Editor in Chief


I was struck by this picture I saw on the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, which they found on the White House’s Flickr photo account. Those are the president’s hands. That’s his health-care bill signing speech. [UPDATE: A couple of commenters here have said it isn’t Tuesday’s speech; I was going by some of the content of the speech — health care — and the fact that the upload date on the photo is March 22. If anyone wants to analyze or report it out from what we can see, please do.] [UPDATE 2: see comments below.] That’s Jon Favreau, his speechwriter, next to him. Just look at what sort of line-editing you get when you write speeches for Obama. (Click here for a close-up)

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.)

I think Joel Garreau might have been the last editor I had who liked to mark up a hard-copy printout of a feature by one of his reporters. (Sometimes he’d disappear to the men’s room with it, which lends a whole new meaning to clean copy.)

I do know a lot of my colleagues still hit ctrl-P so they can edit their own work from a hard copy. Delightfully, we even have an option to print it out as justified columns of type in the Post font. I still love to print out a story and, if there’s time, take it with me to a quiet bar, order a glass of wine, and have at it.

I did a lot of that with Tinsel chapters — mark, mark, scratch, circle, fix, scribble [pause for sip of wine, maybe a Sancerre, maybe a Malbec, sometimes not wine, sometimes a Jack and 7] and then read on, scribble some more, try not to eat too many bowls of snack mix.

The sort of paperwork created by hard-copy editing mostly belongs in the recycling bin, but it is a gold mine for research archives and literary sleuths. It’s too bad future researchers won’t have many of this era’s marked-up drafts to pore over.

This picture also makes me think of how many people would shit their pants if you handed back their writing with this many marks on it.

Starting about a decade ago, there were lots of stories about teachers who switched from red pens to happier colors (purple, green) when marking-up student assignments, so as to soften the blow to kids who grow up in a cocoon of praise and esteem-building feedback.

You can only imagine what sort of parent-teacher conferences would be arranged, or formal complaints immediately filed to the department chair or dean’s office, if teachers and professors started handing back papers that looked like Obama’s edits. I say Jon Favreau is earning his pay. ($172,000.)


  1. Jay on March 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    i don’t think this is the healthcare signing speech

  2. laura on March 25, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    it turns me on. not a joke.

  3. ann on March 25, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I think it’s perfectly fine for a speech to be marked up like that. Oba Obama

    • Hank Stuever on March 25, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      Ann — Yes, of course it’s perfectly fine. He has to own the speech in order to give it. My post is more about my fascination for the process, and what the sight of a heavily-edited page of text can stir up in the psyche. That’s all.

  4. Nance on March 25, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I just selected the biggest possible version on Flickr and examined some of the changes. I see why they say Favreau is Obama’s mind reader. These are two halves of one brain at work.

    And yes: Thrilling.

  5. Robin Chotzinoff on March 25, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Great picture. What I like about is a president who makes good speeches that are not too peppered with
    “the American people” and other meaningless phrases and who seems to be actually saying something,
    by God. And now I see that he’s a vicious editor, which means we have something in common. I do
    it to myself and others. Sometimes they don’t talk to me for weeks. But I have to wake up with me
    every damn morning.

  6. ann on March 25, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Ok, I’ll try again. Whoever gives the speech makes the final draft.

  7. Dan on March 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I was more interested in the bowl of fruit.

  8. John on March 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    As a writer and editor, I really appreciated this article.
    Your piece reminded me of a time when I was editing a 3,500-word
    manuscript for a trade publication. I used blue font to indicate
    questions for the author and red font to show changes and cuts to
    the story.
    At one point during my edit, I looked at my screen and noticed that
    every word in the graphs before me were written in red font,
    with only one of the author’s original words still in black font.
    That word: “the.”

  9. Amy on March 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Wonder what Dubya’s speech manuscripts looked like right before Showtime?

  10. Steve on March 25, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    As a writer and editor of 40 years, I share the thrill that others
    expressed here. It goes beyond the satisfaction of seeing copy
    shaped and burnished, though. Those of us who do this for a living
    know the rigorous thought the process demands, and it delights me
    that we have a president so habituated to such thought.

  11. Mike Hendricks on March 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Favreau might save himself some headaches by double spacing from here on.

  12. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales on March 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Just reading some of the edits on the Flickr photo and I’m impressed at how all the edits I’ve seen are distinct improvements.

  13. Lynda on March 25, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    It’s not the health-care signing speech. I’m pretty sure (having watched it) that it’s his Teddy Kennedy eulogy.

    I’m with everybody here who appreciates seeing this kind of editing close up, UT I wonder how anyone’s been able to determine whose markup we’re seeing? My guess, given the professionally careful proofreaders’ symbols, is that it’s Obama’s text in type, and his speeechwriter’s edits in handwritten markup.

    • Hank Stuever on March 25, 2010 at 6:33 pm

      Lynda — interesting analysis. I thought because it went up on March 22 it would be current, but maybe I’m wrong. Would love anyone else’s reporting or expertise on the handwriting, or when the photo was made. My feelings remain the same: this is a lot of attention on words that you just don’t see in the workplace much.

  14. mbel on March 25, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I’m with Dan…”I was more interested in the bowl of fruit.” lol.

  15. Elaine on March 25, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    This reminds me of when my friend Zephrin gave me Obama’s first book to read before bed and I couldn’t put it down. “A President who can WRITE!” I realized, and was finally smitten, long after many friends.

  16. Chris on March 25, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Hank– If you follow the link back to the Flickr page, you’ll find this caption underneath the photo: “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. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)”

  17. krd on March 25, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    It appears to be the Sept. 9, 2009, health care speech to Congress.
    Here’s the link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/remarks-by-the-president-to-a-joint-session-of-congress-on-health-care/

  18. Hank Stuever on March 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Chris — thanks.
    For some reason, I couldn’t get the Flickr caption to come up when I rolled over it.

  19. Jon on March 25, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    That photo was part of a White House Flickr collection posted

    this week called “Health Reform; A Year in Photos”

  20. Dan Zak on March 26, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I Ctrl+P. If only because it affords me a break from the computer screen. Also, printing it in columns lets me luxuriate in the Post’s semi-recently deceased font. (And the men’s room? Ew.)

  21. pinaythreadhead on March 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    of course, this could also mean that favreau still isn’t in tune withe how his president thinks.

  22. Beth Blevins on March 26, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I edit both ways–on paper and online. I find it more comfortable to edit on paper since I don’t have to sit at a computer, but for edits sent by email, I then have to transfer them to word processing. But by doing so, I often catch more mistakes than I would have just doing it one particular way.

  23. Megan Willome on March 30, 2010 at 10:43 am

    As a writer and an editor, this photo of the President’s speech thrills me! And I agree that a glass of wine makes the blue pencil go down better (but only one!).

  24. Liz @ Peace, Love & Guacamole on April 6, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    This photo made me swoon. Love it!

  25. Mark Stoneman on April 18, 2010 at 9:42 am

    While I do a lot of editing in Word, I often find it necessary to print material out, because I can concentrate better on challenging texts on paper, and I can often comprehend their structure better. But then I still need to return to Word. I also like to work with hard copy when I’ve been sitting at my desk for too long and need to stand. Here I can only echo Beth Blevins experience above (28). That’s for my academic editing job. If I am writing for myself, I print out multiple drafts, because I can think in different ways with paper and pen.

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