Geetanjali Mukherjee

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Should You Revise A Published Piece?

I have been working on a project that I am embarrassed to admit, and I am not really sure if I should be working on. I have been editing, well actually completely overhauling, one of my published books.

The reason I am ashamed to admit it is because presumably when it was published it was good enough, and wouldn't really need an edit. Well, it was the best I could do at the time yes. I had spent months writing it, and since it was based on my Masters' thesis, months before that doing research and writing the core on which it was based. It had gone through a lot of iterations and was presumably good enough. It may have been, and yes, I was proud of parts of it. At the time I was actually proud of all of it.

But then I came across this book - Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors and Publishers by Scott Norton. And the book completely changed the way I looked at structuring a book, and profoundly informed the next book that I published. But then I started to think how I could apply the ideas to my previous work, and I could see many flaws in my book on arms control, structural issues that I just hadn't seen before. Presumably I could have solved this problem by hiring a developmental editor, but aside from the expense involved, I believe in doing things myself as much as possible. This may be a minority opinion and controversial in the world of book publishing, where every aspect of producing a book is assigned to a different person, but I reasoned that I was in this for the long haul, and I would need to learn how to do this myself, even if later I was in the position to hire someone.

I jotted down the ideas I had for improving it, and went on to work on other projects, because at the time I wasn't sure I should invest the time. The book was at the back of my mind though, and I kept thinking, when I have the time, I will go back to it, and revise it. It seemed like a large undertaking, so I just put it on the backburner.

One day while meditating, the idea for the revised outline just came to me - so I wrote it down. It seemed like a simpler structure than I had used before, and just getting that idea got me excited. I decided to start working on it a bit at a time, alongside my other projects. Initially, I made little progress, but the other day, I set aside a chunk of time to finalize the outline and assess how much I would really need to rework. It took a while, but having done the hard work of planning, I now think it won't take too much time to go through the actual editing and re-writing. I don't plan to change too much - it is less an entire re-write, more like writing the second edition of a textbook - where most of the book remains the same, but a few chapters are broken apart or combined together. The only difference is, that I am revising it not because the content has changed fundamentally, but that my own thinking has changed, its become clearer and more ordered.

This book hasn't really sold a lot of copies so far, which means spending a lot of time on it isn't commercially justified or pragmatic. In fact, I have been advised against wasting my time on this. I get the point - I probably won't make a difference to the sales of the book, and I could be using that time to write a new book. But then I asked myself - why am I writing? I write because I am compelled to, because I want to share things that I am obsessing about or intensely curious about with others. I plan to write many books, and although each of them won't be perfect, any of them won't be perfect, I must try to make each one as good as I can. And I couldn't live with myself knowing that I know how to make one of them better, more readable, more useful, and am not doing it.

So that's why I will be spending some time in the next few weeks, revising a book that I published last year. I will update here when the new version is out, and I would of course appreciate any feedback.

Have you ever gone back and revised a previously published work?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can You Reverse-Engineer Success?

The plethora of self-help books and success tomes demonstrate that the topic of success and how to achieve it is something that most of us are intensely interested in. However you happen to define success, chances are, you would like to find ways to increase it.

I was having a conversation a few days ago with my mother, and we were talking about goals and achieving them. Well, she mentioned this young girl from Thailand, who came from very difficult circumstances, but ended up with a scholarship to study abroad, and fulfill her dream of making a difference in the field of education, by being asked to participate in creating new education policy for her country. This is an impressive achievement, and of course, one tends to ask the question – what lessons can we learn from this? What did she do to achieve her success?
Well, since I haven’t met or spoken to this girl, I can only make vague conjectures. And this post isn’t about how to achieve what she did, or something similar. Instead, I am wondering if it is possible to reverse-engineer big goals? Sure, you can read any one of hundreds of books on how to become more successful, and they are mostly filled with very useful advice, such as increasing your skills, learning to speak in public, or learning how to be a more effective leader. Reading such books can help to become generally more successful, but would they help in achieving specific success?
This is a topic I think about a lot, as I am trying to pursue certain specific goals. And despite reading a lot about them, and acquiring a wide range of advice, I feel stymied and can show somewhat uncertain and dubious progress. This is also the case for some other people I know. On the other hand, plenty of people are obviously successful in many endeavors, so is it that my execution is simply poor? It is entirely possible of course. But I also think maybe there is something else to it as well.
Some years ago I read The Click Moment by Franz Johansson, and it made this point that even those who achieved incredible, once-in-a-lifetime success were many times unable to repeat their feats. That sometimes something just clicks, and we can't know in advance what that will be. His point was, just do a lot of stuff, keep throwing spaghetti at the wall, and something will stick. Take a lot of action, make a lot of art or start a lot of businesses, and you have a greater chance of one of those projects clicking.
For a while I was really obsessed by this idea. That we have no control over what will be successful. You have to admit that it's a more appealing idea than work for 10,000 hours, on one specific skill or set of skills, and then you will become a genius. If you abandon your skill, or need to change careers or whatever, too bad, you simply need to start over. Its compelling to think that there is no way to guarantee success, so it's not on me if I fail, it's not because I failed to put in my 10,000 hours. However, even though we cannot guarantee success with a formula, there is no doubt that the more you practice, the sharper your skill set, the more you bring to the table with each new project or opportunity that you are a part of. You make it that much easier for yourself to be successful. That's why, while I still appreciate the message of Johansson's book, I wouldn’t set too much store by it.
In my own career so far, with all its twists and turns and lack of meteoric upward mobility, one thing I have seen is that the combination of factors works well. You try to get good at whatever you are working on, and yet you don’t assume that skill alone will automatically guarantee the reception of your work. Some of the most amazing work-related experiences I have had, arose not from the fact that I was the best person for the job, but because a confluence of factors happened to move me towards a particular opportunity. While working on transitional justice and traditional human rights issues, I happened to help out a stressed-out and overworked colleague on a project she was involved with, in an area completely new to me. I read up on it, and helped her out with a tiny sliver of the project. That led to me being included in the project, getting to undertake the bulk of the research for it, and even write a small portion. I gained expertise in an entirely new field. This isn’t something that I could have predicted, or reverse-engineered. Sure, you might think (cynically) that that was my ulterior motive in offering help to my colleague in the first place. Although it wasn’t, there have been previous instances where I offered to help and either wasn’t taken up on the offer, or that assistance didn’t lead to anything further. In fact, in that same organization, this happened a few times. So I couldn’t really have predicted this.
This pattern has played out in many of the items in my CV that I am most proud of. Conferences that I attended, internships, published papers – most of this happened as a result of a chance comment, or a fleeting idea that I acted on. None of them were the result of a concerted plan of action, goals that I wrote down, or achievements that I actively pursued.
What lesson can you draw from this? The lesson that I learn from this is that it isn’t easy to pick a goal and figure out exactly how you will get there. Sure, if your goal involves you and no one else, that might be possible – such as deciding to write a book or run a marathon. You figure out the steps involved, and then execute them till you have completed the book or crossed the finish line. But where other people are involved, I don’t think it is as easy to predict outcomes. We can do our best to set goals, make plans and carry them out, but we don’t know how it will truly play out.
So if you're reading this, and hoping for a takeaway, what should you do? I suggest that you continue to make plans and take action as usual. However, don’t be completely wedded to those specific outcomes. Be willing to let the universe take you in a different direction. Be open to possibilities. And encourage those possibilities by trying new things, doing more projects, reaching out to more people. If you get a whimsical idea, follow it up if it can be done in a reasonable time frame. Talk about your dreams with someone who is the last person you ever thought could help you achieve them; you never know, they might be just the one with the right contacts. Remember that the world is complex and beautiful, and it continues to surprise us every single day with its wealth of possibility and richness. Watch out for serendipity, and you never know what might happen!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why Artists and Creative Professionals Should Let Us See Their Early Work

When I sit down to write, I only have a vague idea of what I want to write about. I type the first few sentences, and it all seems wrong. My fingers linger over the keyboard, it is almost as if my brain stopped sending signals to them, they don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t get any ideas — I stare at the blank screen for a few seconds, minutes, whatever, and then decide that it’s pointless. I give up, closing down the word document. To distract myself, I go online and see what other people are writing, or pick up one of my favorite books. Everything seems so well-structured, so seamless. It’s hopeless, I tell myself. I will never really be a writer.

Does this feel familiar? Go ahead and substitute your favorite creative verb in place of “writing” — painting, designing, film-making. Everywhere around us, there are people making amazing masterpieces and directing breathtaking movies and creating products or images that dazzle. And why stop there? If you design apps, you can point to a dozen or more perfect apps, or if you want to start a company, you can get overwhelmed looking at the bevy of successful startups. Why even risk inevitable failure and humiliation, when the outcome is guaranteed — guaranteed to disappoint?

Every successful writer, film-maker, poet, painter and entrepreneur knows something that many beginners do not — that it takes a lot of sweat, cursing, trashing pages or throwing away of entire prototypes before something amazing is born. Films spend months in the editing room, software goes through several phases of beta testing, and books get edited multiple times, before the mainstream audience is allowed to experience (and judge) these products.

And yet, as a beginner, or even with some experience, we creatives (and I use that word loosely to describe anyone who is making something for the consumption of others) tend to compare our early and flawed work to the best work of the greats. And we aren’t entirely to blame. How often do the greats show us their early and flawed work? In The Artists’ Way, Julia Cameron recounts that she had arranged (to the shocked horror of some less brave souls) for some established film-makers to showcase their first films to her students, in order to show them the path from ordinary to exceptional. 

In Kevin Ashton’s How To Fly A Horse, he recounts the myth of Mozart — a letter that apparently proved Mozart’s genius — entire compositions just came to him in a dream. In actuality, Mozart struggled and pored over his work, spending sleepless nights and countless days perfecting each arrangement.

And yet the myth of the genius artist, the scam that some people are able to sit down and effortlessly, or with very little agony or inefficiency, create works of extraordinary depth, is compelling and pervasive. One of my favorite Yeats’ poems, Adam’s Curse, reiterates this myth:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
This myth does us a great disservice. We believe that our little ideas or thoughts aren’t good enough — they aren’t big enough or sketched out enough. We believe that if a piece is very rough to start with, there is no way that it can end up being as polished as that of the work of our idols, the work we admire. We forget that every diamond started out as a rough, ugly stone, almost indistinguishable to cheap cut glass, except to an expert’s eye. We think that until we can produce professional, polished work, we should just not try. We forget that only by making those amateurish short films, writing those hackneyed blog posts and creating those clunky apps can we get good enough to do better, to be better.

If only we knew that even the greats start with a rough sketch, a back of the napkin calculation, an outline that is abandoned and turned inside out and barely recognizable once the finished product is out there. This is a plea then for all creators — please show us your torn-up half-baked ideas, and initial sketches, and cliché-ridden copy so that we too can be inspired to follow with our own half-baked, on the way to slightly average, yet brimming with potential projects. Please, don’t hide your brushstrokes.

This post first appeared on Medium.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...