Proofing the Proof of the Proof of the Proof

Proofing the proof









We’re just about ready to publish Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas. We’re really proud of it, and super excited to get it out there into the world.

Do you hear the enthusiasm in my voice? The unfettered joy and pride? No? Well, that’s because I’m on my fourth round of proofs. I’m proofing proof after proof after proof so I can send off for a REAL proof. I find things to fix every time, which is why I keep proofing proofs.

My question is, when do you call it done? When do you just say “good enough” and put it out there. I know people who are frozen in their tracks, incapable of finishing anything at all because they can’t deem their project “perfect.” Those tracks are a maddening place to stand.

I heard a Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History podcast that touched on this, though it was primarily about how genius is achieved; how it evolves and different approaches to creative pursuits. The episode was called “Hallelujah” in reference to the gorgeous Leonard Cohen song (covered here by Jeff Buckley).

Apparently, Cohen wrote more than 80 verses over years and years before ever bringing it out. The result is pretty damn close to perfect. But, what if he’d gone with an earlier version? Would he have saved himself years of frustration and angst? Would anyone have noticed but him? Would even he have noticed after some space? How much better, really, was the final take?

Not that I’m comparing this book to a Leonard Cohen masterpiece, but many writers can probably relate. At some point, you have to put it out there, even if it’s terrifying. Even if there’s a lowercase “a.m.” when it should be uppercase and all caps. Even if I forgot to mention a super awesome place to park near Home Slice pizza. Even if there’s a spare comma on one (or more) of the 120 pages. Even if it’s not perfect.

I’m practicing with this here blog post. Forget proofing–I’m not even going to reread it. It’ll be like one of those awesome OK Go one-shot videos. Of course, you can’t publish a book done in a single take, but surely there’s a balance between first draft and a soul crushed by one too many proofs.

Generally Speaking, You’re Special

There is more than one school of thought about whether journalists should be specialists or generalists. Some argue that specializing is really important–for marketability of the journalist as well as their ability to cover a particular subject. For example, a lawyer would have special insight into the Supreme Court; someone with a science background would have more aptitude for reporting on global warming.

Obviously, if you’re someone like Ezra Klein, you need to be an expert in politics. Or, if you’re Dylan Byers, you need to know the media. Those guys are beat reporters (in addition to being semi-celebrities), though, and if their brains weren’t about to explode from all the knowledge they have in one area, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs. If their heads weren’t about to explode, someone else would have their jobs.

There are also well-known freelance writers who are pretty specialized. Karen Asp’s health-centered articles can be found monthly in one or more women’s magazine, for example.

Others argue, though, that generalizing is the way to go. At least, you need to know a lot about a lot in order to be a good journalist. Think about the small-town  reporter who must cover City Hall, public schools, crime and education. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll develop a pretty solid understanding of everything their readers need to know. Think about Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He can talk engagingly about pretty much anything.

As a person who does not have semi-celebrity status in any particular field, I have always thought of myself as a generalist (by necessity as much as anything else). Until recently, if I had to explain what kind writing I do, I might say I write about health-mental health-psychology-human rights…at least most of the time. 

About a year ago, I learned a good lesson in the importance of thinking of myself very, very generally when an editor asked me to write a business article about company culture. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think of myself as a business writer. He pointed out that an article I’d written for Psychology Today about overachievers was very much a business story, though I hadn’t thought of it in that context.

Since then, I’ve written six “Biz Idea” articles for Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, most recently about managing time wisely and mentorship. I also contribute to a blog about collaboration in the workplace.

I guess the point is that I wasn’t thinking of myself in general enough terms. As a freelancer, it was an eye-opening reminder that you can tap into new markets if you just think about how to apply your ideas to different outlets and audiences. Now, if someone asks what I write about, I say health-mental health-psychology-human rights-business…at least most of the time. 

Words for Sale!

Words for sale!

It’s a pretty good life, working as a freelance writer. I get to read lots of cool stuff by smart writers, learn new things, and puzzle out pretty ways to put words together. At the end of most days, I can point to something that hopefully educates, entertains, enlightens or otherwise makes someone’s day a little fuller than it was before. Not a bad gig. 

Like any job, though, there are challenges and frustrations. Like fruitless pitching, unstable paychecks, confounding edits, dry spells, the sometimes overwhelming pull to know at least a little about pretty much everything in order to stay relevant.

On the other hand, those challenges and frustration have a flip side. Like the excitement of coming up with what feels like a good idea, working with talented editors who make you look better, the freedom and creativity that often come with dry spells, knowing about some fascinating people, places, and things. 

It’s because of that push to be relevant that today I’m switching my web site from a beautiful, but static format to this more utilitarian, but livelier way of doing things. I already know it comes with its own set of benefits, challenges and frustrations. Mostly, I’m a smidge worried about this blog. It demands attention, calling for reasonably interesting ideas and words that may be difficult to muster. We’ll see.

So, in the spirit of a Shel Silverstein poem wherein a little boy offers up his little sister to the highest bidder…

Words for sale! But not just any words. Carefully chosen words, affectionately assembled into useful little packages like magazine articles, op-eds, press releases, key messages, media plans, and the occasional self-indulgent essay.