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Writing by committee – avoid (or master!)

by Shari Graydon

Informed Opinions recently supplied editing support to a workshop graduate who had a well-supported and timely argument about a relevant issue.  After we’d work together to polish the piece and craft an opening paragraph that would engage and provoke (rather than bore and repel), the graduate sent it to a colleague who she’d invited to co-author it with her. (This was a generous impulse, inspired in part by the graduate’s belief that her own credentials were potentially insufficient to gain an editor’s confidence.)

The result, however, was that the newly engaged co-author, who hadn’t taken the workshop and hadn’t heard my exhortations about having to compete for scant attention, and arrest readers with vivid analogies and real life implications, rewrote the first paragraph. And — you’re probably guessing this — not in a good way.

Not only does writing by committee — even a committee of two — take longer, it also often involves negotiating word choice and turn of phrase (and settling on the safest, least interesting options). Keep in mind, too, that comment page editors are looking for strong opinions, and one person’s passion-fed perspective can get seriously diluted when forced to accommodate the biases or reservations of another. The frequent result is an opinion piece devoid of strong personality or (gulp) opinion.

We went back and forth a few more times regarding the piece in question, and in the end, I’m not sure it was ever submitted. And two weeks later, the creative and compelling lede, which was hooked to Hallowe’en, is no longer usable. Tant pis!

Interestingly, I had a very different experience working with two journalists who also happen to be long-standing and very close friends.  Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt and former CBC reporter, now Carleton University journalism prof  Susan Harada recently contributed to a collection of essays I’ve edited that’s coming out in April. The satirical essay the two produced about the advantages (and, yes, it must be admitted, occasional humiliations) of returning to university as mature students, is hysterically funny and highly opinionated.

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