When you don’t like an editor’s edits…

October 8, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing, Study

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough, through having done some freelance work earlier with the same magazine, to be given an opportunity to write a profile on a remarkable woman who devoted her life to those less fortunate than her. I was ecstatic because it was going to be published in several languages/countries and would be a great addition to the CV. Most of all, I love doing in-depth profiles, and I was determined to make this one totally awesome.

Initially, the process was not all that difficult, as I had already done some preliminary research during work for a related project. The interview was a blast, and although I would have liked to have gotten more secondary sources, on the whole I had more than enough for a compelling piece.

The writing was a little more difficult as I also had to deal with full-time work, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable to craft. The word limit was 1800 words, but I’ve always been the kind of writer that likes getting everything down on the page first, so by the time that first draft was done, I had almost 4500 words.

Cutting down the length is my specialty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to chop away all that hard work. After about four rounds of edits, I was down to 2500 words, and I was at a loss as to how to trim it further.

So I did what every lazy writer would do — ask for more words. To my surprise, the request was granted; 2500 words, no problem — they can work with that, and the editor can work her magic on it if necessary. I even submitted the piece two days earlier.

I thought I was done and it was time to celebrate, but of course, as usual, I was wrong. The first editor I worked with was fantastic. She cast a spell and 300 more words fell away effortlessly, bringing the total to a publishable 2200 words. Crucially, she managed to preserve the essence of the article and all the key points. I was impressed. She also said she really liked it, which felt great.

She had a couple of questions and issues and we worked them out through email over the next day or two. I don’t remember having had to push back on anything. I remember her removing all my carefully planned section breaks, but the flow didn’t feel like it was interrupted, so I let it go.

I thought we were ready, but a couple of days after that, I received another email from the same editor, passing on the suggestions from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I was told in the email that the EIC made some changes to the introductory sections, but didn’t really touch the remaining two-thirds.

When I opened up the document, my jaw dropped. I usually love working with editors because they teach me how to improve, but in this case the EIC totally butchered my original intro, which was a sensory anecdote, and replaced it with a more straight-forward, chronological, report-style beginning. It was, frankly, predictable and boring.

It was contrary to everything I had been taught about how to write the intro of a feature, and it was the opposite of what the magazine’s local editor had told me before I started writing. That said, my first impression was — I don’t like it, but it’s their magazine and if this is the way they like to do it, then fair enough. After all, this was the EIC of an international magazine — surely even at her worst she would be substantially better than me at my very best — who was I to complain?

But when I read the edits properly, I got angry. The EIC had gotten the basic facts muddled up, and asked a bunch of questions that were already answered in other parts of the article. Initially I thought perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or that stuff got lost during the editing process — but after re-reading it and getting other casual readers to take a look it became clear that the EIC simply didn’t pay enough attention.

I could accept differences in style, but not when facts get completely mutilated. So I responded to the immediate editor I had been working with and explained politely that the EIC had gotten the facts wrong. I wrote a lengthy explanation of the facts in detail, filled in the blanks and answered all outstanding questions. In light of the edits, I asked whether they would like me to rework the introductory paragraphs to better match the style that the EIC was aiming for, or whether they preferred to have a got at it themselves using the new information I provided.

The editor responded with the latter, and agreed to my request to show me the article again once they were done to make sure that I was OK with everything.

I knew they were on a tight schedule, so alarm bells started ringing when I hadn’t heard back from the editor after a few days (we had previously been in touch every day). A couple of emails to her went unanswered. I assisted the local editor who called with a few ‘urgent’ fact checking points, but generally speaking I was kept in the dark over what was going on.

I didn’t end up hearing back from the editor until five days later, and by that time the article had already been formatted for publication, with photos and captions and all. I was informed that no more changes would be made, except to correct factual errors. There was absolutely no feedback, no reasoning behind the changes; not even a ‘sorry, we know we promised to make sure you were OK with it, but we’re out of time.’

It was clear why they had been keeping me out of the loop all this time — they obviously wanted to avoid anything that might slow them down, such as dealing with pesky writers who want to have more creative control.

The majority of the near-finished article appeared to be the same on paper except for the intro, but the feel of it was completely different. Key quotes and passages were removed from those initial paragraphs and the remainder of the article no longer flowed on as smoothly as before. It came across as slightly disjointed, especially since new section breaks were inserted at rather unnatural places (presumably because of the formatting). Sadly, the word count was virtually identical to what it was before the EIC got her hands on it.

Being aware that I might have been working too closely to have an objective opinion, I enlisted a couple of other readers to tell me what they thought of the changes. The conclusion was unanimous: the article had lost some of its mojo.

The only feedback I ended up providing was telling them to delete an unnecessary word the copyeditor missed, which they gladly did, but I knew there was no point in giving them anything substantive because nothing would be done.

It’s a disappointing feeling knowing that something you put so much effort into didn’t turn out the way you envisioned it to be, for better or for worse. I appreciate what the editors did and the pressures they must have been under, but the experience left a bit of a bitter aftertaste. I’ve always been receptive towards constructive feedback, and often feedback that’s more negative than anything else (which is a regular occurrence on this blog especially) — I don’t have to agree with it, and it’s never a bad thing to get another perspective.

But I suspect in this case the disappointment stems mainly from my lack of control over the content of something that is ultimately going to have my name attributed to it. That and knowing that the changes I didn’t like were made by someone who didn’t actually read the article properly. It’ll be my most important published piece to date, but unfortunately it’ll be far from my proudest.

My editing lecturer wasn’t shy about telling us all her horror stories in dealing with writers who refuse to budge on every single word and is irrationally defensive about changing things that would unequivocally improve their work. That can be frustrating, I’m sure, but what about the writers who get their hard work trimmed, reshaped and rewritten without even getting a say on the final product?

I still wonder, several weeks on, whether I should have kicked up more of a stink. But what good would it have done other than to give me a bad name? All I can do now is wait a couple of months until the final version is published and hope that when I read it again, I’ll see what I had blown the whole thing out of proportion.

Irritating Authorial Hiccups

August 22, 2011 in On Writing

I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb to review for a trade publication.  It’s a collection of insightful and wonderfully written ‘profiles’ (some are closer to reviews of biographies) of a wide array of celebrated entertainers, artists, writers and public figures over few hundred years.

Gottlieb is the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, the president and editor in chief of Alfred A Knopf and the editor of The New Yorker (!).  You don’t get a resume more impressive than that.

My review of this book for this blog will be coming in a couple of weeks, but I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal — not just about the people profiled in the book, but also in terms of writing and editing skills.

I was reading the profile of Elia Kazan (one of the best known directors of the 50s and 60s) and in it Gottlieb criticises a particular book that is peppered with ‘irritating authorial hiccups’.

Examples:

  • It must be said
  • Be that as it may
  • It is not too much to say
  • If you will
  • Frankly
  • Of course (which Gottlieb calls ‘the lazy writer’s crutch’)

Reading that list made me sweat because I’m certain I use those terms all the time, especially the last two.  And in a way (is that an irritating authorial hiccup too?), I suppose he is right in that they are not really necessary and can come across as lazy and too ‘loose’, especially in what is supposed to be a well-crafted piece of writing.

On the other hand (what about this one?), I think whether such terms are appropriate may depend on the type of writing it is and the audience it is intended for.  For instance, I like this blog to be conversational, informal, kind of chatty — and I think some of these ‘hiccups’ may help achieve that purpose.  Then again (this one too?), I could be way off the mark and it might be that this type of voice is achievable without these lazy crutches.

The bigger question is whether the terms (when repeated regularly throughout a piece of writing) are irritating only for experienced writers/editors, or do they annoy the casual reader as well?

A Writer’s Life — is it worth it?

August 8, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing

Source: http://healthessays.webs.com

It’s been a while since my last post (by my standards).  And no, it’s not because I’ve been sitting around thinking about just how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes was (and it was).

Apart from the usual and the unusual errands and chores and busted tyres and rodent extermination, I’ve been busy planning a few things.  With my masters degree in writing almost in hand and another country move in the works (to Asia this time), it’s time to start thinking about the next phase of my working life.  CVs, scans of published works, contacting contacts to make more contacts — I’m doing it all.

Naturally, if I wanted a life of material comfort (though it wouldn’t be much of a ‘life’), I could easily return to the law, but doing so would be against everything I’ve promised myself over the last few years, and to be frank, it makes my bladder shudder just thinking about it.  I had a nightmare the other night where I was back at the old firm and if I hadn’t woken up from the fright I might have embarrassed myself in bed.  Living in a constant state of stress and terror doing something that I can barely tolerate can’t be the answer for the next 30+ years of my life.

No, any career from here must be a career in writing.  I don’t know if it will last or how it will turn out, but if I don’t at least give it a shot I’m going to regret it forever.

The first thing most people say when they hear about someone (such as myself) wanting to write, is that it’s really really hard.  Really hard.  Don’t quit your say job.  Hardships are ahead — financially, socially, emotionally.  Success stories are one in a million (well, I guess it depends on your definition of ‘success’ — is it JK Rowling or a relatively comfortable living?).

But surely it can’t be that bad, or else there won’t be that many writers out there.  My advantage (or at least what I consider to be an advantage) is that I’m not fussy about the kind of work I do, as long as it involves writing (for the smart-arses out there, that excludes contracts and legal advices) and, as the great George W Bush once said, puts food on the family.

I’m quite flexible with the field or the area or the type of writing.  I can write formal, technical, colloquial, serious, comical, satirical or just plain old conversational.  Just looking around online in Sydney, there appear to be quite a few relatively well-paid jobs for someone in my position.  Legal publishing is a pretty decent route to go, or at least as a stepping stone.  Traditional publishing and media jobs are available — not quite as well paid but not as bad as I had expected.

But this time I’m heading to Asia and from what I’ve heard, writers get paid peanuts (sometimes literally).  There are plenty of jobs that require English writing, so the concern is not to find a job, it’s finding the right job.

There are options.  I can try educational publishing and write books which help local children learn English.  I can go into media and work at a newspaper or magazine that publishes in English.  I can try academic writing/editing, helping out local professors polish up their works in English.  I can try technical writing for a company.  I can even try something in government.  None of these pay well by Western standards but at least I have absolutely no problem seeing myself in one of these roles.  And all of them will provide me with much needed experience.

Perhaps supplementing a day job with freelance writing or editing might be feasible (I’m reading up on that), but it’s not easy for newbies without the experience or portfolio to back them up.  I was just looking around online randomly for freelancing opportunities and saw that quite a few people offer $1 for every 500 words!  Can you believe that?  A dollar!

That said, a lot of freelancers I’ve come across love what they do and wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.  I’d like to be able to say that one day.

I think I am prepared mentally for what lies ahead.  I’m confident in my abilities but I know hard work and luck are imperative — though I believe former swimmer Grant Hackett said it best when he said that the harder he worked, the luckier he got.

If any writers out there are reading, please share your story and how you got to where you are today.  Was it worth it?  And any tips, pointers or pearls of wisdom you might be able to bequeath?

The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary

[Update: 12 November 2011 — Anh Do’s new book, ‘The Littlest Refugee’ is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book’s publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay’s sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I’m sure any writer in Do’s position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ‘To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.

Is there such a thing as over-editing?

June 9, 2011 in Novel, On Writing, Study

The last week or so I had been desperately trying to get my manuscript into shape (or at least the part of it that I had to prepare for submission).

I had already touched on how difficult it is to edit your own work in a previous post, but what I have realised lately is that there comes a time when you just don’t know whether further editing is beneficial or detrimental to your work anymore!

Of course, I’m not talking about copyediting — what I am referring to is more substantial edits and rewrites.

My supervisor had given me a number of high level suggestions to improve my work, which required a lot of thought, a bit of deletion and more addition.  So I went ahead and tried to implement the suggestions while also attempting to fix the narrative on a sentence by sentence level.  Of course, I was reading everything out (a huge help), though it did give me a sore throat by the end of the day.

Anyway, it got to a point where I had done perhaps 5, 8 or even 10 drafts of individual chapters, and to be honest I couldn’t tell if the newer versions were any better than the older ones.  I was afraid I had deleted quality stuff and added stuff that didn’t improve the story.  Just how do you know, when everything starts to look the same and all versions start blurring into one?

It was something I discussed in class the other day, and as it turned out, fear of over-editing was a common occurrence, even for experienced writers.  The recommendation was to put the work aside to sit for a while, go do something else, take your mind off it, and when you’re ready, come back to it and read it again with fresher eyes.  And if you are game, showing the different versions to friends for comment would also be very helpful.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is to keep track of all your different versions and don’t save or write over them so if an older version is indeed better or there are deletions you want to reinsert you’ll have access to them.