On Editing and Tennis: Learning to Playing Doubles with Yourself

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By Christina Folz

What enables me to excel as an editor is the same quality that makes me bad at sports, among other things. I am the opposite of impulsive — cautious and analytical, often to the point of paralysis.

I’ve played doubles tennis off and on for years. Every partner encourages me to call out whether I can get to a ball in the midst of a match or if they should go for it instead. I try but it’s a struggle. When I attempt to articulate the difficulty, I can feel my partner’s frustration and read her unspoken thought: If I really wanted to communicate, I would.

But it’s not quite that simple. I take information in, analyze it, and then react. Everyone does this, of course, but most are much more capable of operating in what we call “real time.” As I watch the ball coming over the net, I commence a little fireside chat with myself in my head:

“Hey, looks like there’s no way I’m going to be able to get that one,” I suggest.

“You’re right, I’m definitely not in any position to hit that ball,” I agree.

“Great. We’re on the same page. Hey, here’s a thought: Maybe I should consider seeing if my partner can reach it instead and hit it back to our opponents.”

“That’s an excellent idea. Let’s do that.”

Having reached this reasonable and satisfying conclusion, I will at last pass along the message to my vocal machinery that the thing to say in this situation is “Yours!” Unfortunately, by that time, the point has long since ended — which is why I ultimately wind up keeping my mouth shut.

With practice, I’ve been able to lessen the gap between seeing and doing, but progress is slow, and at the end of the day, the problem may be that there is one partner too many on the court.

Yet every day, it is these very conversations with the partner inside my head that help me do my job. It’s not unusual for me to take 10 or more passes at a piece of writing in the course of revising it — that is, I will read it, edit it, print it, and read it again 10 times before feeling satisfied that it is done.

The first few passes are when the heavy lifting occurs — reorganizing and rewriting to address major weaknesses. This is when I initiate a 10-plus-part conversation:

“Hey, you know what — none of what I’ve read so far has made much sense until this paragraph, which explains the theme and gets me excited. Let’s think about moving this near the top.”

“Great idea. The only trouble is that we need some of the information that came before as context in order for that paragraph to make sense on its own at the beginning. What if we recast the paragraph by inserting just the essential facts needed to make it hang together and then moved it to the top?”

“There’s only one way to find out …Hey, you’re right. That’s so much better! It makes me wonder if we might also streamline and move this section over here …”

And so on and so on … until we (I) reach a reasonable and satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it is this notion of self-collaboration that is the origin of the concept of the editorial “we.” Editing allows you to slow down time in a sense — to curate words until they create the exact experience that you want. I really wish I could do that in other parts of my life!

My advice for anyone who wants to excel as an editor is to slow down and not worry about solving — or even identifying — all the problems in a draft in one go-around. It’s not going to happen. You need to break down words and paragraphs slowly and in successive passes. There is no magic formula for the number of times you need to read something and re-work it. It could be three times or it could be 30. You just need to keep at it until it’s done.

And to know when it’s done you have to start, well, talking to yourself. When the conversation moves from making major renovations to quibbling over grammar and word choice, you’ll know you’re close to the end. Finally the talking will stop. Then, and only then, can you can make the call: Game, set, and match.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine at the Society for Human Resource Management and member of AM&P’s content creation committee.