At which end good writing turns bad

I) Amateurs: lose the top

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not cutting out their own “throat-clearing” in the first couple of paragraphs.

What is throat-clearing? It is what we in the biz sometimes call the verbiage that most ordinary people seem to consider necessary prologue before they say anything of consequence. “Laying the ground”, “setting the scene,” and so forth.

90% of the time, any piece of amateur writing can therefore be improved simply by lopping off — wholesale and mercilessly — the beginning. Somewhere in the text, the writer does have a point to make, and that‘s the place to start.

(Somehow, the amateur writer himself usually cannot find that place.)

II) Pros: lose the bottom

Professional writers might have the opposite problem: they often don’t know when to stop. Or perhaps they do know when to stop, but someone or something forces them to go on just a bit longer. And thus they ruin fantastic texts with banal or ridiculous “conclusions”, “summaries”, “recommendations” or other thought detritus.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, makes this point in an amusing essay by using lots of famous books as examples.

How often, he says, some weighty, riveting, stirring text (we are mainly talking about socially or politically aware non-fiction) comes to ruin in its last chapter because

no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, [it] finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book… [No] one, it seems, has an exit strategy… [and] hard-headed criticism yield[s] suddenly to unwarranted optimism…

When politicians, whether aspiring or recovering, produce such drivel, we might not be surprised. Of course somebody like Al Gore might develop a good argument that evidence and logic have been driven from public debate (The Assault on Reason), and then conclude that

I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail.

But when real writers do this sort of thing, it is a genuine pity. So why do they do it?

Greenberg thinks that

One reason is that editors expect them. The journalist Michelle Goldberg conceived her first book, “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” (2006), as a work of reportage on a subculture of growing political influence. She hardly felt qualified to lay out an agenda for curbing the power of the religious right, but “one of my editors insisted I do it,” she recalled in a recent interview. Inevitably, reviewers called her on it…

In other cases, he thinks

authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. …

And me? Some of you may recall the little game I played for about two years with my own editor at Riverhead. He kept pressing me to add a final chapter of “lessons”. I kept demurring.

In the end, he won. Ie, I did add a chapter of lessons. As it happens, I surprised myself by liking that chapter. (It’s instead my second chapter that I like least and worry about most.) Who knows. I might already have fallen prey to Greenberg’s hubris. Fortunately, the book will be out soon, and all sorts of reviewers will volunteer their honesty with the requisite brutality.

Responding to my cold reader

At this (quite advanced) stage in the book-publishing process, there is suddenly a lot to do, always urgently and usually without prior notice.

For instance, another dead-tree copy of the manuscript just landed on my desk, marked up in old-fashioned ink. Apparently, the cold reader had had his go.

The cold reader? Who knew? I normally prefer my readers warm.

It appears that Riverhead has sent the manuscript to someone who is anonymous to me (“cold”, I suppose) for perusal. His or her comments were not “large” (about the sweep of the story, or the logic of an argument, say), but very detailed queries about language.

All regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know me as a pedant (or word-lover, to be generous). I am rarely caught out in word matters. But it does happen, and I find that fun.

So here are a few things the cold reader pointed out, and then a few instances in which I overruled him/her.

  1. If something “ascends up to,” it actually simply “ascends to”.
  2. “Aquiline faces” are actually faces with “aquiline noses.”
  3. A “crevice” is not a “crevasse”, and Hannibal in the Alps better have passed the latter, or we would be mighty bored.
  4. “Projecting a perception of invincibility” is simply “projecting invincibility”. (Can’t believe that one happened to me!)
  5. A line of soldiers marching “only a couple of men deep” is actually marching “a couple of men wide.” Duh.
  6. Scipio could not have stood there, “his posture erect and lithe.” No, he stood there, “his posture erect, his body lithe.”
  7. If Scipio and Cato (or whoever) “mixed like oil and water”, then they did not mix, like oil and water.
  8. Being “suspicious” is not the same as being “suspect”. (Duh. Must have been late at night.)
  9. Do I really need to spend hours going through my books to find out whether Lucius was Scipio’s only brother? Oh yes, because, that determines whether it is “his brother Lucius” or “his brother, Lucius”.

Here are a few of the comments I overruled (getting a little frisson out of the STET every time):

  1. No, Meriwether Lewis’s father was not fighting “Native American” tribes. He was fighting “Indian” tribes. It’s about context.
  2. Hannibal might have contemplated a “bold evacuation of Italy.” But he could not have contemplated a “bold evacuation of his troops from Italy.” Why would he want to rip out the innards of his own soldiers?


The humanity in a Joad and a Vega

Well, it’s time again for our (The Economist‘s) annual Christmas issue — a double issue (meaning that it is on news kiosks for two weeks instead of the usual one).

My piece in this one is called Migrant farm workers: Fields of Tears.

(The title of this post explains itself if you read the article.)

They even used one of the pictures I took with my dirty, sweaty, unsteady hand while picking grapes in August (I posted about it at the time). So, even though we don’t get bylines at The Economist, I did get a tiny picture credit in the bottom right! 🙂

The back story

In late October, I posted a cryptic and coy entry here, in which I talked about an exchange with one of my editors, after she told me that

The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter.

This was, in fact, the piece we were talking about and editing at the time. So now you can read it and judge for yourself if flattening the tone was the right decision.

Another point worth mentioning is that my first draft was, well, bad. The reason was one that you may find sympatico (during my research, we had a baby, so I had other things on my mind and took a shortcut, writing before I was ready). But a good editor owes it to the writer not to let those half-hearted pieces slip through.

So my editor called me on it. She has a beautifully frank manner, which sugarcoats nothing (and thus makes her praise, whenever it comes, uniquely credible).

Back I went, after my paternity leave, to finish the research (which was harder than it is for most of my pieces). And then I wrote what turned out to be the real piece.

During the frantic copy-editing in the final hours before the pages were printed, I thanked my editor for her intervention:

… you did me the honor of being frank, thus saving me from a bad piece and forcing me to turn it into a decent one. You’re the best editor I’ve ever had. It’s all about trust: the editor has to trust the potential of the writer (and demand that it be reached); and the writer has to trust the judgment and intention of the editor.

She replied with some touching personal comments, and then this summation, which tells you more about The Economist than you would ever understand simply by reading our magazine:

… I also think the genuinely nice atmosphere at the econ–in contrast to many other papers–is important here. People generally believe they’re working together, not against each other.

The smiley face in the margin

To my delight, after another long radio silence since Riverhead officially accepted my manuscript as finished, I just heard from my copy editor. I don’t yet know who that is, although I intend to find out.

I now have a fancy new Word file that contains the entire manuscript, with all the proper formatting. Our only remaining job now is to tidy up typos and such. We’re approaching the very end, in other words.

So it is wonderful, thrilling, relieving to find that this copy editor, whoever he or she is, is a language lover as I am.

Have a look at the little screen shot above.

Did you catch it?

Three friends (Paul Cezanne, Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille) were reading poetry and the classics

to each other.

Well, no, they couldn’t have been doing that. Since there were three of them, they were reading poetry and the classics

to one another.

That’s what I want in a copy editor. Whoever you are, you get that smiley face from me (“Author”) in the margin above. And once I find you, I’ll say Thank You properly.

If it’s emotional, flatten the tone

Here is a tip for writers. It is something I knew (“show, don’t tell”) and tried to observe in writing the piece I have just finished. But not enough, apparently.

My editor, one of the best there is in journalism, emailed me this:

I think the emotional pitch of the vocabulary needs to be turned down a little. The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter. It needs fewer words like “pain” and “vulnerable”. I feel the pain and sense the vulnerability more acutely if I’m allowed to discover them by myself.

I did as she said. The piece is much more powerful as a result. Lesson: let the details provide the color, and never interrupt the story they tell.

The importance of the first reader

Eliza Hamilton

Every writer has, or ought to have, a more or less special first reader. For me it is my wife.

My wife is the first person to see every article I write for The Economist and every draft of my book manuscript. (I don’t show her my blog posts or emails, obviously, which may explain why those are so much worse.)

This is a very important and intimate relationship. The first reader is, in effect, the first editor, and also the sanity test, the acoustics check, the aesthetic focus group and the umpire of taste.

The first reader must be so confident of the underlying relationship as to be above flattery and fear of (lasting) repercussions.

Both writer and first reader must protect their credibility. My wife is probably most impressed with me when she gives a brutal but vague critique of something I have written … and I come back to her shortly after, having done even more brutal violence to my own words. This is known as “crucifying your darlings,” and it is what gives me credibility.

So it is fun to learn how the great writers of the past viewed that relationship.

Molière apparently tested his writings on his nurse to get her reaction. And Alexander Hamilton, my favorite Founding Father as well as by far the most prolific writer among them, had his wife, Eliza Hamilton. (Get ready for a new thread on Hamilton soon!)

On page 508 of this fantastic biography of Hamilton (recommended by Thomas Stazyk), Eliza recollects, 40 years after the fact, how her husband wrote George Washington’s famous farewell address. (Yes, most of “Washington’s” writings are in fact Hamilton’s.)

He was in the habit of calling me to sit with him that he might read to me as he wrote, in order, as he said, to discover how it sounded upon the ear and making the remark, “My dear Eliza, you must be to me what Moliere’s old nurse was to him.” The whole or nearly all the “Address” was read to me by him as he wrote it and a greater part, if not all, was written by him in my presence.

I probably appreciate more than most people how important Eliza Hamilton therefore was for American and world history.

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“I sense an obsession…”

So I’m haggling with an editor of mine about the word count of the two pieces I am writing for the next issue of The Economist. Writers always want more words; editors want fewer words (they’d rather run more articles).

In this case, I lobbied passionately for one of the ideas, leading the editor, who happens to be the same one I’ve previously highlighted for her British humor, to comment that

I sense an obsession, and feel it may be good to indulge it.

With that, she upped my word count by 20%.

This is another instance not only of charm and British humor but also of good editing. Even if you are a writer editing yourself, it is good advice:

Sense your obsession, then indulge it. It may be infectious.

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Better writing through forced retelling

I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek post called “How I Write“. (Answer: In the Lotus position.)

Well, it turns out that there is a more serious project by that title going on in the English Department at Stanford, where successful writers talk about how they write. One of them is Robert Sapolsky, the same genius neuroscientist I mentioned in the previous post.

Of note in the long transcript is the crucial importance of rewriting — editing yourself. Compare what Sapolsky says below to how Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kiterunner (which is also published by Riverhead, as my book will be), talks about rewriting in successive drafts.

Here goes Sapolsky (emphasis is mine):

… I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. …  So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. … I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus start editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.

Interviewer: And so, yeah, you started editing and went through a process of revision actually forced by duplication…

RS: Yes.

Interviewer: …rather than the need to get it right. Just the need to do it again

RS: And the need to get it shorter and get out of there….

Another thing of note to me — an avowed generalist and never a specialist (not even in the subject matter of my own book) — is how Sapolsky explains his incredible skill at translating complex science into storytelling for non-scientists:

Umm…well this is going to sound silly, but I was actually not terribly well-trained as a scientist in college; I was much more of the social science type, so I actually never took any chemistry or physics in college and don’t have a very good fundamental grounding. So I am easily panicked in my science and I think thus I can easily imagine more readily than most people in my position how somebody else can be. …

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Manuscript, Round Three, with “lessons”

And it’s off. Last night I sent the third draft of my book manuscript to my editor at Riverhead.

I’m pleased.

In this draft, I addressed the two issues that my editor raised a month ago:

  1. I made the tone consistent throughout the whole book. Neither too formal nor too informal; sophisticated but simple; myth-like in the appropriate places, accessibly modern in the other parts; personal but intellectual.
  2. I clarified “lessons” without falling off the cliff of cliché.

Since my editor “bought” my book idea two years ago, we have been playing a little game.

He has been pushing me to be more explicit about the lessons about success and failure that arise from the biographical stories I tell.

I have been coy, feeling that “lessons” are always corny and banal, and that what I’m really doing is inviting readers to “meditate” along with me on timeless stories in which they recognize themselves.

Well, I think I have succeeded at merging those two instincts. Can’t wait to hear if my editor agrees. 😉

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“The best chapter in the book so far.”

So I’m moving along swimmingly and open Chapter 6 of my manuscript, where I find, above the title, this comment by my editor:

This is the best chapter in the book so far.

Fantastic! He loved the chapter! Everything is great, the book will be a success.

Wait. What was wrong with the previous five chapters? Why weren’t they the best chapters in the book so far?

My god, there is a flaw in the first five chapters. The book will be a failure.

Oh wait, one chapter has to be better than the others.

But which one?

And thus another author goes insane.

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