Liberally Speaking (6/11/09)

The importance of self-editing

June 11, 2009

By Steve Mount

When you’re writing for yourself, as in a diary, there’s little need to be careful about how you write or even what you write. You can make up facts, twist reality, leave out inconvenient truths.

When you read your diary back to yourself, you do not edit it. In fact, if you edit your diary, correcting for misstatements, you might lose something valuable — how you were feeling at the moment you put those thoughts down.

Similarly, fiction is, by definition, one big, long lie. I recently wrote a short story that is based on a trip I recently took to Hershey, Pa. Aside from the fact of the trip itself, however, none of the events in the story actually happened to me.

When you read back a piece of fiction, you will notice inconsistencies that need to be corrected, lest you jar your reader with them. But you generally don’t correct misstatements, because the entire thing is a misstatement.

When you’re writing “the news,” though, you have an entirely different set of rules to live by. The writer is responsible for telling a compelling story, but more than that, the story must be true, it must be accurate.

If you write, you might find, as I do, that you fall in love with your words, that you come to see them as little children. You don’t want to cut any of them — you lose your objectivity.

When I was a reporter back in college, I developed quite a love/hate relationship with my editors. They would take my stories and rearrange, reword, cut. I hated each revision, dreaded seeing the edited copy. But, invariably, my story was better because of the editing.

Later in my college career, I became the editor, and my hope was that when I rearranged, reworded and cut, I was doing my writers a favor, making the stories tighter, more readable. But even then, when I wrote hard news, I insisted that someone, anyone, edit my stories. The story, the integrity of the words, was more important than the writer.

Had I not been in love with my words, I would have been able to self-edit. But with my objectivity gone, it took a disinterested third party to keep me, and my words, honest. It is this love of one’s own words that seems to be dampening the self-editing skills of the famous right-of-center commentators.

Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, touted by both the left and right (and by himself) as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, has repeatedly, unabashedly and unashamedly spread half-truths, innuendo and outright falsehoods. Democratic Sen.-elect Al Franken of Minnesota went so far as to write a book, with Limbaugh as a prime example, called “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly repeatedly called Dr. George Tiller a “baby killer” and equated him with Hitler, Mao and Stalin. After Tiller was gunned down in his Kansas church, several right-wing Web sites repeated O’Reilly’s rhetoric as they applauded and justified Tiller’s death. O’Reilly half-heartedly decried the killing, but we are not fooled.

Most recently, the right’s attack machine has been twisting a comment by Associate Justice-designate Sonia Sotomayor about the ability of a female Hispanic to render neutral judgment. They all came to the intellectually dishonest conclusion that she is a “racist.” The futile attack was leveled by Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Charles Krauthammer, Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson and, of course, Rush Limbaugh.

Some of these personalities, after taking a step back, decided the rhetoric was over the top. Gingrich, for example, apologized for using the term. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama called for an end to the name-calling.

I understand how hard it is to self-edit — it’s even harder when your words are spoken rather than when they are written. I also understand that for these commentators, it is a part of their job to be loud, brash and controversial. But with their wide following, self-editing is a skill they would do well to hone.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.