Rough drafts (Or, why it’s good for your stories to get peed on every now and then)

When I saw this photo, posted on Washington Post ace feature writer Hank Steuver’s blog, I had this feeling of nervous excitement, not unlike falling in love — or, maybe better, hate. It was there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mixed with existential dread mixed with, “Damn straight; somebody really cares!”

The hands in this photo are President Obama’s. Those scratched-out and arrow-riddled words of type belong to his speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Obama’s been criticized in the press for being overly reliant on his Teleprompter — something you’d never know, judging from the smooth way he uses it — but I think this photographic window into his thinking, writing and editing says a lot more about his passion for, and his reliance on, just the right word.

I’ve been a teacher and a reporter for many years, though never a paid editor. I don’t have the temperament for the politics of it, I go crazy if I sit for 10 consecutive hours in stale office air, and I’m often more comfortable talking to strangers than to people I know.

I’m a firm believer in writing and rewriting and then rewriting some more. Very often I take print-outs of my stories to my backyard chaise lounge, with something like my sixth cup of coffee, and try to pretend like I’m scribbling on someone else’s work.

I have to admit, though, I’m not as eager to get those scribbles from someone else. One friend describes the editing process as having your work urinated on. The first time I had a major project returned to me from Carole Tarrant, our newspaper’s top editor, it was all I could do to shake my head, promise to go over the edits one at a time, and run from her office — before I burst into tears. I think it was the long row of ZZZZZZZZZs that did me in. In red ink. Snaking down a section I had spent literally two days crafting.

It was an eight-graph summary of immigration history in Roanoke — you try pulling that off! — culled from scads of yellowed clippings and a thorough reading of a 500-plus page city history.

I thought it sang, frankly. I thought it gave the piece heft and context.

But it put Carole to sleep, as many of our so-called babies do.

It’s taken me 20-plus years to figure this out, but I’ve learned to train myself to respond to red pen edits by taking a deep breath and, deadline permitting, saying nothing at all. The truth is, I’m not equipped to digest that much negative feedback on a project until I’ve had time to let it sink in and simmer — ideally, in private and overnight. Then I pick the edits off methodically, one at a time, working from the easiest fixes to the teeth-gnashers.

If it’s something I’m dead-set on stetting — stet is ancient copy editor-speak for “let it stand” — I try to get my arguments in line before we meet again. I write better than I talk, so I draft my stet arguments out ahead of time, carefully and with the utmost respect. If I really, really care about a line, I’m not above groveling. But I definitely pick my battles. No one likes a reporter who fights over every little nit.

I’m proud to say I have never shouted in anger, “Well, then, take my name off that story!” or threatened to quit (as others have, back when newspapers could afford to tolerate such behavior). I haven’t ever kicked an office trash can a la Bucky Martin, though I once threw a couple of pens at a page designer (sorry, Tim), and I have certainly cursed and groaned, which I consider my constitutional right. As Jeff DeBell is my witness, I have sometimes acted quite immature.

But many a time my butt has been saved by a quick-thinking editor. Brian’s a whiz at helping me ground my stories in data — a weakness of mine — and Carole drills down so deeply with questions that when she lands on the one I can’t answer, I know that’s where my next round of reporting has to begin. Edit sessions with my first editor, Wendy Zomparelli — whose “Zomp-Stompings” were legend — were so loud, long and full of fencing jabs that we sometimes had to close the door so as not to disturb the rest of the newsroom. She drove me crazy with her relentless drive for precision, but we laughed a lot, too, and I have to concede that she’s usually the editor in my head, and I’m better for it.

All of which is to say: Being edited can be angst-ridden and enlightening, challenging and sometimes even fun. The best editors put their criticism in a bun, as my teacher-husband calls it — that is, they find something good to say before and after the moment they throttle you with their red pens.

Leave a comment


  1. Kelly

     /  March 30, 2010

    Hello friend! Great post (okay I admit, getting your work “peed” on caught my eye!). You know I am not a writer, but I must say that I think this applies to all personal “constructive” criticism (ie you need to lighten up on the kids, you could stand to lose a few pounds, etc) After I get over my knee-jerk, defensive initial reaction, I often wake-up and say “Damn – she is right!” Now I need to get to work on my final copy! Miss you!

  2. Such a great post! And so true. It’s funny how often I forget the importance of second or third eyes even though I’ve been in both the editor’s and the edited’s shoes.

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