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Being Surprised Makes for Good Writing

Question: What makes someone a good book editor?

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

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

\r\n What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?

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

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

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

If you were starting out \r\ntoday, would you still want to be a  journalist?

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

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

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

"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."

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