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by Peter Moskos

March 3, 2012

On Deadline. On Writing. On Editors. On Getting Paid.

In line with my last post, I got an email around noon yesterday from my favorite editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. We worked together on my flogging piece.

He asked if I could write 1,000 words on James Q. Wilson. Quickly. For $500. Why, yes, I replied, I think I can. I've always been pretty good with the op-ed length. And $500 is pretty good pay for 1,000 words. On this blog, 1,000 words pays me $0.

So I went into my all-too-rare "on deadline" mode. It's just like those newspaper reporters you see in old movies. Writing a book, I average about 100 words a day. So I rather like writing on deadline. It helps me get shit done. So I turned off the internets and got cranking. Six hours and three drafts later, just before few friends rang my doorbell, I had 1,000 decent words. I ripped the paper out of my warm humming typewriter and yelled "Copy!" (Actually, I just sent an email.)

I got a reply pretty quickly saying it wasn't crap (every writer's fear). Actually, in the editor's words: "I think this reads really nicely and has a refreshingly different spin than most of the ink that will be spilled on Wilson this week." I'm happy with that. So I was able to go to bed happy that my time and effort were not wasted.

This morning I had a little coffee and my draft came back to me, magically improved. Wilson's bio had been filled in. Umpteen parenthetical phrases magically got pared down to three. Syntax improved. The opening line was better.

I do love me a good editor. Nothing better than going to bed, and while I was dreaming of microphones dispensing samples of tasty Asian beef broth (what can I say? That was my dream), it was like little elves--very literate and skilled elves--were hard at work, fixing my work. Just like those little scrubbing bubbles on the TV ad. And then, at the end, everything is all shiny and I get all the credit. Strange world, the writing world is. (So thanks again, Alex, all the other fine editors I've worked with.)

Today we clarified a few minor edits. For instance, my editor flagging "Wilson's co-authors spanned the political spectrum." We decided it would be better (ie: more true) to refer to the "authors in volumes Wilson edited."

I said that "somewhat intellectually dishonest" should be put back in a parenthetical phrase since I'm taking a step back from a more authoritarian author's voice to make what is, honestly, a snide little comment.

And I changed "practitioners who liked Wilson and Kelling got their hands dirty" to "practitioners who liked Broken Windows got their hand dirty." Why? Because Kelling actually did get his hands dirty. And by listing his name in that context, it makes it sound like he didn't. More accurately we could have said something like, "practitioners who liked Broken Windows, including co-author Kelling, got their hands dirty." But that didn't flow as well. And besides, this piece isn't about Kelling (a very good man). It's about Wilson.

Such edits may seem minor. But they're important. And parsing and manipulating phrases for meaning and clarity is the part of writing and editing I actually love. (It's creating the damn words on a blank screen that drives me bonkers!)

And then it's done. I'm pleased to write a piece about James Q. Wilson. He was a monumental figure in criminal justice. And besides, $500 for a day's work (plus a few hours) ain't bad. Mitt Romney makes $500 every 12 minutes and 7 seconds.

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