When Editors Are Accomplices

As an editor, what do you do when the author you’re working with has nothing worthwhile to say? Not simply when the writing is poor, but when there’s actually no there, there.

In my editorial roles, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great thinkers and researchers whose contributions genuinely make a difference. I learn a lot as they help the world to learn even more. But a substantial minority of the material I see is, I have to be frank, dead wood, at least after you scrape off the varnish. Varnish that I often apply.

First let me make a distinction between an author’s ability as a writer and the quality of what he or she has to say. Many people whose names appear in bylines don’t write well (often because they’re in fields where writing is not the core activity), yet they offer enormous value through the written word. That’s where editors and ghost writers act as edifiers — an effort that ultimately satisfies everyone involved, including readers. But sometimes underneath the writing, whether poor or impressive, an editor finds a void in substance that simply cannot be filled with words. Much labor is expended covering up the gaping hole, accompanied by much editor-enabled denial. Editor as sycophant is a role I’ve learned to play all too well, and one that I still haven’t figured out how to consistently avoid.

Here’s where I should supply a few juicy examples — where I ought to name names. Thing is, I’m not in a protected-enough professional position to expose myself to the wrath (or the stoniness) of injured egos. Underlying the art of sycophancy is, sadly, a sickness that becomes perilous if unleashed. But I’ve learned that art well enough, I think, to please you with examples that offer some titillation even without the proper names. They fall into three main categories.

Profile 1: Traffickers in the Obvious

These are the authors who sell, and sometimes make an entire living at selling, answers to obvious questions that they’ve purportedly “investigated” or “researched.” It’s the biggest category of empty content out there, and it takes a variety of forms. Sometimes authors get mileage out of mining areas of “inquiry” that readers love to revisit no matter how well-trodden the territory: the mysteries of genius and success, gender and generational differences, career advancement, self-improvement, and the list goes on. Other times, the addictive topics are not of the evergreen variety, but rather pegged to current trends (e.g., in technology) or to issues raised by recent news events. Occasionally, something genuinely substantive and useful is offered, but usually underneath it all is the same old bottom line repackaged and relabeled, even if the authors themselves don’t recognize it. The “research,” frequently conducted under name-brand auspices to legitimize the so-called data, is served up in clever and pithy language. If an editor is sharp (and lucky) enough to come up with a slick headline, it spreads like wildfire. Click. Sizzle. Burn.

Profile 2: Massagers of the Evidence

Whether or not a topic has broad appeal, a surprising number of authors are willing — even eager — to mischaracterize their data in order to make a more compelling point. To their credit, some resist attempts by editors to jazz up their work (although one must take care to distinguish between lazy or expedient attempts to oversimplify content and necessary, practical efforts to make something readable and engaging). Fairly often, though, authors want their “findings” to say one thing when the raw results, if analyzed carefully, show something else or don’t even match up with the question that’s supposedly being investigated. Unless the actual data are published, the reader has no access to the underlying evidence, and so the author and editor effectively become complicit in a deception that the public cannot uncover. To be sure, few nonacademic readers have the stomach for combing over lots of data, so publishing them in full would be ridiculous. But editors are the folks with the obligation to do the intensive review so that readers don’t have to. More often than not, if that review reveals major gaps, editors and authors simply tidy (cover) them up. And, disturbingly often, the review doesn’t happen at all.

Profile 3: Toters of Irrelevance

This is the least surprising of the three groups: authors who pump out material for its own sake (often to rack up publication credits) with little regard for either the short- or the long-term value. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of worthwhile content that, despite its lack of immediate application, provides the foundation for important future work. However, both print and online publications, especially journals, are loaded with stuff whose sole purpose is to advance the careers of those in the bylines. Almost by definition, the water this content carries does not quench any real thirst for knowledge, and certainly not for pleasure. Editors know this, and they simply go along for the stroll to and from the muddy river. You’re already familiar with what’s in this boring bucket, so I won’t make it any bigger than it needs to be. It must be counted, though. Check.

So where does this leave me as an editor? Fortunately, with enough work by authors who don’t fit any of these profiles to allow me to feel fulfilled. That’s still a majority of the time, thank goodness. I do get dispirited, though, when I have no choice but to play along in a publishing game whose rules and outcomes I sometimes don’t respect. I’ll continue to spend some of my time at the edge of the void, determined never to lose my footing.

Where Freelancers Fear to Tread

Avoidable inefficiency gnaws at me. I hate to see time and money wasted, even if it’s not mine — and even if I’m the one getting the check. To some who work for themselves, that seems like fool’s logic. Call me a fool. A fool who freelances.

I’ve met some freelancers who happily thrive on inefficiency, milking every last drop of pay from the udders of their hirers’ cows and adopting an “it’s their problem, not mine” attitude. Most, however, prefer to take the high road and do the best they can in the time they’re paid to work. Instead of exploiting inefficiency to earn a few extra bucks, they simply tolerate it and smile, streamlining things at the margins where they can but usually saying little about it. It’s all perfectly sensible, above-board, and low-risk.

Maybe I’m reckless, but I prefer to tell the people who hire me — point blank, though in as constructive and polite a way as I can — where their systems are not serving them well. Clearly, only some of those systems are in my purview, and I try to be careful to limit my comments to areas where I can actually see the big picture, making all the necessary caveats. But saying nothing is, to me, a travesty.

To be sure, before you make any critiques as a freelancer, you need to be honest with yourself and distinguish between what inconveniences you personally and what actually compromises overall efficiency for the hirer. If only the former is at issue, just drop it. However, when it comes to the latter, insiders often listen to well-reasoned suggestions with open minds, particularly if your feedback reflects that you’ve accounted for many of the contingencies that they have to confront. And if change would happen to also make your life easier, admit that openly, specifying how the situation is a win-win for both them and you. A powerfully persuasive argument is that their money would be better spent if a greater percentage of your time were dedicated to the core job than to clearing unnecessary hurdles. And, while you’re at it, mention in very specific terms what is genuinely working well.

Even if you have an “on the merits” approach to feedback that includes positive comments, insiders can bristle at point-blank suggestions that challenge their ways. You may be perceived as whiny, or a know-it-all, or just plain irritating. Insiders often assume that the picture of the whole that you’re seeing isn’t quite big enough to account for all the variables. And that certainly can be true. But having been an insider who worked with freelancers for much longer than I’ve been an outsider working as a freelancer, I can tell you that the insider’s tunnel vision is usually much more profound than the outsider’s ignorance. That tunnel is an old friend of mine — warm and cozy, but narrow and dim.

Of course, you can’t compromise your living in the name of shining light into the darkness. Being straightforward as an outsider has potential costs, even as high as losing future work or never getting a job in the first place. You obviously shouldn’t tromp and stomp like a jack-booted thug, but treading too lightly does nothing to stimulate the soil. I’ve decided to let my shoes, even my feet, get a little dirty rather than walk on pristine eggshells. And I must say, a heel to the earth strengthens the spine.

(For specifics about how freelancers can give and receive feedback, see my posts “Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant” and How to Give Feedback to Contractors.”)

If Writers Taught and Teachers Wrote . . .

My teaching and freelancing careers complement each other almost daily. I’ve gradually come to view that mutual reinforcement as a substantial part of what makes both lines of work satisfying.

Yes, I’ve had full-time jobs in both education and publishing, and I enjoyed the dedication to one mission. Maintaining a single focus has major benefits: the time to perfect a craft, the continuous exposure to talented colleagues who keep you on your game because of their constant proximity, the sense of having a second home. (Not to mention the concrete benefit of employer-subsidized health insurance.) Over time, though, the singularity can breed a narrowness of vision. That’s not to say that opportunities to grow within a single career don’t abound. But being truly invested in two separate professional domains enables you, in each one, to have the benefit of an outside perspective while you continue to work on the inside.

In teaching writing, for example, you can be a kickass full-time instructor. But there’s something about continuing to write professionally — not just as a sideshow, but as a core activity with frequent deadlines and other real-world constraints — that helps you offer students a practical, authentic perspective. Similarly, teaching a craft or skill day in and day out brings it to consciousness in ways that simply using it does not. Plus, by being in the classroom, you routinely witness real audiences responding to content in a dynamic forum that no focus group or survey can match.

These are not original insights, and I could have shared them long before I made the decision to simultaneously teach and be a freelancer. But my dual career has started to make me think even more broadly. Specifically, I wonder whether merging the missions of education and publishing might improve quality and relevance in both areas on a much larger scale.

Everyone knows that these two fields are facing major challenges, some of them downright demoralizing. Teachers, even good ones, are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate compliance with ever-changing standards as they teach students whose reading and writing habits shift dramatically with the advent of new technologies. And many in publishing, particularly journalism, are struggling to remain relevant to audiences, even as some continue to produce excellent content. Those audiences, both current and future, are sitting in classrooms every day. Yet most teachers don’t know what goes on in the publishing world, and most people in publishing are not also in schools. Is it time to break down that wall so that producers of content better understand how to engage audiences who, in turn, learn to improve their ability to engage with content?

That’s the practical side of it. But there’s also the prospect of injecting new professional energy into both areas through the complementary relationship between them. The personal rewards of working simultaneously in two distinct but related fields could generate new career opportunities and boost morale in both domains. That energy would have further practical consequences, creating a virtuous circle. And the possibility of invigorating education and publishing in a united effort has a certain “next big thing” allure, provided that conflicts of interest can be minimized.

Of course, this merging of two professional worlds is not something that could happen by fiat. It has to start small, with individuals who are already in both fields recruiting others and then, if that pans out, devising pilot projects and all the related peripherals that really get things rolling. It seems like a daunting endeavor for any one person to contemplate initiating, especially with the issue of health insurance looming for those brave enough to take the plunge. Support from above, both philosophical and financial, would be essential for kick-starting the movement.

But maybe this is all my foolish little pipe dream as I toil away as both teacher and freelancer, trying to find professional partners whose hands are in both domains. Are any of you out there inhabiting these spheres simultaneously? If not, does that prospect seem appealing, whether just personally or as part of a broader effort? Maybe this movement is already afoot and I’m just ignorant of it. Shed a little light on it for me if you can, or at least entertain the idea with me if you dare.

Why Talented People Quit

What you can learn from Senator Evan Bayh’s decision not to seek re-election

Since I quit my full-time job in late 2008, I’ve found myself in many ad hoc conversations about the pros and cons of quitting, very few them initiated by me. I’m still amazed by the number of people whose brains are bubbling with a strong desire to quit — and who, at times, need to let it burst out for someone willing to lend an ear. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction of one sort or another is usually at the root of an urge to quit. I’m most intrigued by the folks who are exceptionally good at their jobs but are still dissatisfied enough to want to bolt.

Talented people tend to be bothered by an inability to effect change, at least in a tangible enough way that their day-to-day jobs feel rewarding. The nature of the desired reward varies considerably, from making a real difference within the walls of the organization to witnessing the greater social influence of the work. Whatever the scope of their mission, many of these quit-minded people have a clear vision and good leadership skills but find themselves confronted with institutional obstacles, often in the workplace culture, that can’t be surmounted within a reasonable time frame. So the personal choice becomes: Get out now, or run the risk of languishing so long that I end up internalizing and reinforcing the culture.

A scenario like that recently played out in the U.S. Senate with Evan Bayh’s announcement that he would not seek re-election. Bayh is a former two-term governor of Indiana whose leadership skills are obvious to anyone who has followed his career and, by all accounts, to those who know him personally. Yet in the face of now much-discussed institutional and cultural obstacles in the Senate, Bayh says he found himself unable to make enough of a daily difference in people’s lives to justify another six-year term. Whatever your view of Bayh’s politics, the authenticity of his statements on this point, both written and in interviews, is clear. You can hear it plainly in his recent conversation with Charlie Rose (start at minute 16).

Despite the peculiarities of the U.S. Senate, Bayh’s personal dilemma seems remarkably universal to me. Institutional progress is necessarily slow, but sometimes too slow for talented people to withstand. A particular high performer might have the skills to lead change but hasn’t yet reached a leadership position, as Bayh (in only his second Senate term) has not. And leading without authority, though possible in the right context, has very real limits. Probably too many limits for someone who’s already governed a state, or even for someone who has previously led effectively on a much smaller scale. For many talented would-be quitters, there’s comfort to be found in Bayh’s example.

The senator’s situation also offers a useful reminder about the best way, if you do decide to leave an institution, to make your decision known — namely, with grace, equanimity, and an eye toward the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean having another job lined up (Bayh doesn’t at this juncture, and I didn’t when I quit). But it does mean appreciating the continuity between one chapter of your life and the next, as I’ve discussed in “How to Quit Your Job with Style” and other posts. Feeling centered in that way makes the grace part easier. Of course, even with a bright future in sight, the temptation to grandstand can still be strong — witness Sarah Palin’s resignation from the governorship of Alaska. In short, if you find you can’t explain your decision to other people without sounding confused, beleaguered, or vengeful, you may not be ready to take the plunge.

That all said, there’s no credible rulebook for how to quit the right way. You’ll find information out there that masquerades as “research,” even with the names of revered institutions attached to it. But besides reflecting honestly on your own situation (that’s the vital piece), the best you can probably do is to read about and observe others who have thought critically about their own dilemmas. Tips can be a tyranny, as I (a sometimes tip writer) have admitted. It’s the indirect stuff — what you glean intuitively from the space between the lines of explicit advice — that offers the best guidance. In that respect, Evan Bayh’s account is just one point of departure. Listen to his story, between the words, and give yourself a chance to brew before you bubble over.