‘Yeah, I’m defensive. You gotta problem with that?’

Laurie Hertzel goes searching for counsel on how to take criticism more gracefully

Laurie Hertzel, writing coach at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, posed an intriguing question:

“Why is it so tough for so many of us–myself included–to be edited?”

'Yeah, I'm defensive. You gotta problem with that?'

'Yeah, I'm defensive. You gotta problem with that?'

Laurie continues:

“I don’t know about you, but I hate it. Gets my back up. My first reaction is to think whoever is editing me is wrong. I calm down pretty quickly, but that first flash of resentment can be fierce. I think that’s true for a lot of writers–maybe even for most writers.

“Even tougher is being criticized later. If editing feels like meddling, critiquing can feel like second-guessing.

“And I don’t mean to put this only on reporters. Editors can feel that same flash of annoyance when someone questions an assignment or an edit.

“This is all very human, but it sure isn’t the path to self-improvement–or to newspaper improvement–which makes it worth examining. Why is it that in a job that is meant to shine a bright light on others, we squirm when that light is trained on us?

“Maybe the answer is self-evident. Maybe a better question to ask is: How can we put those feelings aside and concentrate on making the story as good for the readers as we can?”

Laurie decided to ask around and printed some brief responses in the Star Tribune’s writing newsletter, Above The Fold. For reasons that will become apparent, this hit a nerve with me. Check it out:

“OUR FIRST-DRAFT CULTURE”
By Chip Scanlan
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies

Say I’m a reporter who’s just spent a lot of time and hard work on my story. As David Von Drehle of the Washington Post puts it: “Newspaper writing, especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated – the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure.” And say I’ve done it all, lots of reporting, thinking, agonizing, planning, writing and rewriting, until I’ve gotten it to the point where I’m ready to turn it in. As a writer, I think, “I’ve done my best.” Then the editor comes back and says, in effect, “It’s not good enough.”

The problem is that the reporter is confusing the best effort with the best story.

Von Drehle is right; newspaper writing is hectic, complicated and damnably difficult. Often we need help–a fresh eye–to help us meet the challenge of communicating information, knowledge and experience to another human being, using just ink and paper.

I think our first-draft culture has much to do with it. Instead of seeing revision as our best chance to succeed with a piece of writing, we view it as a sign of our failure. Perhaps that’s because we’ve invested so much of ourselves into that draft that we can’t bear to see any of it changed or challenged.

Better to turn in something that we know isn’t perfect with an eye to finding the promise and the pitfalls in it and the path to a clear, concise, readable story.

As for inertia, I believe it (like defensiveness) masks fear. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of exposure, fear that my best isn’t good enough. Fear creates a barrier as thick as that door in “Panic Room.”

The only key may be for the editor to stress to the writer that he or she is good, that he’s got a lot of good stuff, that it could go in the paper right now (hell, the truth is, when the deadline bell rings any and all crap goes in; our dirty little secret), but that there’s also a chance to make it better, clearer. Newsrooms need understanding, a bit of compassion, and above all, a commitment not to the writer’s point of view or the editor’s, but to what the readers’ will be when they pick up the paper.

“EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR”
By Susan Ager
Columnist and writing coach
Detroit Free Press

We’re defensive as a profession, because we grieve every day that we don’t have more time and more space.

If we did, we could write literature. As it is, we write only a “first draft of history,” and that embarrasses us. Our attitude toward criticism is, “Geez, whadya expect from somebody on deadline?”

When a big project befalls us, the feelings flip. This time, our product can be perfect. We make sure it is. So any word of criticism hurts worse: At our best, we’re not good enough.

I try to remember a few things as I lay my tender ego down to be edited or critiqued:

When I was 5, I thought I would grow up, by age 30, to know everything. Ha! Life is about learning, not knowing. Nobody learns by listening to themselves. Good writing, like wisdom, is a process, not a destination.

My editor is my first reader. He may be stupid, clueless, impatient, lazy or oversensitive–or all of the above. But so are thousands of other readers I’d hate to lose. As novelist John Irving said: “This is your reader, paradoxically–a genius with the attention span of a rabbit.”

Every good athlete has a coach, to say “Attaboy!”, “Attagirl!” or “That ain’t your best, pal.” The more I achieve as a writer, the less cheering I need and the more kicking. Sometimes it hurts, but it moves me places I might not have gone on my own.

“YEAH, I’M DEFENSIVE. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?”
By Bob Baker

I was going to write a couple hundred words about why people in our business have so much trouble accepting criticism, why we’re so defensive–when it dawned on me that the easiest way to do it would be to speak in the first person.

Herewith, a confession.

I work full-time as a line editor, and I have a lot of strengths. But my biggest weakness is an inability to accept some forms of criticism–and, at times, to hide from it, to reject it, to get angry over it, to feel disrespected by it.

Which is stupid. And juvenile. Because I could make stories better if I were better at accepting criticism.

Instead, I employ a series of defense mechanisms–most often, “I’ve got too much to do; I’m working as fast as I can,” or: “I’ve been doing this for 32 years!”–to avoid taking a hard look at the parts of my game that could benefit from improvement.

Here’s another defense mechanism: I convince myself that 80 percent of other people’s criticisms of my work, or suggestions or ideas about my work, are bullshit. That allows me to arrogantly disregard these people and to avoid the relatively simple process of using the worthy 20 percent that would make me–and, thus, the stories I’m responsible for–better.

I can tell you why I do this. I do it because I’m insecure. (As far as I can tell, this covers 96% of the people in our business. The other 4% are mentally ill.) And I confuse the acceptance of criticism with the admission of failure.

Anybody out there got the same problem? That’s OK; I wouldn’t admit it, either, had I not been asked to comment on the phobia of defensiveness. But do me a favor: Try opening yourself up a little. Try to welcome advice. Try to seek it out. Just a little bit more.

See if you can get past that hurdle of resentment or insecurity. Try letting go of the hero/failure paradigm, because we all know it’s never that simple. We all know it’s a collaborative process. We all know how far away we are from our true best selves.

Me, I hereby promise to listen more and sulk less, to pay more attention to the message and less attention to the flaws of the messenger.

“TRUST AND OPENNESS COMES FROM THE TOP”
By Peter Leo

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Newsrooms are macho places, and I’m not talking just about the women. We’re famous for our swagger, our toughness, our ability to keep a lid on emotion. But scratch a hard-boiled journalist, and you find one insecure paranoid living in constant fear that his work doesn’t measure up. I’m not the only one.

Here’s the great Jim Naughton of Poynter: “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a journalist of any substance who did not come to work every single day secretly thinking: `Today’s the day they’re going to catch on.’ It isn’t, of course, true. But it’s what we all fear. And so we drive ourselves to be better than we think we’re capable of. We don’t, as a rule, need bosses piling on. What we need is empathy, support, collaboration, encouragement, guidance, empowerment.”

I know what you’re thinking: There must be something in the water that those pointy-heads at Poynter drink down there in St. Pete. Empathy? Empowerment? Is this the same hard-nosed, chicken-costume-wearing Jim Naughton of New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer legend?

Turns out Naughton–and I know this sounds far-fetched–is human. This is just a guess, but so are the people at the Star Tribune. Every newspaper has its share of slugs, prima donnas and burned-out cases. But the more I observe my own newsroom the more I’m convinced that Naughton is on the money. Defensiveness is the mask for insecurity.

So if you want to break down a defensive culture and create an atmosphere of openness where people talk freely about how they and the paper can get better, it starts at the top, with editors who are in touch and engaged with their people on a regular basis; who are willing to admit to their own frailties, not just yours; who look down the chain of command, as well as up; who know that listening is a two-way street.

Now, back to reality. If I’m not mistaken, Tolstoy (or was it Lou Grant?) once said, “Happy newsrooms are all alike; every unhappy newsroom is unhappy in its own way.” Yours probably is one of those boring happy ones, but the Post-Gazette brand of unhappiness turns on our unique blend of camaraderie and jealousy, swagger and insecurity, played out by a band of solo acts in need of some good orchestration. (And that’s in good times! I’m not even talking about the hiring freeze and budget cuts.) If this isn’t enough to get me fired, I’ll add that our newsroom suffers from the culture of the second guess.

Reporters and middle-level editors are more likely to hear about what they missed or screwed up than they are to get recognized for what they did well. This tends to make people defensive. It also explains why angst levels run high at contest time. Too many people’s sense of self-worth rides on what some contest judge in Boise or Little Rock, who may well have no taste at all, thinks of their work.

Don’t get me started on contests. The journalist Alexander Cockburn once observed that British journalists, to alleviate pangs of inferiority and insecurity, turn to drink, while Americans prefer prizes. The Brits have it right. Contests absorb too much of a paper’s energy and resources and can send the wrong signal to the staff. They don’t honor the day-to-day consistency that is the real triumph of journalism.

I know this is heresy, and I’ll grudgingly admit it’s better to win contests than to not win them. But while winning (usually) spotlights fine work, not winning does not diminish fine work. What matters is day-in and day-out consistency. What matters is what informs and connects with readers. What matters is that editors notice the fine work of their writers, photographers, graphic artists and desk people, and acknowledge it with praise and an occasional pay raise.

Egomania and griping are newsroom staples, but if editors offered more recognition for day-to-day excellence than for contest-winning it would be a better world.

We have a cunning arts and entertainment editor, Allan Walton, whose best editing tool is a dish of candy. People tend to like candy, so A&E reporters drop in on Allan often and talk. Sometimes it’s just shooting the breeze; sometimes it actually relates to journalism. This is feedback and engagement at its best–casual and part of the routine. He learned from our two-way individual evaluations that staffers wanted more of his time to–get this–talk about story ideas and beat development. So in addition to the monthly staff meeting, beat people meet briefly with the A&E editors weekly.

The A&E people hardly ever win contests. They’re merely very good at what they do, and their editor makes sure they know it.

NICE DEVICE, PART I

Kim Murphy of my paper’s national staff wrote an everyday 969-word piece about evacuations in the massive wildfires in Colorado. It ran on Page A-27, but to me it was the most affecting piece in the paper that day because Kim employed a simple device. Evacuees in the town of Florissant were permitted the briefest time to grab their possessions before evacuating. Kim decided to put you in this crucible by stabbing you again and again and again and again with the time limit:

FLORISSANT, Colo. — When there are only 10 minutes to snatch up the pieces of your life, which pieces do you pick?

Do you look for the lost cat? Clean up the spoiling food? Grab your tax documents, your mother’s jewelry box, your daughter’s kindergarten drawing of you? Or do you simply sit in your living room and try to remember what it was like when you lived there?

A dozen or more cars lined up at a roadblock here Saturday morning for a chance to briefly visit their past lives–before the 137,000-acre wildfire drove them from their homes more than a week ago, before home became a cot in a shelter, a tent in a neighbor’s yard, an air mattress on a friend’s living room floor.

Residents of the wooded creek subdivisions north of here were given 10 minutes, and no more, to drive up the closed road to their homes, see if they were still there, and gather what they needed before leaving again.

“Ten minutes goes by real fast,” said Cindy Swager, who waited nearly an hour in line before driving in with her husband. “We had a list made out of the things we wanted to get so we wouldn’t forget anything.”

The Hayman fire, the biggest in Colorado history, entered a nerve-rattling period of uncertainty over the weekend, as the calm, moist conditions of the last few days once again gave way to warm, dry winds–the most dangerous kind of fire weather, with the potential to whip flames over miles of fire lines laid by firefighters.

“I’ll be totally surprised if we don’t lose it someplace,” fire information officer Bobby Kitchens said early in the day. “As you can tell, I’m pretty tense. The test is coming. It’s practically here….The predictions were for winds of 35 miles an hour. Well, the winds outside are already 40 miles an hour.”

For the 7,900 residents evacuated from communities on the fringes of the blaze, the weather forecasts meant scant hope of returning home any time soon. Most emergency officials said it would be at least Monday before any substantial areas were reopened for residents to return. About 800 have returned so far.

At the high school in Woodland Park on Friday night, county officials were reading lists of streets touched by fire and asking residents who lived on those streets to accompany them to a small, private room outside the gym. There, they shared photographs of burned homes in a process strangely reminiscent of the rooms at airports where relatives of dead passengers are ushered.

Counselors were present. Some left the room in tears, huddled on the shoulder of a friend. Most left with long, quiet gazes straight ahead, not having anything to say.

For most of those lined up at the Florissant Grange Hall, there was the reassurance of knowing the fire was still at least two miles from their homes, possibly farther.

Still, several expressed a similar sentiment: In a region already reeling with loss and peril, they wanted to see for themselves, to lay eyes on their own house, see it still standing there in the trees–if only for 10 minutes.

“How much can you get out in 10 minutes?” asked Lance Roberson, a National Park Service employee who still had $40,000 worth of classic cars–Mustangs, Fairlanes, Cyclones and Cougars–in a garage near his house, uninsured and vulnerable. Roberson was able to move out only about half of his 18-car collection when the evacuation order came down last week.

“Ten minutes is a crock, quite frankly,” he said. “I don’t see how they can keep you off your own land. The whole thing doesn’t make sense.”

Al Dreher, a retired trucker who has lived in the Indian Creek area for 20 years, was determined to water his potted plants, and it was going to take longer than 10 minutes. He said the deputy waiting outside his door to escort him out again better not try to stop him.

“I’m going to get them watered, no matter how much time it takes,” he declared. “I’ve got a lot of time and money invested in them, and I’m not going to lose them just because of 10 minutes.”

Swager and her husband had their list: The bentwood rocking chair their children had painstakingly re! stored for them, some photographs, the Vita-Mix blender.

“It’s like the Rolls-Royce of blenders,” Jack Swager explained. Also on the list: doing something with the turkey they had left defrosting in the kitchen. “It went out the door,” Swager said.

Most residents of the Indian Creek neighborhood had no time to plan their flight 11 days ago. Many said they went to work in the morning only to receive urgent phone calls from friends and relatives later in the day that the area was being evacuated.

“All of a sudden, they were coming with loudspeakers down the road, they were saying, ‘Get out now!’ ” Cindy Swager said.

Ken and Delores Bradford took the most important items the day they left: family photos and their John Wayne videos. Now they wanted to get a few more items, but mostly, Delores Bradford said, they wanted to see the house, to make sure it still was there.

“I’m so excited to go in,” she said, laughing nervously as they crept up in the line of cars.

Ten minutes later, on the way out, she was crying. No, she said, the house was fine. It wasn’t that.

“Even though we know it’s safe, it was hard to leave,” she said. “I don’t know why. It’s a mess! Because I’ve dumped everything all over the floor trying to find what we need.” She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t care. I’ll be happy to clean it up.”

NICE DEVICE, PART II:

A few days after Kim’s piece ran, New York Times op-ed economics columist Paul Krugman employed an audacious device–the ice cream parlor business–to explain the outbreak of fradulent schemes at so many large and once-respected corporations. Krugman did not employ this all the way through; he didn’t need to. He merely used it in the second through fifth grafs to show us four types of deceitful conduct.

You don’t have to be a columnist to engage in this explanatory technique; you just need the brains to recognize when a complex story requires a simple metaphor–and the courage to employ it:

So you’re the manager of an ice cream parlor. It’s not very profitable, so how can you get rich? Each of the big business scandals uncovered so far suggests a different strategy for executive self-dealing.

First there’s the Enron strategy. You sign contracts to provide customers with an ice cream cone a day for the next 30 years. You deliberately underestimate the cost of providing each cone; then you book all the projected profits on those future ice cream sales as part of this year’s bottom line. Suddenly you appear to have a highly profitable business, and you can sell shares in your store at inflated prices.

Then there’s the Dynegy strategy. Ice cream sales aren’t profitable, but you convince investors that they will be profitable in the future. Then you enter into a quiet agreement with another ice cream parlor down the street: each of you will buy hundreds of cones from the other every day. Or rather, pretend to buy–no need to go to the trouble of actually moving all those cones back and forth. The result is that you appear to be a big player in a coming business, and can sell shares at inflated prices.

Or there’s the Adelphia strategy. You sign contracts with customers, and get investors to focus on the volume of contracts rather than their profitability. This time you don’t engage in imaginary trades, you simply invent lots of imaginary customers. With your subscriber base growing so rapidly, analysts give you high marks, and you can sell shares at inflated prices.

Finally, there’s the WorldCom strategy. Here you don’t create imaginary sales; you make real costs disappear, by pretending that operating expenses–cream, sugar, chocolate syrup–are part of the purchase price of a new refrigerator. So your unprofitable business seems, on paper, to be a highly profitable business that borrows money only to finance its purchases of new equipment. And you can sell shares at inflated prices.

Oh, I almost forgot: How do you enrich yourself personally? The easiest way is to give yourself lots of stock options, so that you benefit from those inflated prices. But you can also use Enron-style special-purpose entities, Adelphia-style personal loans and so on to add to the windfall. It’s good to be C.E.O.

There are a couple of ominous things about this menu of mischief. First is that each of the major business scandals to emerge so far involved a different scam. So there’s no comfort in saying that few other companies could have employed the same tricks used by Enron or WorldCom–surely other companies found other tricks. Second, the scams shouldn’t have been all that hard to spot. For example, WorldCom now says that 40 percent of its investment last year was bogus, that it was really operating expenses. How could the people who should have been alert to the possibility of corporate fraud–auditors, banks and government regulators–miss something that big? The answer, of course, is that they either didn’t want to see it or were prevented from doing something about it.

I’m not saying that all U.S. corporations are corrupt. But it’s clear that executives who want to be corrupt have faced few obstacles. Auditors weren’t interested in giving a hard time to companies that gave them lots of consulting income; bank executives weren’t interested in giving a hard time to companies that, as we’ve learned in the Enron case, let them in on some of those lucrative side deals. And elected officials, kept compliant by campaign contributions and other inducements, kept the regulators from doing their job–starving their agencies for funds, creating regulatory “black holes” in which shady practices could flourish.

(Even while loudly denouncing WorldCom, George W. Bush is trying to appoint the man who drafted the infamous “Enron exemption”–a law custom-designed to protect the company from scrutiny–to a top position with a key regulatory agency. And some congressmen seem more interested in clamping down on New York’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, than in doing something about the corruption he has been investigating.)

Meanwhile the revelations keep coming. Six months ago, in a widely denounced column, I suggested that in the end the Enron scandal would mark a bigger turning point for America’s perception of itself than Sept. 11 did. Does that sound so implausible today?