When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

How to Wield Your Lance Freely

I have too much reverence for the arts of editing and writing to subordinate them to the sterile science of pleasing clients. As a freelancer, I retain a tall wall between how I speak about money and deadlines with the people who hire me and how I approach and discuss the work they give me. The former I always do with a smile; the latter I do on the merits, letting the smiles (and the frowns) emerge organically. That’s the approach I valued when I was a full-time employee working with outside freelancers, so now I return the favor.

You see, I find good work and salesmanship to be fundamentally at odds. They don’t compete with each other on every single freelance job, of course, but allowing them to preoccupy me simultaneously runs the risk of such competition, and I won’t tolerate that possibility for even a minute. In short, I don’t feel very free (or effective) as a freelancer when I don’t have the room to wield my skills without the impediment of financial calculations. Here are the principles I follow to ensure that doing business doesn’t blunt my efforts at maintaining quality:

1. Treat the work as if it’s your own. That doesn’t mean applying your own tastes and preferences to the material — such an approach would be rude and useless. But within the basic parameters you’ve been given, don’t hold back from showing a client what it would take to make the work as good as it can possibly be, even if that means an overhaul. As a freelancer, I obviously don’t make the final decision about where things will go, but I never refrain from demonstrating where they could go. You may end up challenging an ego or two in the process, but so be it. If those egos are secure enough, they’ll thank you for it in the end; if they’re not, you’re better off looking elsewhere for work anyway.

2. Don’t confuse collegiality with politeness. Mutual respect between capable colleagues involves fully appreciating what each person brings to the table in an honest exchange, not tiptoeing around perceived sensitivities. Many freelancers, however, walk on eggshells, wearing a professional shoe on one foot and a salesman’s loafer on the other. That just makes you seem like the hired help rather than a capable complement to the internal staff. In the end, most clients would rather work with — and rehire — an equal than a lackey.

3. Make “process” part of your purview. Just because you’ve been hired to focus on content, don’t turn a blind eye to process. If you’re wondering why a client is following a seemingly impractical protocol, don’t hesitate to ask about it — and to offer a more efficient alternative. You obviously should make sure you understand the larger context before you suggest process changes, and you should never take a cowboy attitude. But any client worth her salt knows that a deficient process can diminish the quality of the product. Again, the clients worth keeping will respect high-quality feedback, even on process, if it’s offered collegially.

4. Be passionately dispassionate. Whether it comes to the process or the substance, recognize that truly respecting the art of what you do requires you not to have an artist’s temperament. Emotional overinvestment in what a client ultimately does with your work only undercuts your ability to influence the final result. If, instead, the client senses you are like a judge who is simply assessing the merits of the case, your analytical — and even your creative — judgments are more likely to prevail. In effect, you can make the work your own and still make the work larger than you.

The freedom of freelancing doesn’t just mean working for yourself. There’s also freedom to be found within each assignment you accept as you execute it with integrity. How do you manage to remain free as you freelance? My approach is only one of many.

When Focus Becomes Monotony

I’m lucky to have a long attention span — to be able to concentrate for many hours on one task without being distracted. What makes me bored is not working for too long a stretch but rather, over the course of months or years, discovering that all of the things I’m doing serve the same mission. That realization was one of the factors in my decision to leave my full-time job in late 2008.

In some sense, despite my long attention span, I have become a multitasker. Not of the sort who does many things in the same moment, but the kind who craves a diversity of purpose. I feel an acute need to spend my time in a wide variety of domains yet to inhabit each with singular intensity. This kind of multitasking is best understood not in the usual way, as simultaneity, but rather as multidimensionality. It’s spatial rather than temporal.

Case in point. I spend a significant portion of my work life teaching adult immigrants. I believe in what I’m doing, and I feel that in the classroom every day. Yet, as both a math teacher and an English teacher, I must be flexible enough to differ in those two roles, approaching each in the way that the specific merits of the discipline — and the particular needs of the students — demand. In effect, I have two main missions within my role as a teacher, and many smaller missions within those.

But that isn’t enough for me. I do freelance writing and editing in an array of disciplines (business, medicine, the humanities, and others). In each one, I become what the discipline asks of me — on its own terms. And I play different editorial and authorial roles within the various domains. When I contemplate my work identity, I feel like a dodecahedron, and I’m happy to be one. My need for this many-sidedness is fundamental. Without it, I would become flat and voiceless — the thin skin of a drum without its deep barrel.

Some wonder, of course, whether I actually needed to quit my full-time job to achieve multidimensionality. People, some calling themselves researchers, now instead advocate transforming the job you have into the one you want. Sure, that’s better than making no change at all. But if the different niches you manage to carve for yourself within your present job ultimately have you serving the same mission, corporate or otherwise, are you just doctoring your perceptions about your work life or actually changing your reality? A loaf of bread looks different if you reshape the dough — but it’s still a loaf of bread.

That said, each person must grapple with these questions of self-fulfillment in his or her own way. My own conclusions might be wildly off base for someone else. The key is to make sure you’re reflecting on your situation honestly, not navigating a conveniently circuitous path to a foregone conclusion. Only you can make the assessment. If someone else (like me) does, you probably won’t buy it.

If in the end you do decide that serving one mission simply isn’t enough, the practical obstacles to change are enormous, unfortunately. The U.S. economy isn’t set up to make diversity of purpose easy to achieve, at least when it comes to work. Health care, for starters, is not something to which we all have common access — split your time among employers and you usually pay through the nose. It’s dangerously easy, therefore, for freelancers and others who diversify their obligations to slip into the trap of becoming mercenaries, who by definition don’t have a mission other than to earn money. That’s where the line between multidimensionality and fragmentation starts to blur. The former is whole; the latter is a mess.

Still, monotony that masquerades as focus is a frightening prospect to me, despite the risks inherent in trying to avoid it. For now, my long attention span and my acute need for diversity are managing to coexist comfortably. The drumbeat of my heart remains steady. If it starts to flutter, I’ll let you know.

Distracted by Talk About Multitasking

A recent debate on HBR.org, where I used to write a blog, has me scratching my head. Peter Bregman highlights the downsides of multitasking, citing both his own personal experiment in minimizing distractions and a smattering of research on why we shouldn’t do too many things at once. His fellow blogger David Silverman retorts with a point-by-point defense of multitasking, concluding “we need [it] as much as we need air.” As usual in recent discussions of this sort, much of the focus is on the pros and cons of electronic devices.

Both men are right, of course. There’s little to quibble with in either post. But I must confess I don’t really understand the collective point of this debate. It’s like arguing for sleep and for wakefulness. Yes, we need both. Thanks for that tip.

Negotiating a balance between concentration and distraction is one of the fundamentals of being human. We learn early in life how to self-monitor so that we can do all the things we must while managing to do the most important ones well. That’s the practical side of the equation. There’s also the question of pleasure: Spend too much time on one thing and you get bored; spend too little time on many things and you don’t feel a sense of fulfillment.

Children learn this basic principle as they play. Parents learn it as they raise children. Laborers learn it as they work. Everyone refines his or her approach with age. Most don’t bother to articulate the phenomenon, given that it’s just part of the fabric of existence. But articulating it isn’t hard, if one cares to bother.

A student of mine, who’s a mother, recently put it well: “Sometimes I need to focus on my daughter and sit with her while we do something simple. And sometimes I have to do 10 things at once to make sure my child gets what she needs. It’s like what you do in class with us as the teacher. It’s just what you have to do.” The wisdom of this observation is plain.

Electronic gadgets, complex and powerful as they may be, are merely another ingredient in the daily soup of concentration and distraction. They’re fascinating and sometimes frustrating, but I usually find research and reports about the “mental price” such devices extract from us to be utterly useless. Like most mind candy, the information tastes sweet for a few minutes but eventually leaves me hungry.

For instance, what am I supposed to do with the stray research finding that multitasking reduces a person’s productivity by 40%? Whether or not the methods of the study were rigorous enough to actually support the broad applicability of that data point, the information gets me nowhere. Ultimately, I have to navigate the waters of concentration and distraction in a particular context with a particular set of evolving challenges — month to month, day to day, minute to minute. The statistic is itself a distraction I relegate to the trash heap while I get back to teaching my student and my student gets back to caring for her daughter, both of us mono- and multitasking all the while.

And as for that word: “multitasking.” It may be a term that sprang up with the advent of computers, but it is not a new concept (Silverman, take note). Humans have long known what it was like to have many balls in the air at once, way before anyone had even invented a ball of the sort that one juggles. And people have had to reflect on this reality and refine their approach to it, instinctively, for just as long.

The more time I spend teaching students things that are not obvious (how to write an effective paragraph, how to solve an algebraic equation), the less time I’m willing to make for distracting discussions about what anyone with consciousness and an ounce of self-awareness can see for himself. That said, a friend of mine (completely unrelated to the present topic) recently issued me this wise reminder: “What’s obvious to you may be a revelation to some.”

She’s right, of course. We all have our blind spots. But no matter how I slice the issue of multitasking at this moment of idle musing on it, I still come to the same (perhaps obvious) conclusion: If you’re seeking revelations from bloggers about when, how, and why to concentrate on one thing at a time, your deficits in the simple, human art of self-reflection are very deep indeed — deeper than any discussion of multitasking in the age of gadgets can possibly fill.

Chew on that later. Right now someone who really needs you is calling. Click away from this silly blog post and get back to her.

Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?

In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy. No, I don’t have a statistic on this phenomenon to make you gasp. My evidence is anecdotal, but for those in publishing willing to be honest with themselves, I think it will ring true.

Sins of Omission

Consider a hypothetical example similar to many I’ve encountered. An expert author, knowing that it’s difficult to use argument and expertise alone to persuade readers nowadays, conducts “research” to prove his point. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, he interviews 25 people and asserts that 94% gave thus-and-such surprising answer to an important question. An observant editor asks the author whether he really means 92% (23 out of 25) or 96% (24 out of 25), given that 94% is not possible, and offers to look over the data for him. The author casually replies, “Let’s just go with 96%.” The editor never reviews the original data to check whether 96% — or any of the author’s other figures — are accurate.

Another author asserts that in a survey she conducted, half of respondents said they never do something that you’d expect they do every day — a “Wow!” for the reader. Unwilling to “open a can of worms” or “get bogged down in details” (phrases I hear often in these scenarios), the in-house editors don’t ask the author whether there’s any contradictory evidence in what the other 50% of respondents said. The findings from one half of the survey takers are presented as if they tell the whole story.

To be sure, you shouldn’t weigh down an article written for a non-expert audience with extraneous contextual data. It’s obviously appropriate to make judgment calls about how much information the reader actually needs. But if no one at the publisher does the basic background work of checking the legitimacy of the numbers, how can the quality of what the reader is getting be assured? A colleague once said to me, “We’re simply not qualified to interpret the data,” straightforward as the data in question were. Such excuses for omission are, in my experience, rarely viewed as a problem in publishing. But I’ve found them to be insidious and rampant.

Sins of Ignorance

Much more widely discussed are the sins of data ignorance, of which there are many varieties. Take, as one example, a news article that reports that a particular lifestyle behavior increases the risk for a disease by, say, 75% — a staggering figure at face value. A check of the actual research reveals that the number of people who get the disease is so small that a 75% increase amounts to just a few more cases. Readers mistakenly assume that huge numbers of people who engage in the behavior are at risk for the disease. It’s possible that this was a sin of omission (the journalist didn’t bother to check the original data), but if you talk to the people who report on these types of stories, you’ll more often find that they just didn’t know how to interpret the statistics in the research. Either way, the reader is ill served.

Then there’s the ignorance of how the data were developed. If, for instance, 65% of workers at a particular site were deemed to be “inadequately trained,” what precisely were the criteria for adequacy? And how was the evidence that a worker did or did not fulfill those criteria collected? That’s the type of information that readers really must have to understand the context, yet frequently even the editors never ask to see it, thereby guaranteeing that the readers won’t get access to it either.

The Devil in the Unverified Details

Publishers of many stripes have become intoxicated with the reporting of numbers, in part because consumers have shown that they have a taste for that elixir. The compelling, sometimes shocking statistic dances seductively in the headline, the subtitle, or the callout — and the reader succumbs to its charms. A number, potent and seemingly unassailable, is worth a thousand words. As long as readers and producers of content alike are addicted to the allure of statistics but simultaneously allergic to the task of understanding what’s behind them, the premium on a well-placed, poorly vetted percentage will remain very high indeed.

Quitting a Job: An Act of . . . Poetry?

I’ve heard people say that quitting a job is having the courage to admit that work is not the most important thing in life. For some, that’s true — quitting can be about placing value on things other than earning a living or, more to the point, other than earning respect for earning a living in a certain way. In short, they resolve not to give work more of their time and energy than it truly deserves. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view, and it leads many to make decisions that improve their lives greatly. These practical choices are acts of necessity.

For other people, the need to quit a job emerges from a deeply held belief that work really matters — matters too much to be done in the ways that the institutions they inhabit at the moment demand. They find it hard to watch the potential of human labor — especially their own — strangled by narrow aims that don’t amount to much in the end. These folks, who are often the most talented, don’t merely redefine their priorities and slot work in the proper place. They seek to redefine work itself and to restructure their “working selves,” not just their work schedules, accordingly. Their decisions are acts of conviction.

Whatever the reason someone quits, quitting is indeed an act. Even the most level-headed, drama-free exit from a job (the best kind) puts a person in a contemplative zone, not so much as the decision is being made but in the aftermath — in that curious, breathless void that only big transitions expose. It’s then, just as the lungs begin to fill anew, that it’s most valuable to give yourself the room to speak. That speech can take many forms, not all of them verbal. But I believe it’s important to articulate something while you’re in that space, to loosen the ties around the neck, some of which you may not even have felt before the untying. There’s something about the gesture — about the expressive act itself — that allows you to stretch and grow more fully than you would have otherwise.

For me, that act was writing a blog post about my decision to quit, and then the subsequent serial blog that, by twist of fortune, ensued on hbr.org and now resides here. A much more compelling act on the subject is an evocative poem by the late Robin Blaser, called simply “Quitting a Job.” You can watch and listen to him read it at an event in late 2008, just six months before his death and, strangely, just one week after I decided to quit, by clicking here (start at 17:50).

It’s in witnessing acts like Blaser’s that, I believe, you can begin to discover the poetry of your own act — to hear in your mind’s ear, and then articulate, the voice of what’s possible so that, as Blaser writes so pointedly, “You won’t die strangled.”

Thanks to Cheryl Clark Vermeulen, who introduced me to Blaser’s poem.

Call Me a Part-Timer, Call Me a Nomad

Many people who make their living working multiple part-time jobs aren’t thrilled with the scenario. They say things like “I don’t know if I’m coming or going” and “I’m spread too thin.” The situation usually arises out of necessity, not choice. For one thing, there’s the difficulty in securing affordable health insurance — it’s the 800-pound gorilla. But if you press these wandering workers about why they dislike the nomadic lifestyle, you find that even without that fat ape, their lives often feel like a zoo.

I, too, am no fan of constant chaos. But I also have a fundamental need for variety in the challenges I confront, the people I collaborate with and serve, and, most important, the ways I use my mind. Given all that, on balance I’ve come to appreciate the hodgepodge of multiple part-time jobs I do, even if it sometimes means feeling spread thin. I would rather keep moving and risk fatigue than sit still while the black flies descend.

For nomad workers like me, variety can have a temporal dimension as well. I work part time in new venues, but I also freelance for former full-time employers. Both connections require direct, ongoing collaboration with on-site colleagues. In this respect, the past phases of my work life persist in the present, so that my experiences feel cumulative and mutually reinforcing, not sequential and discrete. Plus, I retain a sense of belonging to, and remain invested in outcomes at, the organizations where I used to be a full-timer. The proof of that, I recently realized, is in my instinctive use of “we” when I talk shop with former coworkers.

That said, conversations about work identity can be a sore spot for me. When asked to label my career, I often don’t know whether I should call myself a teacher, a freelancer, an editor, a writer, or some wishy-washy-sounding mixture of them all. In general, I try to use verbs (what I do) rather than nouns (what I am), but that can sound to certain folks like dodgy language from someone trying to hide that he’s a jack of all trades but a master of none. The more specialized the profession of the person talking to me, the more suspicion I tend to arouse, especially when one of the subareas I mention as being in my repertoire is the one with which he or she identifies. “Call me a nomad,” I once joked in response to such a person. But that self-deprecating label doesn’t make me seem like someone whose labor you’d want to pay for. The proof comes in the work I eventually produce, and so far reputation has served well enough as evidence of my legitimacy (knock on wood).

I also place a premium on establishing strong relationships with the folks at the new places where I work. I involve myself in decision making when that type of participation is welcomed, and I do other extras when I can. Boundaries can, of course, be tricky to maintain when your zoo of responsibilities is populated with animals that don’t cohabitate comfortably. I try to use fences rather than walls as much as possible — to keep the inter-species dynamics interesting without compromising my own safety (read: sanity). There is that 800-pound gorilla, though.

For the moment, the zoo is my professional home, and the animals are the many jobs I do, each one with its own needs and risks but deserving of my affection nonetheless. An itinerant zookeeper with a feed bucket swinging from my hip may not be the most flattering look to sport. But it’s a small price to pay for the freedom, variety, and sheer fascination I enjoy from almost-daily exposure to the sights and sounds of diverse habitats. I’ll continue to wander through them for now, prepared to reassess my choice if my legs and arms and back tire out before my eyes and ears and brain do.