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Editing the Declaration of Independence

“Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was edited and corrected to some extent by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Where Jefferson had written, ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,’ Franklin substituted ‘self-evident for ‘sacred and undeniable.’ In the famous opening sentence Jefferson had written, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people’; Franklin changed the word ‘a’ to ‘one.’

The moment the draft of the Declaration was submitted to the Continental Congress for approval, Benjamin Harrison rose to his feet and said: ‘There is but one word in this paper which I approved, and that is the word Congress.’

After a great deal of spirited discussion pro and con, four hundred words were cut from the first draft. In some cases strong words were changed to weak ones. By the third day, Jefferson … said he was ‘writhing.’ Benjamin Franklin came to his aid, not only with editorial advice, but with full moral and parliamentary support. Thus the basic structure of the document was retained and its integrity preserved. …

When Jefferson was seventy-three, in the year 1816, he wrote to a friend: ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I know that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading; and this they would themselves would say, were they to rise from the dead. … Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.’ …

On another occasion Jefferson said: ‘I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.’ ”

—M. Lincoln Shuster, A Treasury of The World’s Great Letters (New York: Simon and Shuster), pgs. 170–71. (Yes, that’s the Shuster who co-founded Simon & Shuster.)

I often think of the world’s great writers of old as untouchables: men and women beyond question, inspired beyond measure. Yet, as Jefferson so acutely observes, they were like us. The difference being their time, place and decisions. Jefferson’s time and locale involved distress, yet he made the correct decision. (more…)

The Agreeable Editor: A Walking Paradox

I recently heard an editor say, “There’s only one phrase you need to know in the editing business, ‘Okay.’ ” That seems fine on face value, but being agreeable doesn’t get you far. You want to advocate for the audience, not the writer.

Writers don’t know best. I sound like a zealous editor when I say that, but don’t forget that I’m a writer too. I expect the people who edit my work to know what’s best for the audience. (And yes, someone edits everything I publish, outside of blog posts. Everyone needs an editor.) I expect my editors to know my audience better than I do. I expect them to challenge me.

I stopped editing for a company at one point because they thought I was too aggressive. I figured that they thought I knew best, and that’s why they hired me. I was wrong. They wanted me to gently coach the writer into reducing the word count, and carry out the writer’s will. I thought they wanted me to translate the author’s words–to make the writer applicable, not make the writer happy. In retrospect, I could have been clearer on objectives, eliminated assumptions, and spent more time building trust with the writer. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference in this scenario, but it would have been worth the try. Nonetheless, I learned something–here’s what I learned.

Most writers don’t want a real editor; they want someone to fix their grammar. It turns out that most people are not interested in creating a book that people will read front to back; they’re interested in expressing their thoughts. And, they value every one. Who can blame them?


Editing is Translating

Editing is translating—translating someone else’s thoughts and technical language into something practical and useful.

Someone recently told me that knowing Hebrew will help me read government documents because they’re written in a foreign language. Academics and lawyers alike don’t write in English; they compose documents in specialist-English. Even specialists don’t like to read the work of other specialists. That’s why they hire graduate students, paralegals, assistants and interns to summarize things for them. They want the raw data. So why do we hide the raw data behind bad writing? Because it’s safe.

If you can’t understand what I have written, you can’t argue with me. If I’ve modified one phrase five times, how will you know what I’m really saying?

Unapproachable is unhelpful, unless being unapproachable gives you and your work clout. In that scenario, it’s job security.

I fight this battle every day. I take the words of other people and I translate them. This makes what I write, edit and publish easy to attack. You know exactly what I’m saying. You know exactly what hills I’m willing to die on. And if you don’t, then I haven’t done my job.


Your Elevator Pitch about You: 7 Tips

You never know when someone important will ask you, “Tell me a little bit about you—your background, etc.” You don’t want to freeze, look stupid or forget to say the right things. You also don’t want to ramble because that’s boring. You want to state just the facts. (Who can argue with the facts?) If you are really awesome, the facts will speak for themselves.

I recently spent some time developing my elevator pitch about me—my 60-second pitch about who I am. I have one for Bible Study Magazine, one about my company, and one about my publishing projects. But I didn’t have one about me: the things that define me.

Sounds very existential: Who are you? Seriously, though, everyone needs an elevator pitch. If it doesn’t fit into an elevator ride, then you need to edit it. (With the help of my wife, I edited mine.)

I learned seven things by editing my elevator pitch:

  1. Transition words are important. Try “In addition,” “And,” “During that time,” “But,” and “Also.” Transition words are your mental cue. They also help you be succinct.
  2. Use a narrative arc. Tell the story of your life: some conflicts, challenges, climaxes and successes. Also try adding a failure that you learned from, or a failure that you turned into a success. (more…)