Journalists and non-fiction authors have challenges that fiction writers don’t. This isn’t to say one form is easier than the other—novelists have their fair share of complications to overcome—but there is something stoic about pushing yourself to get every last detail correct, no matter how long it takes. Perhaps even pushing yourself to tell a story that the world needs to hear.
Author Kristen Green was struck by a story like this, one she knew she had to tell and one we’re all so glad she did. I’m truly honored that she’s joining me to talk about her editing process.
Kristen Green is the author of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, published by Harper in 2015 to critical acclaim. The book made the Notable Nonfiction list at the Washington Post, which called it “a gift to a new generation of readers.” Something Must Be Done was selected as an editors’ choice at the New York Times, which deemed it “essential reading.” In 2016, it was the recipient of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction and the People’s Choice Award. Kristen has worked for two decades as a reporter for newspapers including the Boston Globe, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She holds a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. The book, a combination of history and memoir, explores the decision by white leaders of her Virginia hometown to close the public schools rather than desegregate and the role Kristen’s family played. It was the 2016-17 common read at her alma mater, the University of Mary Washington, where she is currently Common Read Writer-in-Residence. She lives in Richmond, Va. with her husband and two daughters.
Q & A with Journalist and Author Kristen Green
Kris: How did lessons learned from your journalism background help the writing and revision process of a full book?
Kristen: I learned the process of writing and revising at the same time as a newspaper reporter. Because much of the work I did as a journalist was on deadline, I often had to report, write, and revise an article in the span of a workday—or even a few hours. In journalism, the writing and editing process is incredibly condensed. It was wonderful training for writing a book and gave me the confidence that I absolutely could produce 80,000 words of copy in 12 to 18 months.
Kris: One thing I’ve loved about talking to so many writers is hearing so many different approaches to editing. When you say you write and revise at the same time, what does this mean specifically? I’d love to hear about this process with Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County.
Kristen: I edited as I wrote my first draft of the book, which made the prospect of editing the completed draft a little less overwhelming. I wrote the book in chunks and, after I finished a chunk, I would edit it several times before I joined multiple chunks together to form a chapter. I tend to edit and re-edit everything.
Once I had a final manuscript, I started at the beginning and began revising again. I would mark up a printout of the manuscript, make changes in the Word document on my computer, print out the newly edited manuscript, and start the process over again. I also had friends reading the manuscript, and I was going through their suggestions and making edits based on their suggestions. I read the manuscript aloud and made changes when words or sentences didn’t sound quite right. I revised until I was staring my deadline in the face.
Kris: And all of the different editing techniques you just named—from revising on printed paper as opposed to the computer to having beta readers to reading it aloud—all have unique benefits. I love hearing about the mashup of these practices to push a manuscript to the next level, which clearly was the case with your book. Now, after you began working with your editor on the manuscript, what kind of changes did you make?
Kristen: I’m a person who likes feedback as I report and write, rather than at the end of the writing process. I was this way as a newspaper reporter, too. I always talked to my newspaper editors about expectations for pieces, and if I were working on a long-term project, I would share it with my editor before it was due and request feedback. I was glad my Harper editor was open to seeing drafts of the book. She helped me find my footing as I wove history and memoir together into a hybrid book. I would send a draft to her, wait a few weeks, and she would return it with edits. We went through this process twice before I sent her a final draft of the manuscript.
Kris: Were you surprised by any of her suggestions?
Kristen: She was mostly encouraging, saying that I was doing a perfectly fine job learning how to write a book. Most of her edits were tightening what was already there. Her biggest criticism was that some of my work read like a daily newspaper account, rather than a book. As I moved from the historical part of the book to current day life in my hometown, I was too far in the weeds, she told me, and readers halfway across the country wouldn’t care. Her edits were all on point and made the drafts better.
Kris: Since your writing explores not only the sensitive subject matter of racial politics but also your own family’s history, how did you approach your edits in regards to these complex topics?
Kristen: I have a couple of friends who are particularly well read and experienced in racial politics, and they discussed the book with me as I wrote it, helping me to cover all bases. They also read multiple drafts of the manuscript, suggesting edits and additions. I also read deeply in the subject matter—from the Civil Rights movement to school segregation—and my understanding of the issues made my portrayal of what happened in my hometown richer.
The way I edited my family history wasn’t much different from the way I edited the rest of the book. I fact checked the sections about people in most every case, reading it aloud to the source or emailing text. I gave my parents an opportunity to read the entire book and comment on sections about them and about their parents. Some people challenged how they were portrayed in a particular instance or questioned a fact. Others suggested some sections needed more context. But the reality was that very few changes were requested, and I made even fewer.
Kris: What did your editing process look like when double-checking your research?
Kristen: It looked messy. I went through the book line by line to make sure that each sentence could be attributed. This was not particularly difficult for the parts of the book based on interviews or the memoir sections. The heavily researched parts were a different matter. I had used many different books as my sources for the section on the five legal cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education. As I fact checked line by line, I went back to each original source to make sure my notations were correct. It was a miserable process that took forever. I was sure there was an easier way to do it, but I didn’t know what that was. Fact checking is critically important, and it has to be done.
Kris: In the end of it all, what do you wish you knew about revision a long time ago?
Kristen: Revision doesn’t have to be an entirely separate process from writing. The two go hand in hand. Maybe for some writers it works best to get a whole draft down on paper so they have something to work with, but that’s not how I work. The way I write and revise—editing as I go—means my completed draft is cleaner than most.
Revision and writing do go hand in hand sometimes, and this process sounds even more appealing with the prospect of finishing a completed draft that is already in good order. Perhaps a bit of journalism training would be good for all of us.
Thank you so much, Kristen Green, for joining me for this interview, and happy writing, everyone!
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