Obama teaches a lesson or two about editing

I have edited and have been edited.

Thanks to computers, it has been ages since I have edited something on paper.

But this photograph from the White House Flicker makes me grab a sheet of paper, and start striking words, drawing arrows and circling phrases.

President Barack Obama and Jon Favreau, head speechwriter, edit a speech on health care in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2009, in preparation for the president's address to a joint session of Congress.Ê(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In my part of the world, where we look up to the West as a source of all goodness, President Obama has been the best thing that has happened. In the photo you see Obama and speech writer Favreau edits a speech.

Obama, has been an inspiration to the Eastern world for the following things:

1. We (people of South Asian descent) are making a concerted effort to speak better English, thanks to Obama speeches, so that we are not objects of the white man’s  dinner table ridicule.

2. The photograph of him editing the speech will make us realize that it is not very bad to use pen and paper. Laptop-enabled South Asians complain about how difficult it is to write with pen these days.

3. You can have time and the courage to hug and look jealously at your wife even if you are the busiest person on earth.

For people like me who work with words, point number 2 is worth considering.

Hank Stuever of the Washington Post writes in his blog about the photograph.

A photo like this is thrilling, gratifying and also terribly frightening to anyone who delivers his or her own writing to an editor. (Or a group of editors.) I wonder how this picture makes other people feel. I see it and feel a swelling of pride — not in the president so much as in the hard work that goes into good writing.

But I also get a lurching feeling in my stomach. I have marked up my own drafts like this, and, when invited, I have done the same for other writers. (Though probably not to this extent.) I certainly have received manuscript pages back from George Hodgman that looked like this.

When it comes back to you in this condition, you have to take a deep breath and just deal with each mark, one by one.

At the Washington Post, we don’t edit on paper. The equivalent to this picture would be to come over to your editor’s desk and see your story up on his or her screen, filled with “red notes,” sort of like the edit-track function in Microsoft Word. Questions are in red. Cuts are in red. Suggestions for rewrites are in red. My eye is trained to immediately look for instances of red; only once, on an edit with Henry Allen several years ago, did I open the file and see more red than black. (Which turned out to be false panic — most of the red was actually a long note from Henry after the lead paragraph suggesting that I veered off in the wrong direction.)

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