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Who's in the Video
Daniel Okrent is a veteran journalist and editor who has worked for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers. From October, 2003 until May, 2005, following the Jayson Blair scandal,[…]

“The best advice I’ve ever had as a writer was, hope that your research disproves your preconceptions. And push further so that you can get there.”

Question: What makes someone a good book editor?

Danielrn Okrent: I think that the primary – well there’s some preconditions rnto be a good editor.  You have to be able to subordinate your own ego.  rnIt’s not your book.  It’s the writer’s book.  You have to help—be rnwilling to help the writer do what the writer wishes to accomplish and rnnot what you would like the writer to accomplish.  That’s number one.  
Numberrn two, is a general sense of empathy.  I guess that similar to what I rnjust said.  Understanding what the writer’s trying to do.  

And rnthree, in my case, frankness.  I mean, it doesn’t do me any good to hearrn an editor say, “Ah, it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.”  I really wantrn an editor to say, “I didn’t understand this," or "That sentence is rnawful," or "This stuff doesn’t belong here, it belongs there.”  Now, I rnwon’t always be persuaded, but I want my editor to make that case a rnfirmly and as supportively as possible.  And supportively means not rntelling me I’m good, but telling me, this is how to be better.

rn What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?

Danielrn Okrent: I think the best advice I’ve ever had as a writer was, hopern that your research disproves your preconceptions.  And push further so rnthat you can get there.  Now that doesn’t always happen, but we all rnbegin on a subject having an idea where we are going.  And the most rnsatisfying work that I’ve always done is when I start going this rndirection and then I find, oh, no, no, no.  Go back this direction.  

Irn know writers who have completed books, or nearly completed books and rnthen realize, "Oh my god; I’ve got it all wrong."  Jean Strauss, the rnwonderful biographer.  Her J.P. Morgan book took, I don’t know 14 or 15 rnyears because she was nearly done when she realized she really hadn’t rngotten Morgan right.  And she went back and did it all over again.  The rnwillingness to be wrong and to recognize that is absolutely essential.  

Thern other great advice is, this is an aphorism that has been attributed to rnHemingway, to P.G. Woodhouse, to... I don’t know, every writer of note rnin the 20th century.  You have to be willing to kill all your little rndarlings.  By which I mean, or whoever said that meant, you write a rnsentence that you think is so clever and so perfect and has such great rnrhythm to it and what a great joke it is, and you fall in love with the rnsentence for its own sake rather than for what it’s meant to convey.  rnThat’s a little darling that you have to willing to go "pow" and just rnget rid of it.

If you were starting out rntoday, would you still want to be a  journalist?

Daniel rnOkrent: I think that I would still get into journalism if I had the rnopportunity to.  You know, again, I’d rather play centerfield, or I’d rnrather be a leader of a 16 piece swing band, but I’m not capable of rnthose things.  So assuming that I had the same set of skills that I rnindeed do have, I think that journalism... I mean I’ve had a wonderful rntime doing it.  I have never had a boring day in my career and I think rnthat most journalists will tell you that.  Let me take that back.  My rnfirst job as a reporter, I covered sewer boards in suburban Detroit.  rn[Snore]  You know, that’s not fun.  But once I was established as a rnprofessional, never a boring day.  

So I would like to do that.  rnNow, if I were coming up now, I would be looking and I’d say, oh there rnare no jobs.  The journalism business is falling apart.  And I would rnhope that I would have the willingness to live in the cold water flat orrn whatever I would need to do to get established.  I do think these otherrn forms I’ve spoken about... I think that they will evolve.  They may notrn be here yet.  I think that the major institutions like The Times will rnsurvive and thrive, in somewhat different form.  And I think that there rnwill always be an audience for books.  I don’t think we will have the rnphysical entity necessarily, but the idea of writing as I did in this rncase, 155,000 words on the subject, and selling it to people who are rninterested in reading it.  That will still be here and so I would rnfeel—it’s easy for me to say at 62, but if I were 22, I would want to dorn the same thing for a living.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010