PROFESSOR L GOES TO SCHOOL,
LEARNS A PAINFUL AND EMBARRASING
NOW HE SAYS, ‘DON’T YOU MAKE THE
Using a term I learned when I was in the Navy a long long time ago, I must admit to having recently “screwed the pooch” due to poor choices I made which led to certain behaviors on my part. Thus, in keeping with the finest tradition of a professor always looking out for teaching opportunities, here is one I want to share with you in the hopes that you will be wiser than the ole professor was when a similar opportunity comes knocking on your door.
This is a story of blind agendas, stupidity, inappropriate trust, misleading emails, and matters of competence regarding my thoughts on the manned space program for an invited essay for the New York Times Freakonomics blog. This story started back on Dec. 28, 2007 when I received an email from the editor of the Freakonomics blog. I was invited, along with 4 or 5 other authors, to answer the following question: Is manned space exploration worth the cost? Why or why not? The email said that while there was no word limit, a 3 to 4 paragraph article was a typical response. I accepted the offer knowing that my comments had to be received by the close of business on Dec. 31, 2007. What follows is my opinion concerning the essay I submitted to Freakonomics. While what I am sharing with you is subjective, I am striving to be as fair as possible regarding the events concerning the editing and publishing of my article. As others were involved, they might have a different opinion. This would include my editor who helped me with the essay and the editors associated with Freakonomics. I let the Freakonomics editor know about my unhappiness with the edits and I assured the record would be set straight through a special Space Show program planned for Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008 after the regularly scheduled program. I even invited the Freakonomics editor to listen and even call in or email the show. I extended the same invitation to my own editor, Mel Marsh. Now, let me tell you the story.
As I started writing down my response to the question in the invitation, my article rapidly expanded to nearly 2.5 pages. Working with Mel as my editor, the piece was refined and professionally edited for grammar and clarity although the length of it remained long. As I was pushing the deadline to the limit, I decided to submit my article even though I expected it to be rejected due to its size. If the Freakonomics editor had responded saying my article needed to be edited down to 3 or 4 paragraphs, I would have been happy to have condensed the piece myself or I would have asked my space-knowledgeable editor to do so. Either way, it would have maintained my ideas in the spirit in which they were intended. Although it was New Year’s Eve, both my editor and I were available in the event the piece needed to be dramatically shortened to be accepted.
Instead of a rejection for length, Freakonomics responded with the following “:…this is great – really informative and well-written. I may need to cut it a bit for space’s sake – I’ll try to cut as little as possible, but we do want to keep the full piece in a readable format for the average blog reader (who typically doesn’t have much time.” Perhaps it was my trusting nature or my desire to see my own agenda supported, but I believed the Freakonomics editor. I forwarded this acceptance email to my editor and said we did not have to do any more for the article, it was accepted as is. I should have known better, but instead, I bought the editor’s comments to me, lock, stock, and barrel! Boy, was that a dumb move on my part. Talk about abandoning critical thinking and discernment skills. I clearly won the prize for doing just that!
When my essay was published on the New York Times Freakonomics blog on Jan 11 2008, I found my piece severely and very poorly edited in my opinion. I also believed it to be taken out of context. I was stunned! This is not what I expected given the editor’s email to me when the essay was accepted. Clearly, I was blindsided and I should have known better. I believed that my essay would not be cut much, and that any editing performed by Freakonomics would be satisfactory. I let my personal agenda and desires block me from reality. Had I listened to my own advice and did what I talk about all the time on The Space Show, the Freakonomics editor would never have had the opportunity to edit my essay. Yes, they have the right to edit the piece, there is no argument with me on that issue. They even have the right to do a poor edit job if that is what they need or want to do or if poor editing is all they are capable of doing. My piece was long, so I have no problem or complaints regarding their need to cut it back. I do have a problem with the misleading email I was sent and, of course, what I consider to be a poor editing job. Since it is never too late to learn, I wanted to write down my lessons learned in a format conducive to others learning from me in order to avoid making my mistakes.
It is important to maintain a certain degree of caution when dealing with the mainstream media, especially mainstream media editors. Even in the event an editor tells you there is no word limit or that they will cut your work as little as possible, don’t be fooled. Like many of us, mainstream media has an agenda and a focus, and it is unlikely to be shared by those of us committed to space development. Our field can be highly specialized, we know far more about it than any editor, and we believe in it. Don’t make the mistake that I did in thinking our passion, vision, excitement, and knowledge can be spared the editing knife. The focus of the publication is what is important to the editor. I have learned that when we write for mainstream publications, we cannot and must not provide editors with “wiggle room” that they can use to alter our words or take them out of context. This is particularly true if they are uneducated about the subject or, even worse, in disagreement with our space perspective. So, I would urge each of you to ask for final approval over editorial changes or to be assured that you will be given the chance to alter or fix your submission prior to it going to press. I doubt you will get editorial control, especially if the publication is against a hard deadline as many are. Therefore, the trick here is to assure that tight editing is done before the publication ever gets your article. You have to do it yourself. While this is still no guarantee you will be pleased with how your work is published, it’s a far better approach than the one I took. By being shrewd, realistic, and understanding the nature of the beast you are dealing with, you can go a long way in avoiding a bad edit job and the subsequent embarrassment it can cause. Also, please remember that one would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the accusations against many mainstream newspapers for often flawed or even distorted reporting, journalism, and editing. The bottom line for me was that I knew shoddy editing and misinterpretation were both possibilities and still I allowed my excitement and my belief in what I wrote to override my common sense. I violated a set of principles I always try to follow, which is to do the best I can with what I have and then be unattached to the outcome. When one is attached to the outcome, one often encounters unexpected or unforeseen problems. I got attached to the outcome of being published in Freakonomics, read by possibly millions of people, and getting good PR for The Space Show, educating readers on space development issues, etc. Being attached to the outcome set the stage for disappointment, poor editing, and embarrassment among my peers and Freakonomics blog readers. When all this happened, initially I was furious. Finally, I was able to step back and see that I could convert this experience into learning and teaching lessons and that is what I am now doing.
When my essay was published, I again realized that I’m not yet too old to learn a valuable, painful, and embarrassing new lesson. Thus, I tell you, The Space Show listeners, this story so you won’t fall into the same trap I did. If I can leave you with only one lesson, let it be this: You must do your own tight editing, do not rely on the publication’s editors to do this for you. Don’t give editors the room to play with your words and thoughts. Don’t believe their good intentions.
You can read my edited essay at this location: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/11/is-space-exploration-worth-the-cost-a-freakonomics-quorum. Make sure you read the other essays as well as these authors have outstanding comments and perspectives. In fact, given that several of the authors have been guests on The Space Show (see the Guest Search page for more information), I contacted them to see if they were OK with the editing done to their answers. As I found out, they did not make the same mistake I made. They each provided Freakonomics with a tightly written piece so the editor had little to change. I learned much from my exchange with a few of the other authors.
What follows is the actual set of emails that were exchanged by the Freakonomics editor and me. I have removed the email addresses and the editor’s name because the editor who did this is insignificant and I do not want attention focused on this person. If this particular person were not the editor, there would have been another and I am sure the same thing would have happened. Focusing attention on an individual diverts from the lessons learned about the publication process. This is not about any particular person other than my letting you know my experiences and why I should not have
been so trusting. It also about providing all of you with a red flag warning should you have the opportunity to publish in a mainstream publication.
You can hear this story in my own words by listening to the special Space Show program recorded live on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008. The show is titled “Lessons Learned, Lessons Taught” and I am the only person on the show, other than listeners participating as they do on all Space Show programs. Visit http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/875-BWB-2008-01-20.mp3 to hear this special program.
My full essay can be read at The Space Review by visiting http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1040/. Scroll down on this page to read the relevant Freakonomics email exchange. The emails follow in the order received, starting first with the invitation to be one of the authors to answer the Freakonomics question.
1. Received from editor on Dec. 28, 2007:
David, Hi, I’m the editor of the Freakonomics web site on the New York Times Online. We cover economics and social policy issues, and draw over 3 million readers a month. We run a feature on the site called the “quorum”– a single question put to 4 or 5 authors, scholars and experts from different fields. (You can see past examples here and here.) We’d be thrilled to include your response in our next quorum, which involves space exploration. (See below.)
We plan to run the item next week and we’re on a tight deadline, so if possible please return your response to me no later than Monday, Dec. 31. There is no word limit, and typical responses run from 3 to 4 paragraphs (though brevity is encouraged). All responses will be edited for Times style, but not content. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail or phone —- or ——–/
QUESTION: Is manned space exploration worth the cost? Why or why not?
2. My submission email to the editor on Dec. 31, 2007:
I was unable to cut it much, I do apologize as its much longer than four paragraphs. I hope you can use it. Let me know if you have any questions, etc.
Thank you for this opportunity.
Happy New Year to you.
3. Acceptance email from editor on Dec. 31:
Subject: Re: Promised space article by David Livingston
Hi David – this is great – really informative and well-written. I may need to cut it a bit for space’s sake – I’ll try to cut as little as possible, but we do want to keep the full piece in a readable format for the average blog reader (who typically doesn’t have much time). I’ll let you know when the full piece is published.
Thanks again, and Happy New Year!