Contributed op-ed case study (4): Editing and revision

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Writing an opinion piece is rarely the end of the process. The editors of your target publication are likely to request revisions. An effective writer budgets time for those revisions and maintains effort and creativity through the revision cycle.

Responding to edits

In the last three posts, I explained how I pitched, researched, and wrote an op-ed on social media for the Boston Sunday Globe. They requested significant revisions in the piece I submitted. Here’s the note I got from G, my editor there.

Hi Josh,

It’s [G] at the Globe writing. Thanks very much for your piece. The argument for the Fairness Doctrine is lucid and compelling. It’s timely, too. This will be a good piece for our readers and we’re looking forward to publishing it.

We do have one significant change we’d like you to make. The first half of the piece, on “filter bubbles,” feels like it’s covering familiar ground. As you note when you mention Pariser’s book, we’ve been hearing about the bubbles for almost a decade now. And we fear that we’d lose readers walking them through territory they already know. So we’d like you to compress all of that (from Moynihan to, “It’s time for regulators to take action”) into a paragraph (maybe some version of your current opening paragraph would do the trick) and get right to your compelling, and original, argument for applying the Fairness Doctrine to social media.

That will make the piece considerably shorter, of course. But there’s an upside! That will give you room to add a couple of paragraphs we’d like you to add elsewhere. Specifically, we’re hoping for a paragraph or two about how the Fairness Doctrine was applied to the television networks at mid-century and what the salutary effects were. That bit of history will bolster your argument and give readers a sense for what is to come if the doctrine is applied to the social media titans.

You’ll find an edit of the piece below. Let me know if you have any questions. I know it’s tough to slice out a big chunk of what you’ve written – I just had to do it for a piece of my own last week – but I do think it will make a compelling piece even better. Hoping you can get back to me by end of day tomorrow.

As I mentioned last week, I had an emotional reaction to this feedback. G was requesting that I cut 1,000 words out of a 2,400 word piece, including quotes and statistics I’d carefully researched. It appeared we were coming at the job of the essay from two different perspectives — I felt the documentation of the filter bubble and its damage was essential to the argument, while he felt it repeated information that the reader most likely already know.

The job of the writer is to serve the audience of readers. Of course, you must also address the feedback of the editor as well, or you won’t get published. But the editor is also representing the needs of the reader. If you and the editor disagree, the disagreement is, at its root, always about the needs of the reader, not the words — and that’s where you need to resolve th disagreement.

In the end I decided to accept G’s position that the reader didn’t need to hear so much justification and background. But it was still my piece, and I was still going to make sure it said what I thought was important. This is crucial — you can’t just do what the editor says, because while they may know the reader, they don’t know what you, the writer, feel is important to say, nor can they replicate your tone or frame of mind.

With this in mind, it’s instructive to have a look at how the lead paragraphs of this article changed through multiple drafts. Here was my next revision:

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But that was before social media. Now, each of does have our own set of facts – bound up in the alternate realities presented to us on social media, biased versions of the truth that have deepened and hardened the partisan divide in America.

According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans say they get their news from social media sites like Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Google’s YouTube and Twitter. But they see skewed news: conservatives are shown content that other conservatives liked, while liberals see liberal content. False information from sites without journalistic standards also spreads quickly within these partisan bubbles.

One result is the separation of “facts” from sources. People who consume news via social media are capable of identifying the originating source only 56% of the time. Northwestern University researcher Jacob L. Nelson found that 27 percent of traffic to fake news sites came from Facebook, compared to only 8 percent for legitimate news sources. Left- and right-skewing TV networks pick up on content from fringe sites spreading on social media, then recycle it into news clips that circulate in those very same social network sites.

Google and Twitter say they’re trying to make things better. A Google spokesperson explained that YouTube’s recommendation system now tends to go from extreme content to more mainstream content, not the reverse. Twitter’s spokesperson pointed out that the company adds warnings on misleading information from political figures like the president. But long-time observers are skeptical. George Colony, CEO of Cambridge-based Forrester Research, characterizes the polarizing result of social media as, not artificial intelligence, but “artificial stupidity.” The result, in his view is “a narrowing of the American mind.”

We need to restore the healthy, multi-perspective discourse that is necessary for America to continue as a viable, unified nation. It’s time for regulators to take action.

G emailed back with this: “It still takes too long to get to your Fairness Doctrine argument, which is really what makes the piece sing. (Also, if we do put this on the cover of the print section, you might not get to that argument before the jump to the interior pages – depending on the layout – and could lose readers.) So I’ve trimmed out a couple of the paragraphs and moved down the paragraph on what the tech companies say. See what you think.”

In response to this feedback, I sent a version that started like this:

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But on social media, each of us does have our own facts: these sites show conservatives mostly news liked by other conservatives, while liberals see liberal content. These biased alternate realities have deepened and hardened the partisan divide in America.

Two out of three Americans get their news from social media sites like Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Google’s YouTube and Twitter. Democracy depends on the integrity of the information we consume, and social media has undermined that. If America is to continue as a viable, unified nation, it must restore a healthy, multi-perspective discourse.

G requested further trims. Eventually, we settled on this for the first paragraphs:

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” These days, though, two out of three Americans get their news from social media sites like Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, Google’s YouTube, and Twitter. And they supply each of us with our own facts, showing conservatives mostly news liked by other conservatives, feeding liberals mostly liberal content.

Democracy depends on the integrity of the information we consume, and social media has undermined that. It has created biased alternate realities that have deepened and hardened our partisan divide. If America is to continue as a viable, unified nation, it must restore a healthy, multi-perspective discourse.

I had taken 1000 words and reduced it to 112. But those were the 112 words that I decided were most important. You can always get to the point quickly if you have to — and you probably should. In this case, I responded to editorial comment, rather than yielding to it. It was still, fundamentally, my writing.

Editing requires a new perspective on the whole piece

You can’t cut 1,000 words and leave the rest of the piece unchanged. As a result of those cuts, I made other changes.

I felt it was important to include the comments from Google and Twitter, so I found a place for them further down.

I also felt a duty to include a quote from Professor Napoli and to mention his book, because it had been so influential in shaping my own thinking. So I went back to my Napoli interviews and content and found a comment of his on a different topic and included that.

I moved the information about the antitrust suits against Facebook and Google to a different spot in the piece, since it would be incomplete without mentioning those news developments.

I also responded to other edits and comments. For example, G felt I wasn’t clear on the original rationale for the Fairness Doctrine — I clarified that. He objected to my calling random people Karens, and I agreed that was misleading. And he asked for proof that ads could work, so I found some evidence for that.

He objected to my quoting Diane Hessan because she is on the Globe’s editorial board, so I replaced her quote. She had testified with firsthand information showing that you can actually change people’s minds, so I had to find other ways to support that finding.

Once G and I had agreed on the content, he sent it on to the main editor of the Ideas section, who had some suggestions of his own — and I made revisions based on those suggestions.

In the end, it took seven drafts to complete the piece to the satisfaction of the editors at the Globe. Here’s the final version, if you want to see how it ended up.

One more thing. Each draft I submitted included a headline. Often, the editors will put their own headline on your piece. But it doesn’t hurt to suggest one of your own. In this case, the headline they used was the one I’d originally suggested.

Was it worth it?

In a word: yes.

Because I had handed in the first draft early in the week, it was published online on Friday morning, two days before it would appear in print. It appeared at the top of the Globe’s home page, and they promoted it in their Twitter feeds. This resulted in a nice surge of traffic to the piece, according to the Globe’s editors.

Then, on Sunday, it led the Ideas section with a huge graphic taking up two-thirds of the page. Again, a lot of people noticed and commented on it — it received 109 comments on the Globe’s site.

I also received a direct Twitter message from a very senior government official. I am following up to see if I can actually influence the creation of policy.

The publication of this essay will have other positive effects for me. It’s put me on the radar of the social media platforms, who will pay more attention to my influence in the future. It was a topic of conversation on a podcast where I appeared, and I expect it to lead to other interviews and media appearances.

And for the people I interviewed, such as Eli Pariser, Philip Napoli, George Colony, it maintains the idea that I’m a voice to be treated seriously in the debate about social media.

This piece was not created to generate business for me, and it won’t. That was not my objective. I created it to generate influence, and in that sense, I believe it was successful.

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