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Obama: Editor-in-Chief

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I was struck by this picture I saw on The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, which they found on the White House’s Flickr photo account. Those are the president’s hands. That’s Jon Favreau, his speechwriter, next to him. Just look at what sort of line-editing you get when you write speeches for Obama. (Click here for a close-up)

A photo like this is thrilling, gratifying and also terribly frightening to anyone who delivers his or her own writing to an editor. (Or a group of editors.) I wonder how this picture makes other people feel. I see it and feel a swelling of pride — not in the president so much as in the hard work that goes into good writing.

But I also get a lurching feeling in my stomach. I have marked up my own drafts like this, and, when invited, I have done the same for other writers. (Though probably not to this extent.) I certainly have received manuscript pages back from George Hodgman that looked like this.

When it comes back to you in this condition, you have to take a deep breath and just deal with each mark, one by one.

At the Washington Post, we don’t edit on paper. The equivalent to this picture would be to come over to your editor’s desk and see your story up on his or her screen, filled with “red notes,” sort of like the edit-track function in Microsoft Word. Questions are in red. Cuts are in red. Suggestions for rewrites are in red. My eye is trained to immediately look for instances of red; only once, on an edit with Henry Allen several years ago, did I open the file and see more red than black. (Which turned out to be false panic — most of the red was actually a long note from Henry after the lead paragraph suggesting that I veered off in the wrong direction.)

I think Joel Garreau might have been the last editor I had who liked to mark up a hard-copy printout of a feature by one of his reporters. (Sometimes he’d disappear to the men’s room with it, which lends a whole new meaning to clean copy.)

I do know a lot of my colleagues still hit ctrl-P so they can edit their own work from a hard copy. Delightfully, we even have an option to print it out as justified columns of type in the Post font. I still love to print out a story and, if there’s time, take it with me to a quiet bar, order a glass of wine, and have at it.

I did a lot of that with Tinsel chapters — mark, mark, scratch, circle, fix, scribble [pause for sip of wine, maybe a Sancerre, maybe a Malbec, sometimes not wine, sometimes a Jack and 7] and then read on, scribble some more, try not to eat too many bowls of snack mix.

The sort of paperwork created by hard-copy editing mostly belongs in the recycling bin, but it is a gold mine for research archives and literary sleuths. It’s too bad future researchers won’t have many of this era’s marked-up drafts to pore over.

This picture also makes me think of how many people would [soil] their pants if you handed back their writing with this many marks on it.

Starting about a decade ago, there were lots of stories about teachers who switched from red pens to happier colors (purple, green) when marking-up student assignments, so as to soften the blow to kids who grow up in a cocoon of praise and esteem-building feedback.

You can only imagine what sort of parent-teacher conferences would be arranged, or formal complaints immediately filed to the department chair or dean’s office, if teachers and professors started handing back papers that looked like Obama’s edits. I say Jon Favreau is earning his pay. ($172,000.)

(This piece appeared originally on Hank Stuever's blog, Tonsil, and is republished here with his permission.)

By Hank Stuever  | March 26, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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