Editing, Insight & Meaning

We are all editors. By that, I mean that throughout our lives we disclose—or don’t—material information. The challenge of editing in all aspects of life is a significant one. We choose what to leave in—and what to leave out—in many areas of our lives. Telling stories. Reporting findings. Presenting research. Writing reports. But how does the process of editing and selection work?

What are the choices that drive it? What are our conscious biases, that lead to things being deliberately excluded? What are the unconscious biases that lead to things being excluded that we are not even aware of? These are important questions to explore, but they are also questions that we seldom actually consider.

I was reminded of this in coming across a paper written in 2000, that I found—as so often occurs—while I was looking for something else. In it, a researcher by the name of Gib Akin identifies a number of problems that he encounters with research, and particularly how research within organizations is conducted. His primary criticism is that organizational research tends to get reduced to numbers, datasets and correlations. It also tends to focus on the management and the organization, rather than on the actual work.

What is missing, in Akin’s view, is the stories. The narratives and perspectives of real people, doing real work, and “…trying to figure out what is happening, what it means and what to do about it.” His own answer of what to do about it was to take a sabbatical, in which he pursued a workshop in creative nonfiction. For those not familiar with the term, ‘creative nonfiction’ refers to the creation of factually accurate narratives using literary styles and techniques. Another way of looking at this might be the art of telling engrossing and meaningful true stories. To be successful, the art and the actuality have to hang together.

In his paper, he presented the story of ‘Joe Cool’, the actual moniker of a gentleman employed in the produce department of his local grocery store. It is the story of his work, and the meaning that he gets from his work. It also explores the challenges that Joe Cool has worked through in life—that his work has helped him to surmount, or from which his work has at least provided a respite and refuge.

Building on this attempt to delve into the actual stories of actual people doing actual work (or, to be fair, part of the story of one actual person doing actual work) the journal in which the paper was published also included two critiques of Akin’s story. They were, to be fair, critiques and not criticism. They acknowledged what Akin was trying to do, but also constructively offered the challenges they found with what he had done so far.

Their comments were interesting, in that—reading between the lines—one gets the sense that they found his efforts not exactly wanting, but at least insufficient. One paper argues that good research has a structure, and that this structure in fact contributes to the quality of the research being conducted. The other reinforces the observations of the first, identifying that the sketch is, well, “sketchy.” We don’t know how the information that led to the story was collected. We have memorable images, but not the context to flesh them out. Above all, we don’t know what it all means. We don’t have a sense of how the actions have built from the motives and conditions of Joe Cool’s life. We don’t know about the context of the organization he finds himself in. We don’t know how his experience relates to those around him.

These observations are entirely fair. They are also, in fact, relevant. But they don’t really find fault with what Akin was attempting to do; they just suggest that he didn’t go far enough. A promising direction, but with much still to be explored.

For me, what Akin offers—and what the critiques reinforce—is that context is hugely important. It isn’t everything, but it is a lot. And, as Akin argued in his introduction to his work, a lot of what passes for research doesn’t get to context. In fact, much research doesn’t even get to description. It presents facts and numbers, as if those are all that matter. It pursues correlations and relations and statistical validity and reliability. Research often misses out on the context, the background and the structure that might actually help to make sense of what is going on, and why, and what to do about it.

Stories are powerful. Editing is even more powerful. While the critiques of Akin are about what he left out, what he put in to his story of Joe Cool was a good start. We as readers also have a role to play in how we read such stories. We have to assess why what was included is there. We have to evaluate whether the story as told is compelling and meaningful. We have to wonder about our own choices in what we chose to take out of the story, what we chose to downplay and what we chose—consciously or not—to ignore.

Yes, we edit in what we write. We also edit in what we hear (and what we do not). And, in particular, we edit in choosing what we remember and the meaning we assign to those memories. Better meaning in part comes from better context and richer understanding. That comes from looking beyond the facts and avoiding taking numbers at face value; it comes from looking past the facts and numbers to the people, organizations and contexts in which facts are found. Akin’s experiment in doing so was one such attempt. While it can be improved on, it was a useful step in the right direction.

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