Being Surprised Makes for Good Writing

Daniel Okrent is a veteran journalist and editor who has worked for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers. From October, 2003 until May, 2005, following the Jayson Blair scandal, he served as the New York Times's first public editor. He is also credited with inventing Rotisserie League Baseball, and is one of two people who have been inducted into the Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame.  He is the author of four books, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist "Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center" and "Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game." His most recent book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" was published by Scribner in May, 2010.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What makes someone a good book editor?

Daniel Okrent: I think that the primary – well there’s some preconditions to be a good editor.  You have to be able to subordinate your own ego.  It’s not your book.  It’s the writer’s book.  You have to help—be willing to help the writer do what the writer wishes to accomplish and not what you would like the writer to accomplish.  That’s number one.  
Number two, is a general sense of empathy.  I guess that similar to what I just said.  Understanding what the writer’s trying to do.  

And three, in my case, frankness.  I mean, it doesn’t do me any good to hear an editor say, “Ah, it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.”  I really want an editor to say, “I didn’t understand this," or "That sentence is awful," or "This stuff doesn’t belong here, it belongs there.”  Now, I won’t always be persuaded, but I want my editor to make that case a firmly and as supportively as possible.  And supportively means not telling me I’m good, but telling me, this is how to be better.

Question:
What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?

Daniel Okrent: I think the best advice I’ve ever had as a writer was, hope that your research disproves your preconceptions.  And push further so that you can get there.  Now that doesn’t always happen, but we all begin on a subject having an idea where we are going.  And the most satisfying work that I’ve always done is when I start going this direction and then I find, oh, no, no, no.  Go back this direction.  

I know writers who have completed books, or nearly completed books and then realize, "Oh my god; I’ve got it all wrong."  Jean Strauss, the wonderful biographer.  Her J.P. Morgan book took, I don’t know 14 or 15 years because she was nearly done when she realized she really hadn’t gotten Morgan right.  And she went back and did it all over again.  The willingness to be wrong and to recognize that is absolutely essential.  

The other great advice is, this is an aphorism that has been attributed to Hemingway, to P.G. Woodhouse, to... I don’t know, every writer of note in the 20th century.  You have to be willing to kill all your little darlings.  By which I mean, or whoever said that meant, you write a sentence that you think is so clever and so perfect and has such great rhythm to it and what a great joke it is, and you fall in love with the sentence for its own sake rather than for what it’s meant to convey.  That’s a little darling that you have to willing to go "pow" and just get rid of it.

Question:
If you were starting out today, would you still want to be a  journalist?

Daniel Okrent: I think that I would still get into journalism if I had the opportunity to.  You know, again, I’d rather play centerfield, or I’d rather be a leader of a 16 piece swing band, but I’m not capable of those things.  So assuming that I had the same set of skills that I indeed do have, I think that journalism... I mean I’ve had a wonderful time doing it.  I have never had a boring day in my career and I think that most journalists will tell you that.  Let me take that back.  My first job as a reporter, I covered sewer boards in suburban Detroit.  [Snore]  You know, that’s not fun.  But once I was established as a professional, never a boring day.  

So I would like to do that.  Now, if I were coming up now, I would be looking and I’d say, oh there are no jobs.  The journalism business is falling apart.  And I would hope that I would have the willingness to live in the cold water flat or whatever I would need to do to get established.  I do think these other forms I’ve spoken about... I think that they will evolve.  They may not be here yet.  I think that the major institutions like The Times will survive and thrive, in somewhat different form.  And I think that there will always be an audience for books.  I don’t think we will have the physical entity necessarily, but the idea of writing as I did in this case, 155,000 words on the subject, and selling it to people who are interested in reading it.  That will still be here and so I would feel—it’s easy for me to say at 62, but if I were 22, I would want to do the same thing for a living.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010


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