Spot the difference

Early in my career, I worked at Lifehacker as a staff writer. I needed to write three short posts every day, and two long ones each week. My editors were giving me comments and suggestions on all of these posts, but I noticed a tension: as I accepted these changes and resolved comments, they would effectively disappear into a basement-equivalent dropdown menu, never to see the light of day again. I would lose the majority of the feedback that I received.

Later in my tenure there, I would start copying and pasting these comments down to try to make sense of them. I didn’t know it yet, but that was the beginning of a great idea.

Several years later, this dormant idea emerged in full-form recently when I met with Rachel Jepsen, who is currently my writing coach and is also the editor of my book Creative Doing. I was discussing the challenge of noticing my own insights and patterns as a writer, when she suggested that I start logging them. It was a great idea—but how?

So the next time I took in an editor’s feedback, I decided to set up a new, separate, doc. This would be my editing log. It would have three columns:

The quota was taxing; I needed to write three short posts every day, and two long ones each week.I needed to write three short posts every day, and two long ones each week.Show, don’t tell

The left column shows the text before the edit. I usually keep an old version of the same doc open in a separate window.

The middle column shows the text after the edit. I usually accept changes in the doc, and then paste the new version in the log.

The right column shows the immediate responses and impressions I notice and take note of. This might include something as simple as noticing a word that was removed (and asking why?), noticing a paragraph shifting around, or how a paragraph was tightened up. If I’m working with an editor, I’ll try to figure out what they’re trying to say or help me accomplish.

I also note the longer, more open-ended, suggestions or the stronger directives here, often pasting in the direct comment, and write down my ideas, options, and stream of consciousness through the note. What would be a way to achieve the editor’s comment? Is it the right direction for the piece? 

As it turns out, I just met with Rachel again recently and she was happy with this editing log. When I asked her if it was supposed to look like this, she said the log was just a suggestion—and she’s happy with how it turned out.

It’s great to have a record of these changes, and provides a starting point for me to take in my insights and patterns. I’ve started applying the logging idea to other parts of my life. I was originally inspired by the idea of a decision journal, in which a person writes down the decision they make and explores how it turns out 6 months in the future.

One final thing I really appreciate about the edit log; I like that it slows me down. That’s the whole point. I can’t just click-click-click and accept changes quickly; I need to slowly and manually copy and paste edits, and my brain can respond to spotting the differences in the before and after, which I can then write down into a note. R.P. Blackmur’s words to Robert Caro come to mind, “You’re never going to achieve what you want to achieve if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.” Similarly, Ross Gay, in The Book of Delights, “Susan Sontag said somewhere something like any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use.” The editing log is one of those technologies.

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