Journalism’s less-visible heroes

carr service01
The New York Times newsroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.

They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.

While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.

One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs  — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.

 

To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.

One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.

I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.

This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.

We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.

Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.

My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.

And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.

The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!

Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.

 

Our skills and dedication  — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.

 

 

Why editors matter more than ever

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Although you might not assume so, this post has been multiply edited, if only by me — albeit a career journalist, writing teacher and writing coach. (Here’s my professional website, if of interest.)

The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed. 

Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!

That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.

At worst, all of these.

We all need editors!

When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise,  and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.

Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.

 

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

 

I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…

I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.

There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.

“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.

Revision city, kids.

 

stackbooks

Every book goes through an editor — usually several!

 

Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.

A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.

Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.

The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.

And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.

 

Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?

I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.

Details here and here.

 

 

Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!
Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?

 

 

This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

— Offer some helpful sources

— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

— Question your logic and story structure

— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

Is writing well impossible?

By Caitlin Kelly

I had an interesting conversation recently with another journalist, who writes columns and features. She wondered if some people see what she and I do for a living as impossibly difficult, something you just have a talent for, or you don’t.

Here’s an image that may, or may not, comfort or surprise you:

revision1

It’s what fiction writers love to call their WIP — a work in progress. This is one page of a story, a narrative memoir, I was recently commissioned to produce by a major American women’s magazine.

This is the revision I was asked for by the first, of several, editors. I’ve never met her or spoken to her beyond a brief conversation about this piece. That’s typical, these days. At my level of experience, I’m expected to know exactly what’s expected of a “narrative memoir” and how to produce it to deadline. Which, of course, I did, as I did with this revision.

Which was still deemed “not there yet.”

Magazine journalism — especially some genres — is a team sport. I have to be ready for even more editors’ questions and comments.

What I’ve shown here is my own second or third revision of the second version, before I cleaned it up and sent it in.

You’ll notice a few things:

— I tightened and shortened a few sentences, cutting every possible excess word. I worked for a year as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper here in New York, 2005-2006, and it changed my writing for the better, forever. I try to use as few words as possible to convey my ideas. I also have a tight word limit for this piece, 1,700 words, encompassing my life from age 14 to today, multiple decades. Stuff has to go!

— I joined two sentences into a paragraph. Sometimes they just flow better. Or not.

— At the start of one sentence, I cut a word and inserted one later there.

— That crossed-out sentence at the bottom of the page, an after-thought, clearly, felt like a great metaphor — until I double-checked the meaning of the word I thought I wanted and I was wrong. Then I re-thought the whole idea and discarded it as intrusive and distracting, no matter how lovely a phrase it was. And it was; had I more room, I might have included it. But I don’t. This is called “killing your darlings. ” You get really good at lexical assassination if you stay in this game a while.

The reason I’m sharing this is to show the process, which no one ever sees.

By the time we read anyone’s work — no matter the medium — it’s been polished, revised, edited and re-edited.

So the final product, for most writers, is that of a tremendous amount of prior conceptualizing, framing, thinking, reporting, researching, interviewing, analyzing, re-thinking, writing — (look how far down in the list this is!) — re-writing, editing, re-editing, revising, revising again.

(This post, by the way, went through six revisions before I hit “publish” — the last one, about New York, went through 15.)

Even when I edit myself, I’m always applying three filters, three editing styles, all at once and unconsciously:

Structural. Does this piece flow? Does it have rhythm? Does the beginning pull you in and keep you? How do I feel about the ending? Should some sections (as my editor suggested, and I did) be moved much higher in the story?

Line-editing. How does this sentence sound? Is it too short? Too long? Does one paragraph transition smoothly into the next? When and where am I choosing to use a line space? (Helpful for marking transitions in time or place within a narrative. I learned this on some of my very first paid stories, while in college.) Am I repeating words, phrases or ideas — and to what effect?

Copy-editing. (Should that word have a hyphen?) Looking for spelling and grammatical errors and making sure I have names and numbers correct.

Great writing — (even crappy writing, after it’s finally published) is an iceberg — you’re only seeing the final, visible 10 percent of it!

1841, 1942, 2014: The writer’s life changes little

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s oddly comforting, when you earn your living as a writer, to read the words — the pleas, the moans, the rants! –– of other writers long gone, writers whose names are still hugely famous decades, centuries later. The arguments with publishers, the ego-wars of criticism, the fight to earn a living, the “I’ll start my own magazine instead.”

All too familiar, even today.

Yesterday I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library, a tiny, small, lovely museum on Madison Avenue at 36th. Street, across from 200 Madison, where I had my very first NYC magazine editing job, back in 1990.

The show about Edgar Allen Poe closes tomorrow — Jan. 26 — so if you’re in or near NYC, it’s worth a visit. There are lovely artifacts, like original letters and manuscripts, photos of him and of others he inspired.

But I also enjoyed him describing the “magazine prison-house” of paid journalism he longed to flee, back in the 1840s. I can relate!

And then, eager for fame “at once” he writes a fawning letter to writer Washington Irving. Sounds familiar, too.

A gorgeous new show examines the American roots of The Little Prince, the legendary book written by French aviator Antoine de St.-Exupery, first published in 1943 and available now in more than 250 languages. If you haven’t yet read it, I urge you to!

prince

The links between his book and NYC are quite amazing.

He worked on the book in the studio of Bernard Lamotte on 52d St., now the site of the classic French restaurant La Grenouille. He also rented a house on Long Island and wrote there.

Ann Morrow Lindbergh, writing in her diary, finds the work deeply moving.

The show includes a list of all the discarded phrases he chose along the way for one section; I loved seeing his thought process. Not to mention the sheet of onionskin paper, clearly crumpled and tossed, here flattened and smoothed and framed.

Who among us has not crushed and tossed?

And I loved the three-page typewritten fit of pique, from Nov. 9. 1942, from George Davis, an editor of the era, furious to learn that his translation from French to English has been discarded in favor of another’s:

I let me gentility carry me away in the presence of the exalted aviator -writer and set no price on my services…since the honeymoon is over I suppose the time is here to take the cash.

No contract? No set fee? Overwhelmed by celebrity?

Yup, that too.

Here’s The New York Times’ review of the show.

Why editors still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

A writer’s week

Here’s my desk, messy as usual…

In the middle of American Thanksgiving, last weekend — at 12:30 on Saturday — I got an email that made me cry.

Having applied for one of the country’s most competitive journalism fellowships, for which hundreds try each year, I was told I’m one of 14 finalists. They will only choose six, so it’s far from a sure thing. If I win, I’ll receive funding for six months. I go to Washington, D.C. Dec. 10, with only 15 minutes in which five judges will question me further, to determine who will win.

Wish me luck!

I worked this week on two very different projects, another 2,500 word feature for The New York Times business section, my fourth for them since April. I also finished up a 20-image slideshow for the DIYnetwork, an on-line branch of HGTV, focused on interior design; writing wasn’t the skill needed here but a strong visual sense as I pored through dozens of images, chose the ones I think best, then contacted architects, designers, photographers and manufacturers to get their permission.

I pitched a few ideas, but didn’t hear back. I’m still “saving string” — accumulating clips and sources — for my next two non-fiction book ideas as I’ve found a new agent to work with. I hope to write both book proposals in December, unpaid work I never like much but the only way to sell books to publishers; a book proposal, for those who have never written one, is essentially an intellectual blueprint, laying out clearly what you hope to say, to whom and in what detail.

I have to hire a new assistant, something I’ve been putting off, a little — a lot — weary of having to train new people every few months. I’m aware that if I paid $20/hr+ I’d keep them longer, but I’ve yet to see any difference in skill or attitude between people I pay $1o to $15 an hour.

I read a thriller for fun, and am halfway through a great new business book (yes, really) about personal finance, trying to find someone to pay me to review it. I speak next week to a local women’s club, hoping to sell copies of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I have a few story ideas I need to pitch to magazine and newspaper editors. This is the part of my writing business I enjoy least, busy enough juggling immediate, short-term and long-term projects as it is.

Our only car was in the shop all week for a viciously costly — four-figure — repair, the second one that size in a month. Double whammy, as living in the ‘burbs without a car is hopeless. The good news? I walked my hilly neighborhood at dusk, savoring the terrific Hudson River views, cutting through people’s backyards and made all sorts of discoveries I’ve never noticed in 24 years driving quickly along the same streets. I was inspired and moved by this terrific blog post, featured on Freshly Pressed, about how much the writer saw during his hour-long neighborhood walk.

The trees still have many of their red, orange and yellow leaves and I could shuffle my feet through huge piles of them on the sidewalk, happily feeling like a five-year-old.

As we head into the final month of 2012, I’m trying to plan ahead for 2013. The business of journalism and publishing is changing so quickly, though, it’s hard to know where to best expend my energy.

Next year, if all works out as I hope, I’ll sell two books to publishers, take a six-month break from this hustle with my fellowship income, do more paid public speaking and find more new markets for my work; this year I found nine, three of which didn’t last long. I always prefer, whenever possible, to create long-term relationships with repeat business.

But people change jobs and sometimes a new working relationship fails to pan out for either side.

How was your week?

How much detail is simply too much?

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate). How much — REALLY? — do we need to know?

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our private lives, when written for mass consumption, offer readers the powerful opportunity to feel empathy, horror, sadness, disgust, delight, amusement.

They can high-five us across six time zones — or trash us with vicious comments. It’s the deliberate risk we take in exposing our soft underbelly to the cool gaze of strangers.

Sharing personal detail can offer the writer a chance to reflect and make (better) sense of their own milestones, and help their readers do the same: divorce, death, marriage, the bewildering rejection by a friend or lover. In reading others’ stories, we can feel less alone, better understood.

Less weird.

I found great comfort, when I wrote about my tortured relationship with my mother, from some of your comments. As the painfully unhealed wound of my life from the age of 14, this issue offers a lot of great material.

But without a wise and protective editor saying “Um, you know, this might be a little too much”, bloggers run the very real risk of over-exposure. And the only editor most bloggers have is themself.

When I wrote “Malled”, I initially included some unhappy details about my family relationships, I thought important because they would offer context. I had five first readers, one my sister-in-law and another a dear friend.

All five said, “Nope, take it out. It’s too much information. You shouldn’t share that much.”

When I handed in “Malled’s” final revisions, I sent them to a friend who works in publishing for another major house, who offered some new and unexpectedly tart criticisms about the book’s tone. As my friend, as someone who knows what makes books sell well, she was being helpful and kind, even if it was hard for me to read.

My editor and her assistant, when I asked them, agreed — and we made even more changes.

My point?

Thank God for editors! Thank God for protective friends.

Those posts, however raw, remain available for lovers and employers and friends and family to forever find on-line. I’ve found far too many blogs that are merely verbal vomits, as though simply spewing one’s misery into the ether offers readers something of value. It doesn’t.

A blog post asks attention from someone who does not know you.

And naively assuming their goodwill, understanding, empathy and/or agreement is unwise. Some of the comments on amazon.com about “Malled” have left me shaking, as, in the guise of a “review”, people who have no idea who I am, beyond the narrator’s voice there, have shredded my character and impugned my motives.

That’s the risk you take.

Here’s a thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine about the perils of over-sharing:

Every personal-essay writer struggles with this line, and I don’t know one of us who hasn’t bungled it big time. I tried to protect the writers I worked with. On other first-person sites — sites where I flattered myself that the editors weren’t as careful as I was — I saw too much exposure. I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.

“This feels a little unprocessed,” I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege…

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves…My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.

How much do you share in your blog posts?

Have you ever regretted it?

Where does a New York Times story come from? Idea to print…

My notebook

For those who don’t work in the media, it can be a bit of mystery how a story, (short of politics or a natural disaster),  becomes a piece in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.

I’ve been writing, freelance and staff, for national publications since college, so the process of:

1) coming up with an idea; 2) selling to an editor; 3) reporting it; 4) writing it; 5) revising it; 6) arranging art is pretty routine.

Here’s how my latest story for The New York Times Sunday business section came about and took shape.

Here’s the story.

The idea

I sit on the board of an American writers’ group, WEAF, that makes emergency grants to writers of non-fiction so I’m aware that freelancers, too, need financial aid they cannot get from unemployment insurance, paid sick days or any other form of standard financial help — and have access to resources others might find useful. I had never read a story about this. The U.S. still has millions of people struggling financially, many of them self-employed artists, who rarely receive coverage as the businesspeople we are.

Selling it to the editor

I’ve written only two stories for this specific editor at the Times, but I’d also written for 20 years for 10 other editors at the paper so he could easily check my credentials and personal reputation before relying on me. It takes trust to hand an assignment to a new writer.

Reporting 

This is the part I love: deciding who to talk to, how to find them and trying to do it efficiently. I don’t have weeks or months to produce a story of 1,800 words. I have, at most a week, and that’s a five-day week of about four or five hours a day as I juggle other work.  So I need to find sources offering me all of these story elements: anecdotes, color, a great story or two to illustrate my point, data points and statistics or surveys or polls. It’s like making a movie: I need tight and medium close-ups and long establishing shots; i.e. I need at least two sources with the wisdom and experience to give me an overview of the issue.

On this story, I found several of my best sources just by reading my Facebook news feed; I have 552 friends there, not thousands.

I never use a tape recorder because I can’t spend additional time transcribing.  I take good notes — that’s my notebook in the photo above with some of the notes for this story.

Writing

I write very fast. I can write 1,000 words in an hour and have written as much as 3,000 within two days — while a 3,000-word story is a very different animal (structure, pacing, tone, etc.) than even one of 1,200 words. This piece was assigned at 1,200 to 1,800 words. I get paid by the word, (weird, but still a common journalism practice in the U.S. and Canada), so of course I’m happier if it runs longer.

Art

It might be a chart or map, photo or illustration or combination of these. From the start of this story, like everything I work on, I’m also thinking about its visual components and suggesting these to the photo editor. (In this section — my husband!)

The better the art, often the better play (i.e. story placement and more space) I can get. I began my career as a photographer, and have sold my images to places like Time and the Times, so this is an easy and fun piece of it for me.

I also considered age/racial/income/geographic diversity? The Times is a national publication, (international, really) so ideally my story sources and images reflect the diversity of our readers.

Revising

Stories for the Times typically go through several revisions. Every question they ask of me must be answered to the editors’ satisfaction, whether the wording or placement of a quote, an unclear phrase, questionable numbers.

Each new version of the story is sent back to me as a playback to read, review and make sure it is still accurate. If I hate a change they’ve made, this is my time to fight for it, and I sometimes do. While time-consuming, it insures the copy is clean. Copy editors, by nature and profession, are extremely methodical and insanely nit-picky. I think of them, gratefully, as airplane maintenance crew — tightening every screw and bolt to make sure the thing can fly safely.

I’ve had more than 100 pieces in the paper and not one has needed a printed, public correction.

(When editors don’t do this, your final version of the piece can have errors edited in –– like the story in which my stepmother became my stepfather instead.)

And, yes, even after 100 stories in the paper, and decades of doing this for a living, I still get excited and a little nervous when it hits print and goes up on the web. Showtime!