Doubly doomed to write and edit yourself?


A citizen journalist who asked to remain anonymous wrote in to say:

“My writing seems perfectly clear to me at the time I’m writing it; but when others read it, or if I read it months later, it’s clear as mud. When impecunious minimedia journalists need an editor, what recourse do they have?”

Dear Impecunious: 

As a citizen journalist you have the privilege of doing pretty much everything yourself, be it writing, editing, web design, ad sales or anything else. You can’t pay yourself much less hire help. And let me say, if you are so lucky as to have friends, don’t spoil those relationships by asking them to edit you pro bono. It just won’t work. In time you may get readers to help but till then you’ll have to rely on your own judgment.

So bone up on the basics. Surely you have a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which preaches the virtue of using hard-working nouns and verbs instead of flashy but feckless adjectives and adverbs.

But even a used copy of that 1918 classic will set a blogger back a few bucks, so suject to the old “You get what you pay for” caveat, here are three free tips for those doubly doomed to write and edit their own words. 

  • Know what you’re talking about: This is not a put down. It’s a recognition of the fact that good writing starts with good reporting. Each time I sit down to write – and I write for public consumption nearly every day — I find that I’m not certain about some important point. I’ve learned to have the means to reach sources after hours, and otherwise finds ways to fact-check (how did we work before search engines?). When all else fails I follow the rule: when in doubt leave it out. We are not writing the absolute, drop-dead final word on whatever it is. Just be accurate in what you do say; try to really grasp the entire story and then figure out how to get across the main themes; be fair to those with whom you disagree or you’ll end up being marginalized; and if at all possible, write the piece and let it cool overnight. You’ll be surprised how much easier it will be to edit yourself when you come back with a fresh eye.
  • The less you say, the more they’ll remember: As Shakespeare wrote in 1603: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” What was true way back then, just decades after Gutenberg, is all the more true in an era of citizen media. Words are cheap. What is scarce is the time to read them. That is the kernel of a brilliant meme called the Attention Economy. In this competition for attention your job is to make the complex simple in as few words as possible. Make yourself useful and readers will return. Of course no one said this would be easy. But that’s why you get the big bucks. Oh, wait, you’re a citizen journalist. You don’t get any bucks! Oh, well, at least you’re building character. 
  •  Give yourself a break; readers do: That’s not my say-so. Web guru David Weinberger made such a remark in his keynote speech at a conference that I attended last week in Las Vegas. He said blog readers understand that you’re doing it all yourself. They don’t hold you to the same standard as paid journalists who get nasty comments when they screw up just as professional  ballplayers get booed for making errors. (“Readers want revenge,” Weinberger said speaking of their feelings toward mainstream media, and as a newspaper reporter I say amen; click here, hit “control F” and search for “parallel universe” to see how a reader lampooned one of my recent boo-boos.) But the reader ethic may be changing. Online media, which invite participation, turn their errors to advantage. They say: thank you eagle-eyed reader for your assist. Slate magazine described one reader from Palo Alto as its unpaid, fact-checking department. So relax. You’re allowed to goof occasionally. That, says Weinberger, is what gives your blog its human voice in contrast to slick but dead corporate messages or polished but lifeless mainstream media stories. And by all means don’t fret  that you now see defects in your past work. That’s called improving and it’s a good thing!