Keep Your Eye On The Text: Maintaining Focus Through Conversion

Jeffrey Langan

Words carry great power. As much as this is true, synonyms and general social understanding does not always require exclusivity in communicating certain ideas. However, as we learned in the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, how our messages are received come largely from how we state them. How we state them determines their focus and what is being communicated. This allows the text to be centered around a subject and a particular angle, which literary criticism then expounds on.

Reading this chapter reminded me of two instances that I have run into in an English class and at my job at TommieMedia. I took an English class on Persuasive Writing, and for one of our assignments, we were supposed to partner with a nonprofit organization to write a quick brief for them. Embarrassingly enough, I can’t remember the name of the nonprofit that I worked with, but I do remember the experience. I was assigned to interview an elderly man who had received a drunk driving offense the year prior. The nonprofit had assisted him in his legal needs, and by the time of our interview, he had dealt with the punishment. My job was to write a summary of the offense, the trial, and the results of the case. The brief would be published in a booklet.

The brief was only supposed to be three hundred words long, which sounded like a piece of cake to me. Little did I know how much work was going to be involved. All of the edits I received from people at the nonprofit were in relation to word choice, but they seemed never-ending. The elderly man is African American and all of the workers that I saw at the nonprofit were white, and so there was a lot of work to be done to avoid connotations of “white savior.” And it was interesting, because it wasn’t even my intent, but nearly every word replacement I could come up with could be construed as insensitive, or at least that’s what my editor said. I could understand some of the comments, but when I would receive weekly emails on feedback for my latest string of alternative wording, I would go “C’mon! Really?” I understood the worry and thought it was very valid, and I actively tried to find words that I felt did not fit the “white savior” mold, but I kept coming up empty. And, just as I embarrassingly cannot remember the name of the nonprofit, I’m embarrassed to say that eventually I stopped sending back emails. By the time I did this, the class had actually been over for some time, just to give you some perspective of how long my correspondence with the nonprofit was.

In the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, it states that “textual criticism assumes that even small differences in texts can be significant, shaping different meanings as we read” (6). As an English and Communications double major, like I said, I knew that words carry great power, but I was operating under the mindset that as long as I typed in what I presumed to be “legalese” that those three hundred words would come in five quick minutes and never need to be touched again. I was treating the text I wrote as a short paper I had to write for a class, but this time only an “A” grade was acceptable. I didn’t bother think about the brief in its own entity, not bothering to look into what Kelemen describes as the “transmission history and…the history of aesthetic and political choices” (8). I did not think about how the man’s background and ethnicity could appear juxtaposed against the members of the nonprofit.

Another instance of the importance of textual editing came just a few weeks ago at my job at TommieMedia. I was set to host a video segment called “In Depth,” where I would be interviewing Father Snyder about an Interfaith Survey sent out via email to the student body. When it comes to interviews themselves, I am much more familiar with podcasts and long form discussions. When I conduct interviews for TommieMedia, some are a quick five minutes, while others last upwards of twenty. I prefer this method because it feels more like a dialogue.

Video of the In Depth segment that I hosted.

However, when I submitted the script for the segment to my executives, I was told that my questions were way too long. The more they were edited down, the more I felt like they were losing the question’s original intent and that my voice was being lost. It reminded me a little bit of my previous example, in that my words felt like they were being crafted to fit a desired mold. Even though I didn’t feel like I was speaking with my “legalese” voice anymore, the process of creating the script made it feel like my words were being crunched down and inspected one by one. And because much of what was being amended was length, I felt that my paragraphs were being gutted, even though they were just developing clarity. As the questions were filed down to mere nubs of their former selves, one comment from my executive really irked me, “These questions need more focus.” I wanted to respond, “Well that’s because you deleted all of the context and explanations.”

But after looking through my original questions, I realized that they were actually fairly scattered. They were long because I listed research and data, but also because the prose was more representative of a stream of consciousness, and not so much deliberate and poignant questions. I wanted to ask complex questions, but they were getting suffocated by my inability to be direct. We were in some ways, leaving the viewers hungry for more, and by maintaining a good focus and directions for the questions, they would leave the viewers hungry for more, and not confused as well. If people were curious about Interfaith they would have a good base to go on, rather than feeling as scattered as my questions were. But did that perhaps affect the answers that I was given?

The video segment lasted around five minutes, but it felt too scripted. I had had a preliminary interview with Father Snyder in his office, a week or so prior to the segment, where my questions were more free form. He fumbled a little bit with some of his answers, not because he didn’t know what he was talking about, but because he was thinking out loud. He also got up to get his tea, which he had left on his desk on the other side of the room. Moments like these aren’t a part of the text, but the relaxed feeling that they give off certainly permeate into his answers. I was there to do my job and interview him, but we just ended up talking for twenty minutes.

The questions that I asked during the video segment were more succinct and direct, and so were Father’s answers. It didn’t feel like a dialogue, which was partly because we had broken the ice with the interview before hand, but also because we had three cameras pointing our way and fellow TM employees working on the technical side to make sure that the show was up and running. We were repeating a dialogue, but the changed circumstance both accidental and substantive changed the dialogue into a different text. Even Father commented after the fact: “Wow that was different than our original interview.” I had fun doing the In Depth segment but the two stages of it felt radically different, especially considering that the second step was in some ways a repetition of the first. The conversation juxtaposed with the studio lights was different than the one around Father Snyder’s desk.

Even though the editing was done simply to clean up my intentions for the questions, the scattered nature of them was part of what felt like a conversation the first time around. When the camera is rolling you don’t really have room to say “erm” or even something like “Can you talk about that a little bit more?” unless it serves as a segue into your next question. The original interview was fascinating because I asked many different questions, and during the video segment I felt like only one tangent was explored, and not even to the length that it might have been if Father and I were back in his office. Also, though it isn’t directly part of the text itself, our postures were different. I don’t think I was slouching in Father’s office, but I felt the need to be the image of professionalism while the segment was being filmed. My intentions were to get answers, but I felt like I was a filling a different role for the second interview.

As we read in the first chapter of Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, the slightest change in words can make a big difference in what we read, even if we don’t feel as though everyday conversation is representative of that. When preparing text for certain mediums, expectations may change, and the conversion and expectation may cause frustration, but it is in these steps that it is vital to keep one’s focus for the piece in mind. Though we may feel as though the conversion presents a different text, as long as the main message is communicated, you can leave the readers hungry for more, rather than feeling confused, or simply being presented with a different message.

Kelemen, Erick. Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2009.

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7 Comments

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  1. This piece is full of great, personal perspective. It’s hard to think “in-depth” about how we communicate each and every message we put out there, but I love your nice summarization on this topic:
    “…how our messages are received come largely from how we state them. How we state them determines their focus and what is being communicated. This allows the text to be centered around a subject and a particular angle, which literary criticism then expounds on.”

    Thank you for including the link to your in-depth segment that you hosted. I think this personal experience you had really shines light on the message you are trying to get across. When you say, ” I wanted to ask complex questions, but they were getting suffocated by my inability to be direct,” it really shows you how when you’re in different settings and situations, communication is affected. It was wonderful that you laid it out by explaining that the two stages of interviewing Father were “radically different” especially since the second interview was a “repetition” of the first. It’s interesting that you say, “the conversation juxtaposed with the studio lights was different than the one around Father Snyder’s desk,” this makes complete sense.

    You ended this post nicely by saying that conversion presents different content, “as long as the main message is communicated, you can leave the readers hungry for more, rather than feeling confused, or simply being presented with a different message.” Conversion can seem so simple, when in reality it is rather complex.

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  2. I was recently perusing the St. Thomas English department’s page (as I’m sure we all do) where a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne is embedded. It reads: “Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” I feel like you’ve truly experienced just how powerful words can be, clearly to a point of frustration! When you tell of discovering the social and ethnic magnitude of a text and the words in it, surprised that those three hundred words WOULD have to be touched again, you again expose the power of words. There were only three hundred of them! How hard can it be?! Clearly pretty tricky. It seems like that common “inability to be direct” comes from our sensitivity to the weight of words. Sometimes it’s difficult to be direct because certain issues are so complex. And as you point out there are dozens of variables that force us to manipulate the way we shape a conversation. Wild!

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  3. Jeffrey, first of all I’d like to say that the voice in this piece is great! You did a really good job putting a little personality into your writing without seeming forced. You allowed yourself to be open and honest with your readers, and this honest tone brings a lot of relatability to the paper. I especially liked this sentence: “Even though I didn’t feel like I was speaking with my “legalese” voice anymore, the process of creating the script made it feel like my words were being crunched down and inspected one by one.” You share a personal glimpse into a moment when the “small differences in text” that Kelemen references had an impact on the writer as well the reader.

    Also, I thought this phrase near the end was a nice summary of the personal anecdotes you use throughout the piece: “When preparing text for certain mediums, expectations may change, and the conversion and expectation may cause frustration, but it is in these steps that it is vital to keep one’s focus for the piece in mind.” Your unique experiences with multiple mediums, and the difference in rhetoric style in all of them, really bring this paper together strongly.

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  4. Jeffrey,
    You tackle some important topics in this essay from some strong personal experiences. One of your most important points was that you knew words carry great power, but failed to see the larger “transmission history” and “the history of aesthetic and political choices.” Words that seem harmless or innocent can have such an impact on those reading them, and it was the job of those in the nonprofit to foresee such negative interpretations. Textual criticism is right to suppose that every textual decision may change a piece’s meaning. We have seen that in instances where an added comma can draw attention to a line, or where a change in capitalization can reduce or heighten a person’s importance.
    Another key piece to your essay is the ending, in your reflection on different mediums. You assert that it is “vital to keep one’s focus for the piece in mind” when writing or presenting. This is so important for writers to keep in mind; the emphasis cannot always be on personal preference, but on what the piece is attempting to communicate. As you conclude, “as long as the main message is communicated,” that is the most important thing. Whether in a presentation, an article, or an essay, writers (and editors) must always keep in mind their audiences so that their message gets across.

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  5. Hey Jeffrey,
    I loved how you were able to tie in your own experience with TommieMedia in your article. It was a great example that coincided with the topic of discussion. It also raised a lot of interesting questions. I’d never really thought about the difference in tone between podcasts and video interviews. I think one of the main issues is the time crunch involved in filming an interview. In a podcast or radio interview, everyone is free to engage and converse in a much more leisurely and natural manner. However, when put in front of a camera and told to film a 5 minute segment things can start to feel unnatural and stiff. While I can definitely see the need to present the facts straightaway in a limited medium like a 5 minute segment, there’s more to a conversation than just the facts. Like you mentioned, little things like stumbling over words or getting up to get tea make the conversation authentic and real. Throughout college and high school we’ve always been taught to be punctual and concise in our writing. Every paper we write should have an intro, thesis, body, conclusion, completely devoid of plot summary and with each sentence connecting to the overarching argument. However, one of my English professors last semester argued that we lost something in the process of streamlining our essays and writing to the point they’re at today. He told our class that he thinks it’s necessary and vital to explore and brainstorm the idea we’re writing on in the paper. He thought meandering our way through a complicated topic was more natural and true to our thought processes than presenting everything in a ready-to-read format that contains only the facts. I think you experienced this with your interview for TommieMedia. While there’s definitely a time and place for straight facts, especially given time or word constraints, we shouldn’t abandon the natural thought process of human beings and prohibit ourselves from exploring and occasionally veering off topic. We’re only human, after all.

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  6. One of the aspects of writing that I continually talk about, is voice. And how important that is to creating a wonderful and unique piece You did a great job of that, Jeffrey! I love how you were able to bring Kelemen’s topic in this first paragraph and connect it directly to your own story. One of the topics that I have discussed in our class, is the question of how when deleting and revising– trimming a story in a newspaper story, or magazine article for example–can completely alter what the author means. Trimming can completely alter, or even diminish the author’s voice. But, I also agree with how when in a news segment, being specific and succinct are incredibly important. Especially when under time constraints. Nevertheless, something that I think author’s and editors have to keep in mind is that balance we have talked about. Deleting the things that won’t change the author’s voice or intent, but that will instead sharpen the author’s words. Then again some things must be deleted, even if for that moment their voice may be lost for a short time.
    Altogether, your piece did a wonderful job of explaining what all of this can mean and how it will effect authors editors and readers.

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  7. Katherine Lawin May 12, 2016 — 1:36 am

    Although mentioned by quite a few commentators, I also really liked the inclusion of your personal experience in the essay. This essay reminds me of our very recent discussion on editing ethics, eerily similar to textual criticism, which “assumes that even small differences in texts can be significant, shaping different meanings as we read.” Especially in the field of journalism where information is quickly released and just as quickly forgotten, I think that it is important for us to consider not only the audience of a particular work but also the medium in which the text resides. As exhibited by your interview of Father Snyder, it is more important what Father Snyder thinks and says in the interview than your administering carefully formulated, in depth questions. Even the Father’s interpretation of your questions can potentially hold significance. I think that it is sometimes difficult to step away from the belief that complex questions are required in order to attain complex answers, something that I believe you adress well in the essay. An interview is not the place for research and data. Rather, as you stated, good focused questions are essential to “leave the viewers hungry for more.”

    Your discussion of the effect of the physical environment of the interview and the method by which it was delivered was also very engaging. Like in the paper versus digital text debate, it appears as though the medium or environment (in this case) holds just as much influence on the content and flow of the reading experience or interview. I think that we can relate these seemingly small changes in text to a wide variety of questions facing the literary world. If even small alterations in word choice or punctuation drastically change the narrative or dialogue, is there hope for a field facing drastic changes in medium type (digitization) as well as new platforms (blogs, the comment section in youtube, facebook)? Because the expectations and cultural context of readers continually changes, how can we address the effect of slight changes on the message of a text? I think that your essay raises many, very probing questions in the field of writing, including fields of journalism, narrative fiction, and scholarly writing.

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