafting duties. However many changes came in, it was still his voice at the core of the enterprise. … With the power of the pen, he had articulated a new premise for the government of humanity: that all men were created equal.” (All white men of property, but hey, even that was a first.)

That’s a darned good legacy. He knew it—it was the first point of pride he wrote for his tombstone. And it underscored the importance of being the original writer, no many how much editing might be involved.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.


[1] Jefferson: “Mr. Adams, I have not seen my wife these past six months! I beg of you, Mr. Adams—”

John Adams [quotes from memory]: “ ‘And we solemnly declare that we will preserve our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than to live slaves.’ Thomas Jefferson, ‘On the Necessity of Taking Up Arms,’ 1775. Magnificent! Why, you write 10 times better than any man in Congress. Including me. For a man of only 33 years, you have a happy talent of composition and a remarkable felicity of expression.”

[2] Adams: “I came here expecting to hear a pen scratching, not a bow.”

[3] Adams: “Do you mean to say that it is not yet finished?

Jefferson: “No sir. I mean to say that it is not yet begun.”

Adams: “Good God! A whole week! The entire earth was created in a week!”

Jefferson [drily]: “Someday you must tell me how you did it.”

[4] Adams: “Mr. Jefferson? It so happens that the word is un-alienable, not in-alienable.”

[5] Joseph Hewes: “Mr. Jefferson, nowhere do you mention deep-sea fishing rights.”

Adams: “Oh good God! Fishing rights? How long is this piddling to go on? We have been here for three solid days! We have endured, by my count, more than 85 separate changes and the removal of close to 400 words. Now, would you whip it and beat it ’til you break its spirit?”

[6] Edward Rutledge: “Remove the offending passage from your Declaration.”

Adams: “If we did that, we would be guilty of what we ourselves are rebelling against.”

Benjamin Franklin: “… First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

Adams [long pause]: “Jefferson, say something.”

Jefferson: “What else is there to do?”

Adams: “Well, man, you’re the one who wrote it.”

Jefferson: “I wrote all of it, Mr. Adams.” [stands and goes to the Declaration, crosses out the clause]

[7] Adams: “Oh, be sensible, Bartlett; remove those phrases and the entire paragraph becomes meaningless! And it so happens that it’s one of the most stirring and poetic of any passage in the entire document. … Good God, Jefferson, when are you going to speak up for your own work?”

Jefferson: “I had hoped that the work would speak for itself.”

[8] Jefferson: “Just a moment, Mr. Thomson. I do not consent. The king is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so.”

Charles Thomson: “But I already scratched it out.”

Jefferson: “Then scratch it back in!

John Hancock: “Put it back, Mr. Thomson. The king will remain a tyrant.”

Why I’m not endorsed on LinkedIn

January 24, 2013

“Sam Smith has endorsed you for editing!” says the email subject line.

That’s nice, I think, recalling the time Sam Smith and I shared a cab from the airport to an editing conference. But although we exchanged business cards and connected on LinkedIn a couple of years back, Sam Smith has no idea how good an editor I am. Why would he endorse me, someone he met over three days, for a skill he can’t vouch for?

This is the odd new feature on LinkedIn, the business online networking group, aka Facebook for professionals. Whether you’re looking to develop a client base, looking for a job, or just looking to keep up career connections, LinkedIn is useful without the downsides of other social networks — the pokes and LOLs, the intrusive in-laws, the exes who know too much of your business.

Some people list simply a name, a title, and an employer. Others, including me, have filled out pretty much everything and use LinkedIn as a second resume. I’ve cited several articles published in the past year. I also have a dozen recommendations on there, everyone from previous bosses to a few colleagues who can attest to special skills to a student who was nice enough to volunteer (thanks, Bruce!).

There are two reasons I didn’t jump on the endorsement bandwagon when it showed up last fall: I already have a bunch of thoughtful, thought-out mini-references from people clearly familiar with my work. And they take up a fair amount of space; endorsements would take up even more.

Here’s a third, more nuanced reason. Endorsements are redundant. They’re plastic imitating glass, vinyl imitating leather. They’re for people without the time or inclination to read. They’re the “like” button of LinkedIn. LinkedIn isn’t Facebook, so why is it trying to be?

Facebook has its place; it’s hard to argue with a billion users. But LinkedIn is different, and it should be. Its 200 million users are on there for a different, though sometimes overlapping, purpose. It should follow the same advice given to all those people: Be yourself! Stand out as the individual you are; who wants to hire/recommend/befriend a copy of someone or something else?

By now a bunch of articles recommend collecting endorsements. “Catch the eye of recruiters who are short on time but long on candidates,” one says. Quality over quantity, I say. If a recruiter is picking Sally over Suzy because Sally’s string of little boxes is one longer than Suzy’s rather than scanning skills and experience, that doesn’t speak well for the recruiter.

“Recruiters can get a quick overview of your areas of expertise,” one says. Isn’t that what “summary” is for — or even the tagline at the very top? To see that, the recruiter doesn’t even have to open the whole profile.

So why did Sam Smith, whom I barely remember, endorse me? “When your coworkers and friends log in to LinkedIn, a big blue box at the top of the site will ask them to endorse you and confirm that you possess the skills you claim.” Ah! It’s an arms race, a popularity contest. Is so-and-so good at this or that? If you click yes, maybe so-and-so will return the favor.

But then we’ll all have a string of little boxes on our pages. Eventually, how will that help recruiters? Won’t they have to read something at some point — when it’s that much harder to get past all the little boxes? “This simple way to offer a possible employer a quick overview of your potential value,” says one article, “could give you an edge over candidates who require recruiters to read all 1,000 words of their profile.” Sigh.

Not surprisingly, commenters have been as cynical as the article writers have been enthusiastic: “I’ve never found it useful.” “Closed my LinkedIn account because of this whole thing. So annoying.” “I’m still not convinced. Won’t recruiters realize that endorsements are low-value, low-effort as opposed to recommendations and actual experience?” “I see so many profiles of peeps I know who do NOT have good skills in ‘advertised’ areas! Recommendations mean so much more.” “Endorsements in comparison are worthless, and the idea that it’s up to me to ‘manage’ them is ridiculous.”

Oh, look, another email. “Sam Smith has endorsed you for newsletters!” Okay, we were at an editing conference. That’s why he endorsed me for editing. But Sam has absolutely no idea that I’ve ever worked on a newsletter. That says nothing good about him … and nothing helpful about me.

So I’m siding with the commenters. No endorsements, but thanks to my connections who’ve meant well by them. Maybe endorsements will run their course, and LinkedIn will back off from its experiment. If not, lots of people will have profiles full of little boxes, and mine will stand out for being full of words. That’s fine. After all, I’m in the word business.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Purple prose

August 18, 2012

LinkedIn, the business networking site, has a place to type in one’s publications. This is rather useful for those of us who write things that are published. Since this option came along, I’ve typed in news of my last seven freelance articles.

Well, seven of the last eight. The eighth has just come out, and I got as far as … typing. Then I thought about it, looked at the article a few times, made some faces, and backed out of the site. Much as I’d like to show off my latest article, this one will remain a secret. (Anything printed, in print, for tens of thousands of people these days can be considered a secret if it then goes to pulp and disappears. It is, of course, also online — but I’m going to pretend that if I don’t call attention to it, no one will realize that.)

Now, why am I ignoring this latest piece of fine writing rather than showing it off? Because what started as fine writing got edited. Badly. Okay, I’ve been doing this for a while. More than 400 articles. They’ve pretty much all been edited, and more than a few times the editing has left something to be desired. Unfortunately, this was one of those times. I don’t know how many people were involved, but she/they not only changed what I wrote; she/they added new lines and phases wholesale.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse: This was a personal essay. Really personal. It was about me and certain well-known relatives. The editor(s) had me saying and thinking things I didn’t say and think, and my attitudes toward relatives in general and these in particular came off as not reflecting reality — even after delicate negotiations in the author galley. The result was an essay purple enough that I was grateful the piece was published a few hundred miles from home in a city where few people I know are likely to see it.

It’s not the first time that’s happened. An interview with an elected official earlier this decade was serious and carefully crafted to explain a major legislative issue to readers of the publication, who were eager to understand the official’s thoughts on nuances of the issue. The piece went through editing, and I was pleased with how it turned out. But the publisher decided to get colorful before going to press. Seeing the printed copy, I was shocked: The long introduction was ablaze with purple, a fawning kiss-up to the official in words and phrases I would never, ever use. Instead of a clip to be proud of and use with job applications, it rated a shudder and a quick burial.

One of the worst cases of editing in recent years did get salvaged, thank goodness. This one was more than a matter of pride — it was about accuracy and utter unprofessionalism on the part of the editor. The article was a meticulously researched, hour-by-hour look at how a medical staff saved the life of a young man in the middle of the night. The editor inserted thoughts and quotes on his behalf. I’ve never seen that before or since. When I objected, she said, “But he must have felt that!” How do you argue with someone who would do such a thing? I just said, “He didn’t. It has to come out.”

It’s a lengthy article, and there were dozens of other examples. Thankfully, I’ve put the pain of most of them out of my mind and don’t want to recall them. The piece as published isn’t perfect, but I can live with it. I guess you could say I no longer turn purple upon seeing it.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Monkey SEO, monkey …

June 27, 2011

This week’s project: interview marketing experts around the country about how recycling companies can improve their B2B and B2C marketing by use of SEO, SEM, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. So much of what they’re saying fits in with the content of my Writing and Editing for the Web class through MediaBistro, which is covering much more than writing and editing. Both for me and for the editor who assigned this article, that’s value added!

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.