Criticism & editing

“I could never be a writer,” my friend said at dinner last night. Why? “I couldn’t stand the criticism.”

We’d been talking about editing, so that surprised me. I’d just quoted Hemingway’s line about everyone’s first drafts being shit.

Once you recognize that everyone writes crap, how can there be any shame in editing?

editing is not the same as criticismStill, people hate the very thought of editing. So they do one of two things: they avoid writing, like my friend; or they publish crap. I couldn’t survive at either of those extremes. So I write. And I edit.

We’re more than two-thirds of the way through my 12-week writing class. And I still haven’t talked about editing. It’s coming—not this week, maybe the next. If I think editing is so important how could I leave it so late in the course? Because I wanted to get my people writing.

I wanted to give them the space to write without being self-conscious about whether they’re doing it “right.” So they take their weekly writing prompts and run with them, or they write on their own projects. And they feel more confident every day. They’re starting to believe me when I say that they have all the tools they need to “find their voice” or write for a business audience or incorporate humor into their work. That “writing” is not something other than what they’ve been doing their whole lives—and that they can refine what they’ve been doing instinctively to make it even better.

I’ve taught them to start everything with the same sentence–simple, but true: “I am a good writer.”

And they are, amazing and creative. It’s a joy to watch them come into their own.

Is editing criticism?

That’s not to say I haven’t made suggestions. They’re not paying me to be a cheerleader. And a good thing; I have terrible pom-pom technique. I’ve even offered to edit one piece for each of them, so they can see what I would suggest.

But I hope they don’t think of editing as criticism. Certainly not the first edit—when you’re editing yourself. I think of it as pruning (and that’s an analogy my friend would understand—I wish I’d thought of it last night). Or sculpting, which, as Michelangelo explained was merely chipping away at the marble until everything that wasn’t the statue was gone. Sometimes our ideas get encrusted in words and they need us to free them. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Some writers may dread the editing process. I don’t, perhaps because I don’t think of it as “editing.” I think of it as the second (or third, or…) stage in writing.

Everyone does it. There’s no need for criticism, or shame.


Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

Stephen Miller – not just a soulless drone; he’s also a speechwriter

When I saw Stephen Miller’s dead-eyed national TV debut a couple of Sundays ago, I shivered. Defending the Republican president’s Muslim ban, he looked like a balding seven-year-old—a soulless balding seven-year-old—reciting lines from a particularly heartless school play. Or as my friend the anonymous versifier behind the new blog TrumPoetry put it:

The henchman whose name is Steve Miller
Has the eyes of a serial killer
One’s inner self dies
After so many lies
And one’s heart has been left in the chiller.

I’ll have more about TrumPoetry in a few days. But today I want to talk about Miller. Because he’s not just a henchman with the eyes of a serial killer; The New York Times tells us he’s also—and, Reader, you may picture me gagging as I write this—a speechwriter. Currently Twitler’s speechwriter.

Stephen Miller & the speechwriter’s lot

Stephen Miller isn't just a soulless drone; he's also a speechwriterIt won’t surprise you to hear I am in violent disagreement with every word Miller writes, including (to repurpose Mary McCarthy’s comment about Lillian Hellman) and and the. But I’m not here to discuss the substance of his speeches. Instead, I want to highlight some things The New York Times said about his process.

Before joining the campaign, Miller wrote speeches for his boss Jeff Sessions. Born and raised in Alabama, and with an advanced educational degree—a J.D. from the University of Alabama—the lawyer Sessions has followed a very different path than the Republican president he and his erstwhile speechwriter now serve. Twitler doesn’t hold any advanced degrees, just a B.S. from Wharton’s undergraduate program. Sessions has that soothing Alabama drawl and a successful lawyer’s command of the English language; Twitler has…well, you know.

Imagine trying to write for both men. Impossible! You’d need to be part-impressionist, part-psychic. And that’s pretty much the job description for a good speechwriter. The Times tells us:

It is sometimes hard to tell Mr. Trump’s voice from that of Mr. Miller, who suppressed his own orotund speech to capture the president’s more visceral, off-the-cuff style.

This is Speechwriting 101, and Miller seems to have mastered it. The Times report continues, with a description that will seem all too familiar to my speechwriting colleagues:

Not that he has had much choice: As one of three or four staff members to fly around with Mr. Trump during the last few months of the campaign, Mr. Miller was summoned to speechwriting tasks by a bark of “Ready!” from Mr. Trump, who insisted on dictating practically every word — and laced into staff members who changed a word or inserted an overly complex policy point.

Here I feel almost sorry for the putz. I mean, if you’re going to hire someone who knows how to write a speech—let him write a speech. Don’t turn him into a human Dictaphone. Especially if your own command of the complexities of language and thought is…well, you know. It’s like if Pope Julius II had wandered into the Sistine Chapel and told Michelangelo just to lay down a nice coat of white. Eggshell finish, for easy cleaning.

Still, given the worldview articulated in Twitler’s speeches, perhaps we’re all better off not having them written in the most stirring and memorable way possible. The guy is probably happier with a nice coat of white, anyway. Here’s hoping Stephen Miller gets the job he deserves.


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A Starry Night Again: art and storytelling

One of my favorite moments on Joni Mitchell’s first live album, Miles of Aisles, happens when a fan calls out a request for her to sing “Both Sides Now.” Joni says something like:

You know, that’s the difference between singing and the visual arts. Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Hey, paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!” He painted it and he was done. He didn’t have to do it again.

Now, of course Joni played “Both Sides Now” in that concert. And she’s done it again many thousands of times since. But what do we expect when we hear an artist sing a song we love? Do we want to hear the exact sounds she made in the studio, or do we want to hear what the song means to her at that moment?

To judge from the few pop concerts I’ve gone to in the past couple of years, often these days audiences expect the same kind of visual stimulation they get from a music video. That could mean something as innocuous as images streaming on the background screen while the artist sings. Or it could mean having to pound out the exact choreography from the video—complete with dozens of sweaty backup dancers. And then people are outraged when they discover the star was lip-synching!

Is replication Art? I have no doubt someone could take the exact measurements of Michelangelo’s “David” statue and, given a big enough 3-D printer, spit out another one just like it. Art? Maybe to some people. But I love the idea of knowing that the artist turned rough stone into smooth “flesh” with the crude instruments he had at his disposal. When I stand before that statue, I feel an emotional connection to its creator. A 3-D “David” would be an amazing feat of replication. But—in my opinion—not art.

Now, Van Gogh could well have “painted ‘A Starry Night’ again.” Not exactly, of course—he didn’t have a 3-D printer. His subsequent “Starry Nights” might have been better in some way, or worse. But they would still be art, because they would be products of the human brain and heart—not just mindless reproductions. (See Monet’s “Haystacks.”)

So when I hear a singer sing a song I love—whether it’s her own song or someone else’s—I don’t want unswerving faithfulness to the original. I want to hear how the artist connects to the song herself.

Because you can’t tell someone else’s story. Whether you’re singing a song or giving a speech, you can only authentically tell your own story. That’s why canned jokes at the front of a speech never work as well to connect you with an audience as a true story about something that happened to you. Even if you’ve got to retell a story—the origin story of your nonprofit, for instance—you pick out the moments that resonate with you and craft the story around those. You don’t just stand up there and recite a bunch of facts.

Tell your story. Whenever you speak, speak your truth. It’s the best way to make a lasting impression.

Too much of a good thing

I told some friends how buildings make me cry, and my friend Sam Bennett reminded me of something called Stendahl Syndrome, which a headline writer for Psychology Today wittily dubbed “Having an Art Attack.”

I’ve never had a work of art render me catatonic, or require hospitalization, although I think Florence, Italy, could overwhelm anyone. I’ve only visited briefly, but even at the tender age of 9 I remember it as wall-to-wall art. Heck, they didn’t even need walls. They’ve got art everywhere. I even remembered having seen Michelangelo’s David in a plaza somewhere, although every photograph clearly places him indoors. Not so! Apparently Florence is so besotted by the statue they’ve put replicas everywhere (second from the bottom is the one I remember).

Kind of like the Statue of Liberty replicas you see in every tourist area of New York City.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 6.34.12 PM

Anyway, if Stendahl Syndrome doesn’t prove that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, I think the photo above definitely does.

I don’t cry every time I see a work of art. But I definitely cuss up a storm when I run into selfie-snappie tourists in Times Square.