Friday, October 29, 2010

Advice for editors

If you want to be a better editor of others’ work, purge yourself of rookie mistakes.
Know the difference between copy editing and editing for substance. Don’t assume you are meant to do both. Key considerations:
  1. How many approval cycles has this been through?
  2. What gatekeepers have already signed off on it?
  3. How close is the deadline?
Copy close to the end of its development process needs a light hand. If you introduce questions or suggestions, you are inviting error and undoing the work of a team that was chosen for its expertise.
In this situation, you are a copy editor. So you must think of yourself as a surgeon, not a psychologist or innovator. That means removing just the tumor while leaving healthy organs intact.
Never trust. Sorry, but that’s how it is. I’m an optimist and I believe that most people are aiming for goodness. But when it comes to copy editing, never trust yourself or others. Always look it up. Look it up, look it up, look it up. Can’t say this enough.
Plan on learning grammar, punctuation and style for the rest of your life. You’re never done. There’s always more. Here are a couple of examples of what I find many people aren’t clear on:
For more on how to be a good copy editor, see my posts about Eagle Eye training. I give classes on editing for probability of error, not just error, and how to exercise professional restraint.
If you are editing for substance, you need to ask more questions:
What does the audience need?
Who is the audience? What do they already know (so you won’t repeat words that waste their time)? What are their PDAs (problems, decisions, actions)? Use in-house and online resources to better understand who is in your audience, list the different job titles or skill sets within that audience, and filter content that will help them solve problems, make decisions, and move them forward toward their goals as they define them. Dig for content such that you answer the “why,” not just the “how.”
How can we drive long-term business goals?
Even if you are allowed to be creative, you still need to color inside the lines. In other words, know the business parameters that will keep you from going off on a tangent that won't advance your company's business goals.
  • What indirect takeaways should readers be left with? Have a list of adjectives and messages for each of these: industry, company, product, competition.
  • What are my company's top three overarching business goals? Where does your company want to be three years from now? (Not this year, not next year, but three to five years out.) Your answer has to be more specific than "drive sales." For example, it might be "shift from primarily commercial to primarily residential," "open new markets in India," "grow expertise in mobile technologies."
What's lurking below a messy surface?
If you hit a place in the text where a teacher might mark in red pen “awkward,” don’t rewrite it. Get up and talk to the writer. Ask why it was done that way. Most of the time, the writer had a good reason for it. Draw on your own editing and writing experience to get at the root cause or accurately write around a wrinkle. Conversation is best.
What matters most? Why?
Why does this matter? So what? What’s in it for the reader? What’s counterintuitive about this content? What decision will this help the reader make? Where’s the surprise?
If you can’t find the answers to these questions, you must do research or ask the writer to do research. You aren’t ready to write, it you can’t answer the above.

What's the proper tone?
Does the tone match the platform? I give entire classes on tone. But one way (among many) to begin addressing that is to improve the quality of your verbs. If you want to emphasize policy, minimize discussion, or blend into the wallpaper for legal reasons, use a lot of Latinate words. If you want to build relationships, use Anglo-Saxon words.
  • Latinate: construct, educate, consequently, location, initiate, adjacent, appoint
  • Anglo-Saxon: build, teach, so, place, start, near, name,
More questions ...
Do we need numbers? Imagery? Both? In what proportions? What’s the right structure for the purpose?
What kind of attention span can I expect? Is this a captive audience or a voluntary audience? Is the audience bound to comply, or do we need to persuade?
Do we need to keep it strategic and focused on business goals? Or should it be about tactics and execution? Should we compare and contrast? Do the math?
Do we need a narrative style with a character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal?
Or a three-line synopsis geared toward the recipient’s immediate need for decision-making or action-taking? Would it be better to boil down three bullets on a slide?
Should we provide a lot of background rationale even for what are thought to be less desirable options? Is this document primarily archival?
Will this be for a broad or narrow audience? If both, is the material for the broad audience at the top and the narrow audience at the bottom?

What works best for the media? Should we change media?
What audio/visual material is available? Would either of these be more effective than text? What side bars could be more immediately illustrative than text? Who owns the rights to the photos/videos/audio?
Should we add complementary materials?
What related questions does the topic raise that should be addressed but shouldn’t be confused with the main point? Should those be pulled out for side bars?
When the editor is also a coach
If you are editing to develop the writer, then you have another set of questions, which I’ve dealt with a lot in other posts. Here are a couple:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

For All-Hallow's-Even, a sweet ghost story

I wrote this within half an hour or so one evening while gathered with women friends in a writing circle. Our leader gave us a convoluted writing prompt and I somehow ended up with the words splendid, saddle and coffin. I was to use them any way I saw fit. Normally, a complete story doesn't fly out of my body in one quick flash like this. In fact, I don't even write fiction at all, ever, so this story's appearance remains a singular mystery in my life so far.

I fiddled with it a bit today. Couldn't help myself.

The Splendid Saddle

A ghost story by Lauren Edwards, 11/11/2004

How to get the splendid saddle into the coffin had been puzzlement at first.

Nobody questioned its importance. It was just a matter of how. David Woodman explicitly requested he be buried with the silver- and gold-inlaid prize he’d won at the 1942 rodeo in Satin Falls, Oklahoma, then a dusty, has-been of a city that would soon disappear from modern maps.

Some folks remember how Peggy Ann Rice kissed him the day he won. She just up and did it, out of nowhere, and afterward looked as surprised as anyone. She was a pretty little thing with gray-flecked, green eyes and skin the color of wheat in sunlight. David caught the pleasure in her eyes as she darted toward him, and craved it again afterward when she’d lowered her eyelids and clasped her hands lightly at her hip line. She stood there veiled in silence, radiant with an inner stillness that practically drew his heart straight out of his chest, as if it could land smack dab in the middle of hers and dissolve there like sugar in hot tea.

The crowd was buzzing with excitement of its own, and Peggy Ann’s kiss became part of that tableau, felt but a little bit forgotten. David forgot her momentarily when he was being carried on the shoulders of raucous buddies glad to see him win. No hour had been sweeter than that one, not in all the 37 years of the rest of his life.

It was matched like a bookend by the grief-soaked horror that followed. The girl Peggy Ann, this beautiful girl who’d kissed him, was trampled by a bull that got loose. It happens. It’s a thrill, usually, to watch muscle on muscle, and rope against hide, when the cowboys wrassle him back in.

David himself saw the awkward turn of Peggy Ann’s ankle above the lace trim of her white sock. He knew it was broken. He saw that her sun-kissed face was distorted by pain and that she lay unnaturally still, dainty and garish at once. Six days later, she died at St. Mary’s Hospital, in a room sweet with blossoms. Not all had been sent by David, but a lot of them were, and he felt there still weren’t enough in the room when nurses finally insisted he stop bringing them. He wept in the hallway, perplexed by the cruelty of nurses who couldn’t see how deserving Peggy Ann had been of more flowers, more sun kisses, more breezes and more life.

David caressed that prized saddle of his each time he rose in the morning and before he went to sleep at night. Whenever he moved to a new home, the saddle was transported in the front seat of his car, to make sure it wouldn't be left behind or so much as nicked.

Prayerful friends who attended his funeral knew the saddle was a beauty and assumed he’d been proud of his accomplishments. They celebrated him.

Only Brandon, the three-year-old son of the funeral home director, glimpsed the truth. He saw two human figures wink in and out of view near the coffin, which had been sawed out along one length to make room for the saddle.

The bluish-gray vision flickered unsteadily, but Brandon knew what he saw – a man lightly caressing the back of a lovely girl’s neck. Her eyelids were lowered and her hands were clasped lightly at her hip line. She was so still and light and sweet that she reminded Brandon of marshmallow topping on a chiffon pie. But his heart registered unmistakable evidence of this girl’s humanity. Brandon could feel, even more than he could see, the crinkle of pleasure in the tender flesh between her temples and sunlit eyelashes.

Peggy Ann was smiling.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

For Spirit Day, "Prayers for Bobby"

I wrote this article while a staff writer for The Associated Press. It moved on the wire on Aug. 30, 1996, for release by newspapers on Labor Day weekend. I'm reprinting it here in honor of Spirit Day (today), which is intended to raise awareness to prevent anti-gay abuse.

A Mother's Change of Heart About Her Gay Son's Suicide

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Scared and full of self-hatred, Bobby Griffith took his mother’s advice and prayed his homosexuality would be healed by God.

In his diary, the teen-ager wrote, “Am I going to Hell? That’s the gnawing question that’s always drilling little holes in the back of my mind … Lord, I want to be good … I need your seal of approval.”

On Aug. 27, 1983, at the age of 20, Bobby flipped backwards off the edge of a freeway overpass and toppled into the path of a speeding truck. His suicide became the genesis for a book about his mother’s change of heart over the roots of her son’s homosexuality.

In “Prayers for Bobby,” veteran journalist Leroy Aarons tells how Mary Griffith came to decide three years after her son’s death that God “had not healed Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him.”

Aarons, formerly a foreign correspondent and editor at The Washington Post and The Oakland Tribune, is founder and president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

He came across excerpts of Bobby’s diary in the San Francisco Examiner, which published a 16-day series on gays and lesbians in America.

“My instinct was to grab hold of the boy who was writing these words and shout, ‘No, Bobby! You’ve got it all wrong. You’re OK. It’s the others who are crazy with ignorance!’”

His book, to be published by HarperCollins of San Francisco, begins like a family portrait in which Bobby, his parents, his two sisters and his brother talk movingly about their love for each other as well about as their misunderstandings. It ends with Mrs. Griffith’s transformation into a gay rights activist and a cataloging of recent landmarks in that campaign.

Details are layered to create middle-class suburban family-life scenes that ring so true they may be haunting to readers of similar backgrounds. But Mrs. Griffith’s religious fervor juxtaposed against Bobby’s secret agony make this family’s story particularly poignant and dramatic.

At first, Bobby tells only his diary his adolescent dreams are about men. He overhears conversations at home and at church that hurt.

“They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too,” Bobby confided to his diary. “That really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.”

Bobby ultimately is broken by a raging frustration at a God who won’t “heal” him and a mother who won’t accept him as he is, but the focus of the story is Mrs. Griffith’s shifting perspective on the psychological collapse.

“Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parents’ ignorance and fear of the word ‘gay,’” Mrs. Griffith wrote after much soul-searching and Bible study, guided by a pastor of a church accepting of gays and lesbians.

She is portrayed as the quintessential homebody, whose shyness and lack of self-possession make her an unlikely spokesperson for a movement that draws venomous opposition. But Aarons writes that her lack of polish makes her seem more genuine, and her first-person narratives let audiences see only a boy who needed unconditional love and a well-meaning mother who failed him.

Mrs. Griffith wrote in a letter to her son after his death, "You were the apple of God’s eye just as you were. If we had only known.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010