If you’d rather hear this as a podcast than read it, you’re in luck! Episode 8: Your Baby’s Ugly.
So you’ve made it out of the dark forest. You’ve finished…something! Congratulations!
But if you think you’re completely out of the woods, you’ve got another think coming. It’s time to subject that adorable tender baby story to the rigors of critique: you’ve got to get an edit.
I mean, you want it to grow up big and strong, don’t you? Don’t you?!
I’m on record calling Focus Sessions, critiques, and editorial collaboration “magic pixie dust.” Which (aside from being a phrase I never thought I’d use seriously in my life) can feel…inaccurate at this stage.
OK, more than inaccurate. A really good edit is a really tough edit, and that can feel like a real step backwards. After all, you had a thing, it was complete, it approached, to all appearances, some semblance of “done.”
And now? Let’s be real: edits, critiques? They look like a mess. You’ve got a bunch of people sitting around going…
“cut that part,”
“I don’t understand this character,”
“why is this important?”
…and the worst:
“mmh, enh? I dunno, something’s wrong here…”
They are pulling the piece apart. They’re undoing all the great work you’ve done. They just don’t get it! And meanwhile you’re sitting there trying to take it all in with a big fake smile on your face, feeling like the piece will never get there. Ever.
So what’s all this “magic” stuff? What’s magic about the exquisitely uncomfortable process of subjecting yourself to critique?
On episode 7 of my podcast (called Dark Forest…give it a listen here) producer Benjamin Frisch and I decided we needed to run ourselves through the gauntlet of a serious pro edit on an episode of Out on the Wire, both as a way to improve ourselves, but also so we could talk frankly about how this whole process works, from experience.
We had already done a finished mix of episode 7. We could have aired the episode as-is. Any other episode, we would have. In fact, every other episode, that’s exactly what we did. But this time we sent it to some pros—Robert Smith and Jess Jiang of Planet Money—to find out what they had to say. And boy did they have things to say.
Robert and Jess did like the overall tone and feeling of the show, but very quickly they got right to the heart of it. For example, they had some problems with the pacing.
Robert: So my first big note was, you start this essentially four or five times. You do a long explanation of this is what the podcast is and then you do sort of another explanation of this with the podcast is, and then you do an explanation of this is what we’re going to do. And then you do it again.
Jess: I really felt like the Jad Abumrad tape of German forest, Wagner, that’s where I was like, this is something I can hang my hat on. I will remember this moment. And this is when I felt like the false starts were over.
Robert: You don’t hear Wagner until like seven minutes in.
Seven minutes in?! Jeezus. I’m thinking: oh, man, I’ve been wasting like seven minutes plus of people’s time EVERY SINGLE EPISODE??
Jess: What exactly is the point or the structure of the whole piece? Because I think I got a couple of feelings.
I had one idea that it was kind of a survey of all of these great producers and reporters and just them talking about the dark forest. Or is it a show that’s supposed to tell you how to get out of the Dark Forest?
Because if it’s that, then you need the problem, and then a structure for the solutions. Which was was a little hazy from what I listened to.
Robert: I’m 100% with Jess on this.
What’s the point of the piece? What’s the point of the piece? If I haven’t managed to say that, what have I said?
So we worked our way through the whole show, reordering big chunks, adding signposting—that thing where we tell you: hey guys, this is the really important part!—and cutting, cutting cutting, all in service to the idea we wanted to convey:
“There is this dark place in the middle of writing, it’s really scary, but it’s normal: everyone goes there, and you will get out. Here’s how to do it.”
In the end, we cut about 6 minutes and rewrote and rearranged about a third of the show. It’s a very good thing we then had a 2-week holiday break, because it was exhausting, emotionally and physically.
Now, when you listen to Episode 7: Dark Forest, you have a sense that you were on a ride with us, that we journeyed into that dark forest, and out of it, together. You feel along with us the pain of the experience, and then maybe feel a bit less alone with your own creative crises. You also walk away with an idea of how you can get better through that experience next time it happens.
At least, that’s what I hope happens. And if the message was clearer, or more emotional than in other episodes, that’s the almost-unseen magic of the edit. The episode shines. It’s the best piece of audio we’ve made.
How it works
I’ve been using the example of an audio edit, but comics critiques, or prose edits, work the same way. If you’re bored reading a comic, or confused reading a novel, or zone out in an essay, that’s all legit feedback that the author needs in order to make it better. But how often do we really get this essential feedback? And then, how often do we listen?
How can we do more critiques, and do them better?
Part of the secret to why narrative radio and podcasting is so strong is that it’s audio, and therefore producers necessarily have to read or say their stories out loud at some point. This puts them at an advantage over other narrative forms, because that “saying out loud” part, which sounds so basic—almost dumb—is a big part of the magic.
- At the conceptual stage, you can hear if your idea rings false in your ears.
- At the writing stage, you can hear if your dialogue sounds like something a person would actually say.
- You can feel when you trip over your sentence structures, possibly because they don’t actually make sense.
- You can see what happens on your listener’s face
- That awkward pause when no one knows what to say? That gets your brain revving, looking for what’s missing.
- And that’s not even counting what the other person might have to suggest…
OK, so you’re convinced. You’re convinced, right? You’re gonna sit down and read your story to someone, or ideally a group of someones?
But then, what? How do you actually do it? Or more to the point, how do they do it?
The number one tip I learned from all these super-experienced editors is that you don’t have to be a super-experienced editor to have good feedback. Here’s Robert Smith and Jess Jiang:
Robert: It’s funny we talk a lot here about the reporting process and about the writing process and structuring process. But editing is super hard to talk about because you’re essentially talking about your internal feelings.
Like, I don’t know how Jess feels. I only know how I feel. and I have to pay attention to the moments where I’m confused, and the moments where I’m bored, and so weirdly editing becomes this almost like biofeedback kind of thing, where you’re literally saying to yourself, how do I feel listening to this? I’m listening to it. But how do I feel? Do I feel anxious? Do I feel impatient?
Jess: Yeah, it took me years to figure this out, because for the longest time I would have a feeling, but not quite know how to articulate it, and not be able to find the source of it.
Now I’ve finally gotten to the place where I’m like, oh I’m bored. Like that’s why I’m not liking this part.
I am so wrapped up in that that…this is joy. This is the feeling of feeling delighted by this.
Robert and Jess use a technique that Alex Blumberg brought over from This American Life, called hand-logging. It’s almost like an edit EKG—it’s a way to monitor the biofeedback you’re producing, as it happens.
They write down just a single word or two for each idea that comes up, and as they go, they write little symbols next to spots where they had some feeling about what they think should happen. Everyone does it slightly differently: Tape cuts get indented, arrows down mean speed it up, a big circle means boring, a question mark means you’re confused, or whatever. You can make up your own symbols.
Here’s a page of Robert’s hand-log of the Dark Forest episode.
It’s a way to create a picture of the whole piece on just a sheet or two of paper, a way to remember what you felt as you listened.
Robert: I used to edit a long time ago. And when I would get bored or start to think about other things, I would blame myself.
I was just like, ugh, I’m a bad listener. I’m a bad editor. Stop thinking about dinner. Stop thinking about all the other things your life. Focus focus focus focus focus on the story.
And it was not until much later that I realized, No, that’s not my job. It’s the job of the host, it’s the job of the reporter to keep me interested. So if my mind’s drifting, that’s not a failing on my part as a listener. That’s a failing on your part as a storyteller.
And that’s something that needs to be fixed in the edit.
So: pay attention to your attention, as a listener. And take some notes. Later, you can work on having really sharp suggestions for how to fix things. But to start? Just listen and feel. You don’t need the answers. Trust how you feel.
For example, Robert had some very specific feelings about how our episode ended. As with the beginning, he had that “ending” feeling multiple times, way before we got to the challenge, even.
Robert: So I’m listening at home this morning, and the point came to where I thought it should end, and I just stopped it and went to brush my teeth. And then I came back and I listened to the rest of it.
Jess: You’re like, oh there’s another seven minutes here.
He BRUSHED his TEETH.
Any narrative artist who does not listen to that edit is a fool, and deserves whatever they get.
So if critiques and edits are so damn great, why doesn’t everyone do them? I mean, yes, they’re a lot of work. And then you’ve got so much more work to do on your story afterward, to incorporate what you learned.
But that’s not it. The real reason people don’t do is that they’re scared.
I was talking to Snap Judgment host Glynn Washington about why edits can get so emotional. He put his finger on how it feels:
“This is still your baby, this is right here, Here’s my baby. Well, we think your baby’s ugly.”
We love our stories like our sweet little babies, even when we’re most down on them. Maybe more than ever in those moments: we feel more protective when we know they’re a little bit weak. It’s really hard to listen to criticism, and sometimes even harder to incorporate it.
Even Ira Glass takes it hard (he just knows better than to let it show).
Jessica: When you’re getting edited, you get mad about it?
Ira: I totally get mad. I’m a goddamn baby.
And I mean, I know it’s not good to show that. I know better, I try to keep it to myself. But I’m a big baby.
I totally have a part of me which is just like, do you know who I am?
I know what I’m doing. I’m really good at this. I hired all of you. And you work for me. That’s right underneath the surface.
And I totally know that I’m completely in the wrong. There’s no question. I’m 100% in the wrong. They’re right and I’m wrong. It’s like, Encountering your own failure.
And believe me when I tell you I know what this feels like. I recorded an audio diary in the midst of reworking the Dark Forest episode.
The edit is destabilizing. It pulls the rug out from under you a bit. There are moments when that can feel kind of good—it can lead to a breakthrough idea. But then there are moments when you think, No, wait, I thought I knew what I had here. And you realize that you don’t. That’s when it gets really difficult.
I rewrote the Dark Forest episode at least four times. Ben and I went through three full versions, tracked four times. Ben remixed the show twice. We got it out that Monday by working all weekend. But it is better than any other episode by miles, and all I really regret is that we didn’t have that kind of edit every single time.
Focus sessions, critiques, and edits are shortcuts to excellence.
Get better at helping others make their work shine. It’s a wonderful gift to give another storyteller. But it’s not all altruism: every time you work through a story, you learn more about your own work, and how to improve it.