March 13th, 2008

Only Human

I admit it: there have been times my editors irritated me. There have been instances when they requested nonexistent anecdotes, asked for revisions that would introduce inaccuracy into the piece—and even asked me stupid questions. Everybody has an off day, though (plus I appreciate the fleeting sense of superiority thus lent me), so I don’t dwell on these events too much. (Although I do still tell, with great regularity, the story of the editor who made me cry. That will never grow old.)


Now that I am being paid to edit, too (I hesitate to call myself an editor—I do it, but it’s not what I do, if you know what I mean), I find myself saying idiotic things more often than usual.


Because many of the pieces I attempt to edit are of a fairly technical nature, I have made “There are no stupid questions” my mantra. (I know—as a freelance writer, that should have already been my mantra. Ah, well—live and learn.)


But now I understand the value of a new affirmation: “There are no stupid assignments.”


It’s a revelation that’s been building slowly. My first inkling of my assignment-making challenges came when I wanted a piece on “vibrational technology”—I wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded like it involved a plate of some kind, and maybe electricity. The writer I wanted wasn’t available, and someone recommended another. I was thrilled—until I got the piece, which was about vibrational therapy. Not technological at all. Unless New Age is a technology.


There was a piece I commissioned about sleep disorders that ended up being all about a medication. There was a piece that I expected to be all hands-on tips that ended up being more of a rumination.


And then this week, there was my feeble attempt to assign a piece on “the state of healthcare in the United States.” The freelancer is ever so much on top of this subject than I am. He asked questions like, “Do you mean healthcare legislation, or patients’ access to care?”


Oh, I said to myself—I’m just not sure.


I bumbled through our conversation. (I pitied the guy—it made me think of some of the more tongue-tied interviewees I’ve worked with.) Question by question, he led me to decide what it was I really was asking him for, and so we ended up at last with a still vague, but far-more-sharply-focused-than-before assignment.


This conversation, in conjunction with a detailed revision email from one of my best editors (which included some requests that were impossible to fulfill, because there is no connection between events she suggested I connect), gave me an editory epiphany: just as I don’t always know much about the topics I’m assigning to a freelancer, my editors don’t always know much about the topics they’re assigning me. And why should they? No one knows everything—if they did, we wouldn’t need writers to interview people and tell their stories.


Editors are only human, after all. And next time I make an idiot of myself fumbling an assignment, I’m going to remember that.

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