Words matter. And I’m not just echoing the sentiments in Dictionary.com’s choice for word of the year.
Or, I’m echoing those sentiments, but by way of framing a project we're working on about climate truth.
The research required to complete the project is powerful—it makes the stakes of climate change clear and tangible, and it also illustrates the impact of language and usage on an incredibly high-stakes issue.
Most people implicitly know that if language doesn’t exactly shape the world, it nonetheless shapes our understanding of ourselves and our shared experiences. The fact that this knowledge is implicit (which is to say that it goes unexpressed) just makes it harder to really grasp how words can change comprehension.
The impact of language is more explicit in political discourse. Take “truthiness”—a word coined in 2005 to describe the tendency among politicians (and others) to vacillate on facts when politically expedient. In 2018, the phrase “fake news” is preferred, although it is most commonly deployed to undermine information with which the speaker does not agree, regardless of truth value. Both terms work to define “misinformation,” but in opposing ways that can change the sense of what constitutes “the truth.”
When it comes to climate change, Dr. Genevieve Gunther, director of endclimatescience.org, argues that language has shaped "the truth" so as to prevent action. In “Who is the We in ‘We Are Causing Climate Change?'” Gunther points out that the use of “we” defines a collective in which everyone is assigned equal blame. The problem? This is demonstrably false: Millions of people—in America and elsewhere—have nothing to do with a structural reliance on fossil fuel and couldn’t affect meaningful change no matter how hard they were to try.
While the job of “we” in any piece of writing is to establish a collective identity, by doing so, it establishes a boundary that can be coercive and—in the case of climate change—completely unhelpful. Using language that ensures that everyone is responsible effectively disables any one person from pointing out that some groups (people and entities) are a whole lot more responsible…and have the power to make the kind of real change that many, many people want.
It's but a tiny word in the comprehensive ocean of language, but—like "misinformation" and "the truth"—"we" turn out to matter quite a lot.
If you're prepping to labor over a big writing project, you've likely got a lot to consider. Maybe you're hammering out the logistics of collaboration. Maybe you're plotting your strategy to avoid self-handicapping during the writing process.
And maybe you're considering hiring a professional editor. For a high-stakes project, the cost–benefit analysis of working with a professional editor is a no-brainer. The right editor will efficiently and exponentially improve your final product. Full stop.
But, as with any specialized professional, the more you understand about what an editor can do for you, the more satisfied you’ll be. So, what will the process look like, and what should you expect in the end? That depends on a few things—first, on the type of edit you're hiring someone to perform.
While there's not always a hard-and-fast line between the different types of edits (a handsy copy editor might tend to veer into line edit territory, for instance—self-identifying here), make sure that you know what kind of edit you need, and that you and your editor are on the same page about those needs.
In a future post, we'll talk about what to expect in terms of the process of working with an editor.
“Well, if I work really hard and can’t get it done, at least I’ll know I just didn’t measure up.”
My client’s words about the project’s viability disturbed me. Not because I hadn’t heard them before--I hear them all the time!--but because they’re so misplaced.
Her words confirm the pretty much universal truth of every social scroll: When it comes to self-knowledge, it’s always the wrong people who think they know too little (uh, or too much). And I’m only slightly tongue-in-cheek about “universal truth,” too. So much research tells us that we frequently (maybe even usually) overestimate our abilities in some areas (Dunning-Krueger), while radically underestimating our abilities in others (Imposter Syndrome).
Of course, my client may not be suffering from anything at all, but she was certainly deploying a related (anti-)strategy--self-handicapping.
When a person self-handicaps, they put up obstacles to thwart their potential achievement. I might, for example, put off researching a project until it’s too late to do it at all. This (rather obliquely) lowers my own expectations and thus deactivates my potential anxiety—I didn’t give myself the time to do the necessary work, so it's no big shocker when it doesn’t go well.
In the case of my client, the anxiety produced by embarking on a giant, life-changing project seemed to cause her to self-handicap—lowering her bar for achievement at the outset to just “getting it done.”
I completely understand the sentiment, and not just because I’ve heard it before. I’ve felt it myself (who hasn’t?). But self-handicapping, a cognitive response to the anxiety caused by the strength of our desire for achievement, keeps us from succeeding, even when (especially when) we really want to. It may not seem like it has the capacity to thwart ambition and derail projects, but it absolutely does. I mean, the aim to “get it done”—ever for a big project—isn’t much of an aim at all.
There’s a better way to tamp down this kind of anxiety, and that’s to articulate your goals. It sounds new-agey, or maybe Big Magic-ky (sorry), but it’s actually the opposite. Naming what you want your project to achieve forces you to figure out why (sometimes if) your project matters to you. This seems like it would ratchet up anxiety intolerably, but in fact it helpfully delimits both the project and your goals. More importantly, it helps displace anxiety away from the project, ensuring that it functions as a vehicle and not itself an end.
Ultimately, if you have something that you want to create—something big—don’t tell yourself if doesn’t matter, or that all that matters is that you get it done. Instead, buckle down and articulate (to yourself, to a colleague, to a professional) why it matters and what, exactly, you want to achieve with it. I helped my client do this before doing anything else, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to soon report back on her mileage.
Sometimes (maybe often), a big or ambitious writing project can suffer esoteric emergencies.
A writer might experience a crisis of confidence (or might suddenly birth a punitive inner editor). A writer might experience a crisis of interest (an initial effluence dries up). A writer might experience a crisis of life’s mundane (or monumental) messiness.
Broken confidence, eclipsed interest, and interrupted work are annoyingly inevitable. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to ensure a project’s survival (if, by “pretty easy,” we agree to mean “biting a stick and bearing down through streams of sweat and tears”).
But sometimes these crises, when left untreated, threaten survival. For big, ambitious writing projects, there is no inoculation (for either project or writer), but a little preparation and a lot of triage can ameliorate some damage.
Preparation (if you’re like me) means: 1) reading the books on maximizing creative productivity, 2) prioritizing/scheduling your time, and 3) “mastering” the enigma of a balanced life. Also 4) making spreadsheets, to-do lists, and/or bullet journals (that will eventually/inevitably mock you as you miss deadline after [self-imposed] deadline).
Preparation is important, of course, but it’s probably best understood in the service of endurance (not success).
Triage is different, though. Triage helps you identify and treat your project’s emergent issues…and it’s actually more effective when it happens after you realize your project is gasping for life and in need of an SOS.
Triage often involves sending a particularly ill part of your project to a trusted friend—a good thinker with a respected readerly opinion (who will refrain from offering excessive and/or grad-school-style critique)—or to a smart, detached professional.
Who is this trusted confidante? Hard to tell! But merely sending a project out into the world forces it into a new environment where you can better diagnose and treat its problems. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter if you reach the exactly right person.
Of course, in other ways, the exactly right person is much better than any old person, so take the opportunity to ask for a short evaluation. What works, what doesn’t, and what’s their best advice for treatment? Whether or not the you receive practical help, you’ve at least narrowed down your second-opinion pool.
The bad news is that for most writers, there’s is no cure for a big, ambitious project. It’s more like pyrotherapy: The fever must run its course. Help it along by finding the most effective treatment to minimize your pain and maximize your project’s vitality.
Collaboration Is Not a Four-Letter Word (or, How to Still Like Your Colleagues after the Project, Assuming You Liked Them before the Project)
We frequently work with organizations on collaboratively produced documents, from annual reports to training manuals to white papers and more. Coauthorship for these kinds of projects is inevitable: Large or complicated documents almost always require the expertise and input of people from different organizational vantages.
It makes sense to produce these projects collaboratively, but it's logistically challenging. Like so much in work (and life), careful, advanced planning and open, formalized communication offer the cure to almost any collaboration ailment.
Just think, you could be part of a big team fist-bump like this! (Or not. It's not really our thing either.)
Here are the most important things to consider:
1. Designate a project manager. Maybe you've already got a dedicated project manager—lucky you! If not, consider who's likely to be the de facto project manager, and formalize that role. Contributors will bring different levels of commitment (ahem) to a project, and having one person whose focus is to see it all the way through (and who's charged with the authority to do so) is crucial.
2. Clarify the division of labor. Now that you've got a project manager, make sure other collaborators' tasks are clearly delineated. Organizational structure will determine some, but not all, roles. Other factors to consider include team members' facility with writing and their availability at key points in the project. Crystal clarity regarding project-specific roles makes it easier for colleagues to get on board, and to execute what's expected.
3. Make sure the project goals and timeline are clear from the start. This big-picture plan—the macro-view to complement the micro-view of individual roles—is crucial to ensure that collaborators understand the importance of their (timely) contributions. No one wants to be the wrench in the delicately balanced project machinery on which their colleagues depend. Determine the optimal workflow for your project, and make sure that it's communicated to everyone involved.
4. Make use of technology. Start with your project timeline: there are many tools available to help you create the sort of detailed timeline you need to track tasks, milestones, and project dependencies. And when it comes to creating and polishing content, determine how to best harness your organization's file sharing or collaboration tools—or which to introduce—and get your team on board with using them.
5. Use an editors’ trick of the trade and create a style sheet for all of your collaborators to follow. If your organization already has one, all the better! This upfront time investment will ultimately—and exponentially—simplify the process of collating individually authored sections. Once the your content is complete, consider designating the most experienced writer (who may or may not be the project manager) as the document's ultimate editor—or, better yet, hire an expert who can suss out inconsistencies and correlate usage, house style, organization, and more.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.